Like me, you probably thought this was a wet winter. It certainly was in January and February here in Northern California, where several major storms dumped a lot of rain into local reservoirs, and snow in the Sierras. There was even hope by late February that we might have had enough snow to make up for 2007's drought.
Unfortunately those hopes have been dashed, according to the San Francisco Chronicle:
“California just came through its driest March-April rain period - 2.3 inches of precipitation in the Sierra - since records began being collected in 1859. The biggest reservoir in the state, Lake Shasta, is at 75 percent of its average capacity for this time of year. The second-biggest reservoir, Lake Oroville, is at 59 percent.
“State officials warned today that widespread water rationing was a very real possibility this summer. Another few years like this, experts say, and we might start running drastically short of water....
“Water managers in the East Bay, Santa Cruz and San Diego are either considering or instituting water-rationing measures this spring, and they expect to tighten their mandates next year.”
I would not be surprised if we on the Monterey Peninsula, dependent on the Carmel River and not hooked up to the state water system, face rationing this summer as well.
As the article goes on to explain, with an interview with Stanford (and former UW) historian Richard White, California has to make some major decisions about how to deal with its water future:
“"There is enough water for people - just not enough for people and the agricultural system the way it's set up now," Richard White, a leading environmental historian, said as he hiked past one of Stanford's two main reservoirs Saturday. "Like with so many things, you may have to make some choices. Hard choices."...
“White said the trouble isn't that there are too many people or too much agriculture in the sprawling growing regions. It's just that we expect too much of what we have.
“"My guess is that something major will have to be done in the next 10 years or so, and it will probably take a drastic drought to bring it about," said White, who also is co-director of Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West.”"
Arnold wants to ignore the problem and simply build more dams and canals to prevent Californians from making these hard choices. Although Lois Wolk helped deal a major blow to the Peripheral Canal this week, it and other backward plans will resurface.
Ironically, global warming might just be the kind of opportunity we need to make these major changes.
Much of California's water delivery systems were built over 50 years ago, on the assumption that the relatively wet climate of that era would persist, or was "normal." As we now know, it wasn't, and California has experienced 200-year megadroughts as recently as the 13th century. Global warming is already altering our rainfall patterns, and will force us to make the changes we have been for too long postponing.
Our watchwords for water solutions must be "sustainability" and "affordability" (as in keep private companies FAR away). Many California localities, like Monterey, have shaped growth around water supplies for many years now. This practice needs to be extended to the entire state, to ensure that growth and development happen with respect to, and not ignorance of, locally available water sources.
Ultimately we must also deal with agriculture. The food shortages experienced around the world and here in California show the value of locally produced food. But that is a different use of the land than the massive export-oriented agribusiness that characterizes California agriculture. We must now consider changing that set of practices, if our water supplies are to hold out, and if our people are to be properly fed.
Robert Cruickshank is a historian, activist, and teacher living in Monterey. He is a contributing editor at Calitics.com and works for the Courage Campaign, in addition to teaching political science at Monterey Peninsula College. Currently he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in US history, on progressive politics in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. A native Californian, he was raised in Orange County and educated at UC Berkeley.