Saturday, February 23, 2013

Drought, California

2012 Drought

   When I checked my computer a few Saturdays ago for the latest weather conditions here in Los Angeles it didn't say anything about it raining.
   Yet when I was on the westbound leg of my daily journey across the 6th Street Bridge I espied dark and heavy rain clouds to the south. Actually they weren't rain clouds per-say, but raining clouds, dumping vast quantities of water as they headed north.
   North?! That is where I was!
   I finished my walk and got home nice and dry. Not like what happened a couple of months ago when for the second time in my life I got caught walking at the very middle of a long bridge when water began to pour out of the sky.
   You know what happens when you get caught in the middle of a long bridge when water begins to pour out of the sky? You can turn around and go back where you came from, or you can continue on your way. It doesn't matter, the distance to the end of the bridge is the same.
   You get freaking soaked, that's what happens, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.
   It provokes a certain sense of eternal helplessness.
   Albert Hammond was quite wrong when he wrote "It never rains in Southern California."
   Southern California, at least, is essentially a big desert. The Mojave Desert lies directly to the east of Los Angeles. I mean it's so close I could walk there in about... two months. At 25,000 square miles it stretches from California into southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, and eastern Arizona.
   My sister lives in the Mojave desert, as Bullhead City resides within it's boundaries. So does Las Vegas for that matter.
   The Mojave Desert contains Death Valley, which is the lowest place in North America (300 feet below sea level), and sometimes the hottest  (the temperature surpassing 130 °F in the lower elevations at times (as does Bullhead)).
   California also contains the Colorado Desert... yeah, I know, it should probably be called the California Desert since it's in California and all, but it's actually part of the larger Sonoran Desert, which shares a border with the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Desert lies in the southern border of the Mojave Desert in California and stretches down south into Mexico, which makes all of the southeastern part of California a desert.
   We have another one! The Great Basin Desert, which lies on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where I've camped out on occasion. It contains Mount Whitney, which is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States (14,505 ft and 3 inches), which are all of the states except Hawaii and Alaska.
   The Great Basin Desert is part of the larger Great Basin, which stretches all across Nevada, into Utah, up into Idaho and Wyoming, and north into Oregon.
   It is the only cold desert in the U.S., because most of the rain that falls within it is snow, which is cold usually. The "rainshadow effect" makes it that way. Winds from the Pacific Ocean rise over those Sierra Nevada Mountains, which cools them because the mountains are high. The cooling makes the air lose its water in the form of rain. By the time the winds cross over the mountains and sweep down the far side, they are very dry and absorb moisture from the surrounding area. This drying effect is responsible for creating the Great Basin Desert.
   According to Wikipedia the Great Basin Desert has no history, which I find rather odd.
   Anyway, my point is there is a lot of desert in California. A lot more then say... New Jersey.
   Since Los Angeles is on the border of a big desert we don't have a lot of water here. We've  even gone to war over water when William Mulholland, of "Chinatown" and Mulholland Drive fame, built the Los Angeles aqueduct in 1913 and stole a lot of water from the Owens Valley, which is actually within the Great Basin Desert in eastern California. The farmers there didn't like getting their water stolen because they wanted their water to grow crops, and Mulholland was stealing it from them, along with the mayor of L.A., Frederick Eaton, who used a whole bunch of dirty, underhanded tricks to get their water rights. By 1928, Los Angeles owned 90 percent of the water in Owens Valley and agriculture interests in the region were effectively dead.
   To add insult to injury, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) built a second aqueduct in 1970 to suck up all of the groundwater in the Owens Valley.
   We also steal water from the Colorado River, even though the Colorado River is around 300 miles east of L.A., and never enters California at all (it runs along the states southeast border).
   We suck it up near where my sister lives, near Lake Havasu, on the border of California and Arizona, and it goes to the city of Riverside, which shares it with Los Angeles.
   Other cities like San Diego and Phoenix steal water from it as well. The river now serves 30 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, with 70 percent or more of its water siphoned off to irrigate 3.5 million acres of cropland.
   This is all well and good (unless you live in Owens Valley), when there's lots of rain to keep the water flowing. But my state, like 80% of contiguous United States, have and are facing severe drought conditions.
   We've had droughts in the past. In 1976-1977 a drought caused surface water supplies in some parts of the state to dwindle sharply, and large quantities of groundwater were extracted to make up the shortage. The drought did the most damage to California's agriculture and livestock industry. A drought lasting from 1987 to 1992 is considered the most severe drought in California's recorded history. It seems droughts periodically transpire on a somewhat regular basis... in California, and the rest of the country.
   But what happens when you factor in a new set of circumstances that effect an old problem, such as global warming on our country's penchant to dry up.
   California experienced drought conditions in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Then it became wet again, for a little while, and now we're experiencing another drought.
   As of last February the precipitation in the state had only hit 60 percent of the average. Our snowpack water supplies are low as well.
   Drought conditions effect the number of wildfires that annually plague Southern California. The drier the conditions, the easier it is for fires to start and spread.
   According to the analysis of the drought's impacts by the Pacific Institute, a Northern California think tank that focuses on water issues, in an average year hydropower produces 15% of the electricity for the state.
   Citing data from the California Energy Commission, the authors found that figure dropped to 8%-10% with falling runoff levels during the 2007-09 drought. Utilities made up for the loss by burning more natural gas and buying more power from out of state, driving up production costs as well as greenhouse gas emissions. The authors calculated that the switch to other power sources resulted in an additional 13 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
   According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (who keep sending me Emails all of the time... I don't know why):
   Warmer global temperatures are expected to cause an intensification of the hydrologic cycle, with increased evaporation over both land and water. The higher evaporation rates will lead to greater drying of soils and vegetation, especially during the warm season. Climate models also project changes in the distribution and timing of rainfall. The combination of a decrease in summer rainfall and increased evaporation will lead to more severe and longer-lasting droughts in some areas. Increasing drought frequency has the potential to affect land-based natural and managed ecosystems, coastal systems, and both freshwater quality and quantity. Increasing drought frequency also has the potential to increase the likelihood of wildfires.   
   To sum up, California has experienced severe drought conditions on a periodic basis. Drought effects the amount of water available for use by humans for various purposes. For instance, the city of Los Angeles uses 200 billion gallons of water a year for personal, industrial, and agricultural (including the production of livestock foods) use, Los Angeles depends on water to provide for the production of energy as well. The effect drought has on the available water supply is to lessen it, which means other sources of water needs to be utilized (The prospect of increased demand coupled with reduced supply from the Mono and Owens basins is causing the LADWP to look into a number of new water sources, including a new direct connection to the California Aqueduct, increased use of recycled water, use of stormwater capture and reuse, and increased conservation ( )). Global warming, or climate change, whichever term you prefer, will increasingly tend to exacerbate the drought conditions we're already experiencing (as well as increase the amount of wildfires which are prevalent in the area. It will also effect insect propagation (A new study made at University of Washington suggests that global warming seems to lead in fact to more insects. Warmer climates seem to increase their reproductive rate and population growth, with widespread effects on agriculture, public health and conservation).
   So this is a big problem that we're currently ignoring, at least on a national policy basis. Since the government is reluctant to take the necessary steps required to curb the oil and gas industry's continued tendency to increase the amount of greenhouse gases pouring into the atmosphere, I'm wondering when other economic interests, such as the aforementioned agricultural and  hydropower interests, and other industries such as insurance companies for instance that are increasingly being adversely effected by warmer temperatures, will finally wake up and take steps of their own to begin to do something about this very real problem.
   Maybe a war between Archer Daniels Midland and Exxon will force the government into action.
   Just maybe.

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