Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the California drought. The situation has become so dire that Governor Jerry Brown has instituted wide ranging restrictions on water use. It’s important for the rest of the country because a significant percentage of the vegetables and nuts consumed in the US originate in California. So, are food prices going up? Will there be an exodus of Californians into neighboring states, reversing the Dust Bowl migrations? Is the drought the result of climate change? What are the not so obvious lessons to be learned?

The History

Research based on tree ring data suggests that there have been several droughts that lasted a decade or more in the last 1000 years. Many of these and the shorter term dry spells can be explained by the normal cycles of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Over this longer time period, there have been two super droughts, including one that started around 850, and lasted for about 240 years. Drought on the west coast is part of a natural cycle that was in place long before humans were making any contribution to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

A more recent study by NASA suggests the western United States may be at or near the starting point of a mega drought right now. Their models suggest the mega drought will start around 2050 and last for at least 30-35 years. That’s what history suggests. Several billion tonnes of man made greenhouse gases are not likely to make the drought less intense.

In the US, there have been many droughts over the last 160 years that we’ve kept accurate records. The most well known is the Dust Bowl, which started in the early 1930s. For most of the affected Midwest, that event came in 3 waves over a decade, although some areas had a single 8 year stretch of dry weather. Relief in the form of a normal rainfall pattern didn’t start again until 1941.

Like California, the Dust Bowl was a regional event, displacing tens of thousands of people, and reducing agricultural output to a fraction of previous levels. Will this new dry spell have a similar effect? How will we deal with it?


Agriculture is an industrial process that has been reducing human labor input for decades. Today it’s 3% of California’s total economic output. So, reduced agricultural output is more about the economy than big percentages of the population migrating to other places. Some reduction of population in the most affected areas is already happening, but it’s unlikely to dramatically effect demographics in the western states.

For industrial scale agriculture to continue, new sources of water have to be found, and the industry will have to become much more efficient with both existing and new sources. The business model is going to change. The only viable long term solution is desalinization. California is not the first large economy consider megascale desalinization. Israel recently completed the world’s largest plant, and plans to get 50% of its water resources from desalinization by 2016. A 500 percent increase in the price of water is not a survival problem, it’s an economic issue. California will just become a more expensive place to live than it already is.

Recycling will also become a fact of life. A few places already are recycling waste water. It’s not potable, but it’s fine for the garden. Maybe community gardens will become a fad. Community gardens have become a fixture in Detroit, just for different reasons.

Brushfire is likely to become an even bigger problem than it is today. Fire insurance in the high risk areas of southern California already costs much more than hurricane insurance in Florida. It’s only going to get worse. The question is how high will it get before people in those high fire risk areas move closer to the city? More urbanization seems likely.

Much of the gloom and doom press coverage has been overly dramatic.  It’s not an apocalypse. The situation is serious, and expensive adjustments will be made. But at its core, the drought problem is economic. Millions will continue to live in California and pay the price.

What’s the Lesson?

All of this is fairly obvious. Most anyone can easily understand the problem of cyclic short term droughts, there’s plenty of history to study. It was known well in advance of this recent dry period that decade long droughts were likely. There are plenty of other dry places on the planet, science understands the problem, and industry understands the solutions. Yet California was unprepared.

There lies a lesson. Governments don’t like to spend money on things that aren’t going to happen before the next election cycle. The California drought is a microcosm, a clear case of how the world works. In spite of the knowledge that drought has been a recurring problem problem in California for 1000 years, the government, corporations and the public have used water like they were living in the rain forest. No government will do jack shit until the state is at the brink of catastrophe. Exactly where they are today.

California deserves some credit for improving building codes to deal with earthquakes, which are similar in that they are both catastrophic, and certain to happen again. But even those changes happened in the aftermath of the previous severe earthquake. In the case of completely predictable drought, very little in the way of preparation has been done.

This attitude is a serious problem when climate change is coming at us like an out of control locomotive. While the damage caused by drought is basically linear, the water table in a location drops 10 feet in one year, it’s likely to drop another 10 feet the next year. Everything we know about rapid climate change suggests the phenomena is exponential. The rate of change accelerates. Boston gets 110 inches of snow, a 130 year record. 20 years from now they may be getting a 100 inch snowfall every 10 years, a few decades later it happens every second year.

As a nation, we can’t adopt the California attitude and wait until we’re experiencing 500 year weather events every 5 years. The consequences of waiting till the last minute are likely to result in devastating outcomes.

Links and Sources

Megascale Desalination

NASA: US Faces Megadrought – Science.Mic

California Drought Can Have Dangerous Ripple Effects – LiveScience

The Pacific Decadal Oscillation – Wikipedia