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The California Drought is a Political Time Machine

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 05 March 2014

The recent California drought is a time machine. It represents a regularly recurring event in California’s Mediterranean climate, which cycles back and forth between dry and wet years so frequently that a “normal” year is actually the exception. Hence, we have witnessed many droughts in the past, and we will see them again in the future. This prediction holds even if the models are wrong in forecasting that climate change will load the “climate dice” in favor of more frequent and longer duration droughts in the future. Of course most readers know this already—the recurring climate and hydrological patterns of California are big news headlines with nice info-graphics (and countless blogs, tweets, etc) in 2013-2014.

The following Los Angeles Times headlines illustrate the severity of drought in California:

Drought Revives State Antagonism
California's worsening drought has given rise to a disturbing side effect--a revival of the dormant antipathy toward Southern California by water-starved Northern Californians.

U.S. Tells Central Valley Farmers Water Deliveries Could Be Slashed 25-50%; Drought Might Cut San Joaquin Crops by 40%
Farmers in California's mammoth Central Valley likely will have to cut crop production by up to 40% as a result of the continuing drought, federal water officials said Wednesday.

Drought Forces Vast Change in Life-Style Residents in Area Can Learn From Those in the Know
The axiom, "You don't miss the water 'til the well goes dry," is something residents of the Centinela-South Bay should take to heart, says J. Dietrick Stroeh, manager of the Marin Municipal Water District.

Brown Signs $2 Million Drought Aid Bill
Up to $2 million in low-interest loans will be made available to drought-stricken water districts under a bill signed by Gov. Brown. The bill, authored by Assemblyman Barry Keene (D-Eureka), provides for loans up to $100,000 each to any needy water district serving 100,000...

Is Stable Climate at an End? Drought May Be Indication of Return to Harsher Global Weather Patterns
California's record-setting drought could be part of an emerging weather pattern that threatens to shatter assumptions underlying design of both state and federal water projects.

But wait…can you guess during what water year these headlines were written?
****spoiler alert, scroll down for answer*****
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The answer is…not 2013-2014. Instead, these headlines are ripped straight from the drought of 1976-1977, which was one of the driest years on record in California. By April of 1977, the winter precipitation statewide was less than 35 percent of normal and the lowest in 47 years. According the CA Department of Water Resources, 47 of the state’s 58 counties declared drought emergencies in that year, and the lack of water necessitated emergency the construction of an emergency pipeline across the San Rafael Bridge in order to deliver water to the Marin Municipal water district. In the end, the drought cost California agriculture about $500 million in 1976 and $2.4 billion in 1977 (in dollars of that time), with losses heaviest among livestock. In addition, the 1977 wildfire season witnessed 7000 fires through August, with a fire suppression cost of over $45 million.

These old headlines illustrate that the drought is not just a hydrological time machine, but it is a political time machine as well. If you look at any given major California newspaper in winter of 2013-2014, you will find eerily similar headlines. Governor Brown (spooky I know!) declaring drought emergencies, Federal and state government aid to the rescue, loss of farmlands devastating, fights between NorCal and SoCal, calls for individual water conservation, soul-searching about why California can’t get its water policy act together. Even in 1976-1977, before the IPCC, Al Gore, and armies of climate models, people were questioning whether the drought signaled a “new normal” in California climate. These are the recurring political consequences of drought. Great attention grabbers for our current cast of water characters.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of drought politics is how it stimulates political and policy change. According to political scientist John Kingdon, drought is the classic example of a “focusing event” that creates a window of opportunity for policy change. And California politicians have a tradition of using drought as a political tool for pushing favored policies. For example, William Mulholland allegedly used the false threat of drought to raise public support for his Southern California water empire. Now nearly every scientist, commentator, and politician is using drought to make some call for their preferred political change. Regulate groundwater. More storage. Build the twin tunnels. Pass the long-delayed water bond. These cries for change are truly echoes of the 1976-77 and other past severe droughts.

There are two key policy questions to ask given this recurrent pattern. First, do we really need the drought policy panic to catalyze policy change in California? One the one hand, it is the nature of individual human beings and social systems to change only when the need seems greatest, and maintain the status quo when things are going smoothly. Why pay the costs of change unless you really need them? But drought should not be a surprise in California—we know they are coming. Therefore, adaptive capacity would be increased if we changed the politics of drought to better balance reactionary panic with more long-term planning and infrastructure investment. But human nature and the psychology of risk perception makes this difficult.

Of course, many water policy-makers will argue that we have in fact done a lot of planning and drought preparation. For example, we have the California Water Plan, drought guidelines for the Colorado River, and various other state and regional plans. Many local water districts in California have also thought about diversifying the portfolio of water supplies, not only to deal with drought but also changing policy.

Therefore, the second key question is whether or not the policy changes stimulated by past droughts have actually improved water management in California. Have we learned anything from our past experiences? Stated more precisely, the question is how much damage will California suffer, given the same level of drought?

This question is not easy to answer. According to officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, California experienced 4.54 inches of precipitation between July 2013 and February 2014 compared to 6.73 inches in 1976-77 (click link for embedded image source). Even with the weakening of the “ridiculously resilient ridge” of high pressure in late February and more rain coming in March, this drought appears to be as bad as or worse than 76-77. Almost every California County has declared drought emergency according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Seventeen drinking water systems are worried about running out of water, although no emergency conveyance has been built yet. With the State Water Project and Federal Central Valley Project forecasting zero water deliveries, the impacts to agriculture will be severe, with non-irrigated rangelands and livestock likely to suffer the worst. The wildfire season has already started, and will inevitably worsen with the summer heat. The impact to other environmental resources could also be severe; the effects on young salmon and steelhead will probably appear in the adult population two or three years from now.

But I really think it is hard to say from these projected impacts whether or not our adaptive capacity has increased. A far more extensive study is required, examining patterns of cropping, water supply, and environmental indicators over time in terms of how they respond to the shock of drought. I do not believe such a study would reveal any major increase in adaptive capacity over the last three decades, but maybe some type of gradual upward trend. Perhaps that is all we can expect given the difficult politics of California water. But don’t worry—I guarantee California will have another chance in the future to experience and respond to drought. And I don’t need a time machine to predict how the politics of drought will play out; just look in the rear-view mirror.