It is September in California, year four of a scorching drought. Forest fires are blackening the arid state, from Napa Valley to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fly over the High Sierra and about every tenth evergreen below appears dead. Even the high mountain lakes and reservoirs are about empty – and equally void of vacationers who have few places to boat, fish, and ski, and are unsure where the next forest fire will break out and force evacuations on often one-lane winding mountain roads.
California is in the midst of a crippling four-year-old drought. Yet the state has built almost no major northern or central mountain reservoirs since the New Melones Dam of 1979. That added nearly 3 million acre-feet to the state’s storage reserves – a critical project that was almost canceled by endless environmental lawsuits and protests.
The air in the San Joaquin Valley this late-June is, of course, hot and dry, but also dustier and more full of particulates than usual. This year a strange flu reached epidemic proportions. I say strange, because after the initial viral symptoms subsided, one’s cough still lingered for weeks and even months. Antibiotics did not seem to faze it. Allergy clinics were full. Almost every valley resident notices that when orchards and vineyards are less watered, when row cropland lies fallow, when lawns die and blow away, when highway landscaping dries up, nature takes over and the air becomes even filthier. Green elites lecture that agriculture is unnatural, without any idea why pre-civilized, pre-irrigated, and “natural” California was an empty place, whose dry, hazy climate and dusty winds made life almost impossible. The state is running on empty.
I offer another chronicle, a 14-hour tour of the skeleton I once knew as California.
I finally got around to retrieving the car seat that someone threw out in front of the vineyard near my mailbox. (Don’t try waiting dumpers out — as if it is not your responsibility to clean up California roadsides.)
An acquaintance had also emailed and reminded me that not far away there was a mound of used drip hose on the roadside. That mess proved to be quite large, maybe 1,000 feet of corroded and ripped up plastic hose. I suppose no scavenger thinks it can be recycled. I promise to haul it away this week. One must be prompt: even a small pile attracts dumpers like honey to bees. They are an ingenious and industrious lot (sort of like the cunning and work ethic of those who planted IEDs during the Iraq War). My cousin’s pile across the road has grown to Mt. Rushmore proportions. Do freelance dumpers make good money promising to take away their neighborhood’s mattresses and trash without paying the $20 or so county dumping fee? And does their success depend on fools like me, who are expected to keep roadsides tidy by cleaning up past trash to make room for future refuse?
The present four-year California drought is not novel — even if President Barack Obama and California governor Jerry Brown have blamed it on man-made climate change.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California droughts are both age-old and common. Predictable California dry spells — like those of 1929–34, 1976–77, and 1987–92 — are more likely result from poorly understood but temporary changes in atmospheric pressures and ocean temperatures.
The proverbial thin veneer of civilization has never been thinner in California, as if nature has conspired to create even greater chaos than what man here has already wrought. What follows below was a fairly typical seven-day period in the land of the highest sales, fuel, and income taxes that have led to the nearly worst freeways, schools, and general infrastructure in the nation.
I recently came home from an out-of-state trip. Something was wrong: I noticed off in the distance a strange geyser at the top of the hill. Vandals had apparently earlier taken sledgehammers to the pump’s four-inch plastic fittings — all to scavenge two brass valves (recycle value of about $20).
In mid-December, the first large storms in three years drenched California. No one knows whether the rain and snow will continue—only that it must last for weeks if a record three-year drought, both natural and man-made, is to end. In the 1970s, coastal elites squelched California’s near-century-long commitment to building dams, reservoirs, and canals, even as the Golden State’s population ballooned. Court-ordered drainage of man-made lakes, meant to restore fish to the 1,100-square-mile Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, partly caused central California’s reservoir water to dry up. Not content with preventing construction of new water infrastructure, environmentalists reverse-engineered existing projects to divert precious water away from agriculture, privileging the needs of fish over the needs of people. Then they alleged that global warming, not their own foolish policies, had caused the current crisis.
The third year of California drought has exposed all sorts of water fantasies. If in wet years they were implicit, now without rain or snow for nearly three years, they are all too explicit. Add them up.
Take the Bay Area, Ground Zero of water environmentalism. From Mill Valley to San Jose is where most of the green activists are based who have demanded, even as the snowfalls and rains ceased, that reservoir storage waters be diverted to the sea to encourage the resurgence of the delta smelt and river salmon. The Bay Area’s various earlier lobbying groups long ago helped to cancel the final phases of the California State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, and now talk about reducing world carbon emissions rather than building more storage capacity to solve California’s water crisis.
Two events now characterize the California agrarian heartland, the richest and most productive farm belt in the world.
One, of course, is the third year of drought. I refer here to nature’s lack of rain and snow. But also factor in the state’s additional man-made drought, through diversions of precious stored reservoir water from agriculture and community use to environmental causes that demand more river water must flow out to the sea.
The state’s environmental fanatics over thirty years ago cancelled the critical tertiary phases of the California Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. I guess those in the Bay Area whose lives rest on Hetch Hetchy delivered reservoir water deemed reservoirs for all others passé and so 19th century.
The result is that a brilliantly engineered water transfer system — 80% of Californians live where 20% of the state’s rain and snow fall — designed to incrementally expand as population grew, became frozen in amber. We had a wonderful water storage system for 23 million people in 1980. But it proved completely inadequate for the 40 million plus of 2014, who assumed household and drinking water, irrigation supplies, and clean hydroelectric power came out of thin air