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California drought myths and science

If you pay attention to anything about the weather, especially climate change, you know that California is experiencing an epic drought. The causes are complex (always be skeptical of “simple” explanations), and the fixes may not even be possible.

So instead of talking about California’s new mandatory vaccine law (or anything else about vaccines), maybe it was time to talk about California drought myths –then refute them with science, which is always fun.

Stating the obvious, water is necessary for the residents, industry and agriculture of California. The Los Angeles metro area, with about 10 million people, and other Southern California cities, like San Diego, have few natural water sources, so they must rely upon water that arises far away from the residents.

The mountains, especially the Sierra Nevada range, of California are the water “bank” for the state. The winter snowfall ends up being the spring runoff, which is stored in reservoirs, and used, until the next season. Los Angeles takes (or steals if you saw the Jack Nicholson movie, Chinatown) water from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a sparsely populated (and rarely visited) part of California.

The fact that the 2015 snowpack on April 1 was a pathetic 5% of normal, while the snowpack on June 1 was 0% of normal, is frightening. In other words, snowmelt, that in some years can last well into summer, was gone before summer started, so California essentially has no water in the bank. And because this drought is nearly 4 years old, the reservoirs are mostly dry, and there’s little water left.

Causes of the 2015 California drought


The causes of the drought are very complex. Generally, real scientific evidence has shown that climate change may be the root cause of California’s drought, and it may become a more common occurrence in the state going forward. And this may prompt the state to make more permanent changes to water allocation, which can be harmful to everything from agriculture to industry to immigration into the state.

To be fair, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), not a climate change denying US scientific agency, claims that the California drought is natural and not caused by climate change.

Without attempting to be a climatologist, the drought is probably a result of a “ridiculously resilient ridge” which apparently blocks rain (and snow) producing storms from coming ashore as frequently as they usually do in winter. This ridge (and subsequent drought) was probably set off by a La Niña weather pattern, which is a pattern of cooler than normal ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific. The La Niña has been historically linked to reduced precipitation in the Western US.

Moreover, warm ocean temperatures in the western Pacific Ocean has set up a storm track during the winter that pushed storms far north of California. So there is precisely nothing going on in the Pacific that is helpful to snow and rain producing storms for the state.

A recent article, published by scientists at the American Geophysical Union, agrees with the NOAA regarding the causes of this drought, but provides evidence that this drought is extremely rare and hasn’t been seen in over 1200 years. The authors conclude that, “in California, droughts have and will continue to occur, as evidenced by the paleoclimate and instrumental record and as projected by Earth System Models of the anthropogenic future.”

In other words, this level of drought was rare in the recent past, but may become more common as the climate warms up. The current 2011-2015 drought may have been “natural,” though there is equivocal evidence that there are a lot of “fingerprints” of climate change as the cause. And, as predicted by the anthropogenic climate change scientific theory, California is experiencing warmer winters (lessening the snowpack) and hotter summers, both of which contribute significantly to this drought.

Laughably, the climate change deniers blame the drought on everything but the real cause, anthropogenic climate change. The right wing Fox News claims it’s caused by environmental regulations. One group claims it’s a result of illegal immigrants. A California legislator believes it’s the mythical sky being’s wrath over abortion. Denialism evolved into delusion, I suppose.

In response to this drought, California is instituting numerous changes that may help mitigate the effects. Cities are required to save water. Individuals are mostly contributing to reducing water use, although the really wealthy (many so-called liberals) don’t think that they need to help.  Corporations and industry are voluntarily or involuntarily contributing to the effort of reducing water use.

But there are numerous California drought myths that have become popular tropes in some conversations about the drought. I wanted to look at three of them, agriculture, fracking and bottled water, to determine if they have any impact on the drought.



California drought myths – agriculture


California isn’t a gigantic desert like most people think. There are several mountain ranges, the Sierra Nevada range the most prominent, that captures snowfall in the winter, and provides runoff to rivers and lakes (both natural and man made). That snowpack provides water that makes the Central Valley, a 720 km long valley in the center of California that is a fertile plain that sits alongside the Sierra Nevada mountains for its full length.

The Central Valley generally feeds the USA by providing all kinds of fresh foods–it would take a whole article just to describe the breadth of fruits, vegetables, nuts, dairy and other agricultural products that are shipped throughout the country.

But, the Central Valley is quite arid and warm, especially during summer and fall, when most food is grown. The melting snowpack provides water to these farms. Without the water, it probably would be a desert.

Factually, agriculture uses more than 80% of the state’s water, while contributing to less than 2% of the state’s economy. So I suppose that agriculture use of water isn’t quite a myth, though some of the information about its use of water requires some nuanced analysis.

Of course, farmers are being hurt by this drought, and the contribution of agriculture to the state economy is more than just sales of foods, so just saying “let’s end farming” would be an over-simplistic solution to a much more complex industry.

For example, there are thousands of people employed in the agriculture sector (and support industries like food processors, distributors, farm equipment sales, and so many others) of California’s economy, and having them all become unemployed would cause undue human suffering and a hit to California’s economic reputation.

California requires a vibrant agricultural sector, but there needs to be massive, and probably painful, redesign of regulations and controls for agricultural water use.

The State of California is starting to demand changes in water use by farmers, some of whom have anachronistic water rights that allows some agricultural entities to use as much water as they want, whenever they want from whatever source they want. These water rights derive from claims from the 1800s during the Gold Rush (which was an environment disaster of another sort).


Fortunately, many farmers are making changes to reduce their use of water, some voluntarily and some as a result of pressure and regulations from the State of California. In the graphic above, the use of drip and micro watering, an extremely efficient watering method, has skyrocketed in the past few decades. Subsequently, wasteful watering practices, like sprinkling and gravity (essentially flooding an area from canals and other sources) have concomitantly decreased.

I was surprised by this graphic. I thought most water use in the Central Valley was wasteful and inefficient, and some of it is. But it’s changing in the right direction so that farming can use less water to produce more crops. That can be transformative to the agricultural sector of California’s economy.

Furthermore, this increased efficiency hasn’t been at the cost of  lower production, but in fact has lead to more. I have concerns about ground water being used in some areas, which is being more forcefully regulated by the state, but mostly the state’s agriculture industry is actually being foresighted in changing practices of water use, and with continuing droughts, it’s eventually highly efficient and environmentally sound watering practices will make up the bulk of water use.

One other myth about agriculture and water use is particularly bothersome. Some individuals, with good intentions I suppose in trying to make meaningful commentary about saving water, seem to blame livestock (including dairy cows) for huge wastes of water. But according to the most recent water use statistics, livestock production uses less than 0.5% of California’s water withdrawals. In other words, shutting down all of the livestock industry in California would not have any meaningful effect on water use.

Let’s be honest–most of us would rather see fields of strawberries and grape vines than green golf courses or a small patch of lawn in front of a Beverly Hills home. And it’s well known that agriculture is highly innovative in making changes, despite initial hesitancy (or worse) as opposed to lawn loving homeowners.


California drought myths – fracking


Dumb meme that doesn’t help the drought.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of a forcing water (and sometimes sand and other compounds), under high pressure, into wells to force out natural gas and petroleum. There is evidence that this can lead to localized earthquakes and environmental pollution, and many people are opposed to it throughout the country.

It’s not a process that is used in California much, mainly because most oil in the state is easily accessed. In some areas, the oil easily flows to the surface, contributing to natural features like the amazing La Brea Tar Pits.

In an attempt to make these numbers small enough to be useful, California uses about 143 billion liters (38 billion gallons) of water every day across all purposes. Fracking uses around 265 million liters of water EVERY YEAR.

Sticking with the simplest math available, fracking accounts for 0.00062% of the state’s annual freshwater withdrawals–stopping fracking would not even have a tiny effect on the water use (admittedly, it could have an effect on water use in a localized area).

There are lots of reasons to dislike fracking. But taking water from thirsty Californians is certainly not one of them. Simple math says its so.

California drought myths – bottled water


Another dumb meme.
Another dumb meme.

In general, I abhor memes for lots of reasons. First, they remove all nuance. Second, they are hardly ever supported by real evidence, or even bad evidence. And this meme annoys me as much as anything.

The claim, perpetuated by the meme above, is that California has a drought (we’re in agreement), and precious water is being put into plastic bottles and sold to people who could get the same quality water out of their tap. Setting aside all of those plastic bottles (another environmental disaster) being thrown out, is bottled water really a problem for California?

Not really. Nestle claims it uses less than 8 million liters of water every day. That’s a tiny percentage of water use, 0.0053% of the state’s water consumption.

Crystal Geyser, a major consumer of water for bottling purposes, takes water from Mt. Shasta, a volcano in northern California that still has ancient glaciers on its slopes. Despite using legal loopholes to take water from the slopes of the mountain, they only use around 1.4 million liters of water a day, another tiny percentage of the whole state’s water use.

But let’s look at it another way. Mt. Shasta is one of the upper sources of water of the Sacramento River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean. The mountain’s water partially drains into the McCloud river, which has a flow rate of around of around 653 million liters of water per day near Mt. Shasta. So, Crystal Geyser probably uses less than 0.2% of the water draining that mountain. In other words, the effect on the flow of the rivers downstream of their bottling plant is almost negligible.

Yes, Crystal Geyser can be criticized for their violating their permits and for their disregard of the environment by putting water into plastic bottles. But they aren’t contributing much to water use during a drought, even in a localized area.

Summary, or the TL;DR version


California is undergoing a substantial drought, the cause of which is still undergoing thorough scientific analysis. It’s probably related to anthropogenic climate change, but more data is being accumulated.

Yes, there is a lot of water being wasted, but the groups that are being blamed may not deserve the blame (at least for water use).

Agriculture is the biggest user of water, that’s not a myth. But their practices are becoming more efficient, which should reduce water demand in the future. Fracking and water bottling, both environmentally unfriendly, may be disliked by many of us, but they aren’t contributing very much to water use in the state.

While researching this article, I ran into much more complex information about the drought about which I was unaware. But the blame game isn’t very helpful–time to stop climate change and improve regulations for water use throughout all of the state.

Michael Simpson

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