I want to put down some thoughts on drought before a drought is declared, before anything I say will necessarily be a response to drought politicking. I’d also like these thoughts to be more general, not the same stuff we had so much fun with last time (40,000 jobs! Thousands of acres of almond trees bulldozed! Bait fish!). These aren’t in order of importance.
- If this year is as dry as it looks to be, the obvious question is whether we are in year 5 of a long drought (with a sporadic wet year). Won’t find that out for a long time.
- Drought is a very strange emergency, since it comes on so slow, without an origin event. Emergency managers get flummoxed by it.
- So far, the drought hasn’t been a severe one. It was certainly not severe enough to provoke responses beyond “preserve the status quo!”. It was forgotten in one wet season. It was not so severe that the State thinks it needs to do anything to prepare for/avoid a repetition of the last drought.
- It is very hard to know what to DO about a drought, especially for a State that considers itself broke and wants to decentralize power.
- There are things a rich state could do about drought. A rich state that prioritizes ag could simply give farmers or ranchers money instead of water for a year, so that they still exist as farmers when the drought goes away. Money is a decent substitute for water, if what you’re after is agricultural resiliency. Money could be used to subsidize Lifeline rates, so that urban water and energy users don’t feel drought-related cost increases as much. You could use money to buffer a drought, if you had the foresight to sock it away in advance (during the wet years, as it were).
- There are things a strong state could do about drought. A strong state could demand effective Drought Plans from every district in the state, plans that actually spell out who gets water during droughts and who gets cut back first. A strong state could combat demand hardening, by saying that 800,000 acres of almonds and 540,000 acres of vines is (more than) enough already. I understand the argument that trees have to get water at the expense of row crops because trees are a decades-long investment. I don’t understand why growers can unilaterally decide to grow a crop that will commit a chunk of water for the life of their trees given that water rights do have cutback provisos for drought. A strong state could make the Model Landscape Ordinance retrospective, not just applying to new urban landscapes. A strong state could do a lot more to make policy decisions about drought, but I haven’t seen any willingness to go that far.
- The alternative to making State decisions about how to use water during drought is to use a mostly unspoken “let The Market sort it out” default. Well, if a grower planted almonds where there isn’t water for them, the trees will die and he’ll go broke and in the aggregate of these failures, the problem will sort itself out. That is a way to do things, but it is a pretty brutal one. If it is too brutal for public opinion, the State will be forced to step in and save individuals anyway.
- It is hard for me to see how droughts hurt cities, so long as cities get enough water for direct personal use. Higher energy costs as hydro-electric power gets scarcer. Damage to landscapes. But then, what? If people don’t get to wash their cars, they’ll still have cars that do all the things that cars did. Higher water rates take money out of local circulation, although that money doesn’t leave the state economy. My thinking on this isn’t clear.
- The usual drought response is “Drought?! My God! Pour water on it!” Find water from somewhere and put it on that drought! If the Brown administration does this too, I’ll be disappointed. I’d rather people were looking at what is substitutible for water, and what societal structures are overextended during drought.
- The folks hit hardest by drought were not the political noisemakers last time. Ranchers feel droughts first, as their pastures falter and they have to buy alfalfa feed. (Which should also tell you that alfalfa growers make out like bandits during droughts and you shouldn’t believe that ag is a monolith that feels drought pain evenly.) Sadly, ranchers that lose their herds during droughts also commit suicide disproportionately. Any serious drought response should include mental health counseling for ranchers and farmers.
If you have other conceptual understandings of drought, please put them in the comments. But please don’t repeat political talking points. We’ve all heard those.