It’s A Dry, Dry Summer

Well, okay. It’s not actually summer yet, so all of you looking at the calendar with eyebrows raised can simmer down. However, it’s certainly looking like a dry summer, given the low rainfall stats for the winter, and that is a very, very bad thing.

It started with a cold and dry winter. In November, December, and January we had a lot of extreme cold, including several days of prolonged cold temperatures, which is not very normal for us. We usually get a few nights of frost every winter, but the frost was harder and colder than usual. It was also drier than usual; our January storms didn’t come, and March went by with very minimal rainfall. It was readily apparent that we were facing some serious problems.

Low rainfall means low snowpack, which means low water supplies in the summer months. Reservoirs never fully recover from summer and fall use, and there’s minimal hope for a fresh supply from the mountains in the summer when no snow really settled, or not enough snowpack accumulated to make a significant difference. In the short term, this made for a dismal tourist season in many ski areas, but in the long term, it spells trouble for many regions of California that are really counting on snowpack for summer water supplies.

Water has played a critical role in California’s history after European occupation. As Europeans began settling and building large cities, they started needing water. Some of the places they chose to live were, to put it gently, monumentally bad ideas; Los Angeles, for example, is heavily dependent on outside sources of water. Water wars, some fatal, have raged across portions of California as people struggle for control of critical supplies. The person who controls the water controls life, and that’s something Californians have always been acutely aware of, as has the rest of the West.

California has occupied an outsized role in the struggle for water across the West; we take more than our share from neighboring aquifers and rivers, we lobby for ever larger shares of water on the grounds that we have a big population, and we are pretty fearless when it comes to ethically dubious agricultural diversions. The West’s resentment of California is not without grounds when it comes to water, because the state has a vicious reputation when it comes to taking what it wants, and ignoring the needs of its neighbours. It’s also taken advantage of tremendous political clout to avoid consequences for this.

So when the summer starts to look dry, we start to worry, because we know what comes next. Drought measures will slowly creep across the state as access to water is restricted in the interest of ensuring we don’t run out. For those of us on wells, austerity measures might not be required because we’re not connected to municipal water, but we’d be fools to run our wells dry with water prices skyrocketing. So we’re extra careful about how much water we use, and when, because no one wants to run out.

Meanwhile, farming prices start to climb. Because most of the water used in California is used, of course, for agricultural purposes. While individual households are called upon to conserve water, it’s harder to control water usage on farms, beyond encouraging farms to use more ecologically sound methods of watering to conserve resources. As they suck water from every available source, the cost of that water starts to grow, and will be passed on to consumers; the high price of water is felt indirectly as well as directly.

Meanwhile, farmworkers out in that hot, dry sun face even more limitations on access to potable water. There are farms where people are expected to drink out of horse troughs, or consume water from contaminated sources because nothing else is available. When water is scarce and farms try to cut use to avoid rising costs, farmworkers tend to be low on their priority list, which means that they are likely to suffer most from any usage restrictions. Right at the time when people need water most, as they are working in grueling conditions in the summer heat, they will have the most trouble accessing it.

Each drought year is treated as a unique event in California, and everyone acts like the next year, the weather will change and will go back to ‘normal.’ But what if it doesn’t? Climate shifts over time, especially when the climate is being heavily influenced by human factors that accelerate the rate of change. California’s ‘normal’ may not be a valid thing, any more, especially after a few years of strange weather. It’s possible that the climate that attracted Europeans to the area in the first place may not be so ‘normal’ after all, and is unlikely to return, which raises serious questions about the sustainability of large cities as well as agriculture across the state.

In a dry summer, as everything withers and dies in the drought, hard questions about what ‘normal’ looks like and how to balance natural resources arise. These questions shouldn’t only be asked in drought seasons, though—they should be a constant part not just of state planning, but also individual planning. Residents typically only think about the weather when something bad is happening, which means it’s usually too late for them to make any meaningful plans to prepare for it, because they’re already in the midst of the drought, or the flooding, or the windstorms.

What will California look like in 50 years, or 100? I’d wager it will be a very different place, and that place is going to include hot, dry summers.