As we may soon find out for ourselves.

I am a catastrophist, I freely admit.  I sometimes think that the difference between my writings and the other water pundits is that I’m willing to predict that bad things will happen, instead of repeating technological optimism. Even so, this year is making me think that I haven’t spent enough time thinking about rare events.  (Yes, sure, I read Taleb.)  I hadn’t, honestly, given much thought to the potential for sudden dam failure.  (Yes, sure, I read McCullough.)  You know what else I hadn’t thought about?  The possibility of trade wars, or conventional wars,  with China and Mexico.  Trump brings chaos to everything he touches.  Climate change increases uncertainty.  Both of those will intersect vividly in the San Joaquin Valley, because it is predominantly a single climate-dependent industry and lacks the resilience of evenly-distributed wealth.  If Trump is president for more than a year, I think the chaos will even reach into California.

Being a catastrophist extends to some of my reading.  I read lots of post-collapse novels and was amused at the water politics of two books, both about post-pandemic America.  The Dog Stars could be a long set-up for an accurate and funny irrigation joke.  Recommend!  Sadly, the Book of the Unnamed Midwife gets California water terribly wrong.  Honestly, people. There are elegantly designed, mechanical, gravity-fed irrigation districts in the Great Valley, and water will still run down the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada.  There will still be some water availability for agriculture and drinking, even after civilization collapses.


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19 responses to “As we may soon find out for ourselves.

  1. Agree with you about the magnitude of damage Trump will inflict is in direct correlation to the time he has in office to impact everything he touches. The reverse Midas syndrome. The Russian connection will be exposed with this Flynn fiasco and the Senate will have to investigate and act. Just a matter of time before him and his Alternative Universe comes crashing down. I was at Oroville Dam on Saturday just as the water started going over the emergency spillway. Didn’t work so good. DWR has some work to do to keep the water flowing to the Valley and Southern Cal.

    • Diane Livia

      California’s current water governance structure, largely dependent on the enforcement of individual “rights,” is wholly unsustainable. Disputes between and among historic water-rights holders are ultimately resolved by the courts in a way that does not account for the larger public interest at stake in virtually every water allocation decision. The result is a world in which some stakeholders continue to lavishly sprinkler-irrigate alfalfa crops for export to foreign countries or golf courses for affluent patrons while others, quite literally, do not have water to drink, cook, or bathe. And the minimum water needs of California’s natural aquatic systems, even if ostensibly protected on paper, inevitably fall by the wayside as water becomes increasingly scarce and more species hover at the edge of extinction. With the state’s population growing toward 50 million by mid-century and climate impacts accelerating, the present structure puts us on a course to natural and human catastrophe.

      From “California Water Governance for the 21st Century” by Sivas, Melius, Sheehan, Ugai, Kryczka, 2017. avail: file:///C:/Users/Dlivia/Downloads/Report+-+California+Water+Governance+for+the+21st+Century%20%20%20(1).pdf

  2. i’d be curious what you think of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife…

  3. Folky Water Nerd

    Years ago a friend passed along a pulpy crime novel called “High Desert Malice”. Set in the Eastern Sierra, the cast of characters included a family of Basque sheep herders, environmental advocates, law enforcement officers, evil water minions in a tall LA skyscraper who were plotting a revival of an aqueduct from the Columbia River across eastern Oregon, and a criminal saboteur who cleverly floated timed explosive rafts down the LA Aqueduct to blow out the siphons. I guess that would qualify as pre-apocalyptic fiction,

    • unapologetic misfit

      I’m a resident of the Eastern Sierra and I haven’t heard of that book, but I’m busy reading stuff like this:
      It’s very good reading, far more so than the one the director of my graduate school department authored last fall.
      Still, I need an escape. Nothing like a good ol’ story about another attempt to blow up the LA Aqueduct to lift my spirits ;]

    • onthepublicrecord

      Speaking of which, can any of you please recommend other books set in Bishop and Mono Lake? My sister is vacationing there and would like to start by reading stories set there.

    • Saul Travers

      @unapologetic misfit – Thanks for that link. I read the summary, and it supports an idea I have long held – That the water situation in California could be much improved with a change to the California Constitution that declares 1) That water used to produce food and fiber consumed by Californians is a reasonable and beneficial use. 2) Water used to produce food and fiber consumed by other US citizens is presumably a reasonable and beneficial use but the reasonableness can be challenged. 3) Water used to produce food and fiber used by non-US citizens is presumably NOT a reasonable and beneficial use but can be permitted if Californians and California’s ecosystem is not being unreasonably damaged.
      And we need to declare land subsidence as being part of the ecosystem. I think it will go down in history as one of the dumbest decisions ever to make a few pennies shipping nuts overseas at the cost of ruining the California Aqueduct with the subsidence caused by groundwater overpumping.

    • unapologetic misfit

      @onthepublicrecord- I’m sorry that I saw this only now… I don’t have recommendations other than the usual: the “Red Queen” chapter in Cadillac Desert is the most compelling on E.Sierra history that I’ve read. I don’t know why people like “Chinatown” when the real story is so much more engaging (in a tragic way.) Of course, there’s “Storm Over Mono” and if you broaden your area of interest, “Old Mammoth” is good, but maybe that’s because it’s my hometown, unfortunately. Yeah, I probably don’t need to mention Mary Austin’s “Land of Little Rain.” What else have I forgotten?

      Please forgive me for this & I promise to never do it again, but if you need a good laugh and the Dems (new DNC chair just elected) have got you down:

    • Diane Livia

      Saul Travers, you’re singing my tune. ” 1) That water used to produce food and fiber consumed by Californians is a reasonable and beneficial use. 2) Water used to produce food and fiber consumed by other US citizens is presumably a reasonable and beneficial use but the reasonableness can be challenged. 3) Water used to produce food and fiber used by non-US citizens is presumably NOT a reasonable and beneficial use but can be permitted if Californians and California’s ecosystem is not being unreasonably damaged.
      And we need to declare land subsidence as being part of the ecosystem. I think it will go down in history as one of the dumbest decisions ever to make a few pennies shipping nuts overseas at the cost of ruining the California Aqueduct with the subsidence caused by groundwater overpumping.”

      This must be the position of everyone who believes conservation is the answer. NOT allocating for non-beneficial uses (and profit is not a beneficial use per se) had to become where the conservation starts.

      I, too, support a constitutional amendment.

    • Jon Hoge

      OtPR @SaulTravers @DianeLivia Maybe this isn’t the time or the place for this question but I’ve heard this anti crop water export argument in it’s general form for a long time without ever hearing the particulars. So here’s my question. Given the fact that California is a NET IMPORTER of water through food and manufactured goods from outside the state, how can one justify discontinuing using water in California to grow/produce goods to export out of the state? It seems like it’s actually a trade and not a one off export, and it also appears that California residents benefit greatly from the free movement of goods that require water (ie everything) rather than the other way around. I guess my other perpetual question applies here as well. Other than destroying the agricultural economy (mostly small farms probably), what is the proven benefit of sending more water thorough the existing channels and infrastructure? I also cannot fathom what could possibly be meant by including “land subsidence as being part of the ecosystem”.

  4. WatergrlJD

    “I think the chaos will even reach into California.” Yes. And. What’s surprised me with the recent chaos over Oroville is how much random strangers *want* bad things to happen to California.
    This is what you deserve for choosing to spend your money this way, they say.
    But California does things differently in a lot of ways because things are different here. We have more cars and lots of different air basins, so we have more rules for cars and pollution to try to keep people from choking. We have lots of demand for water for food and people and industry, so we make more rules to keep them clean and to try to protect everyone’s property.
    But a spillway goes south and suddenly everyone feels free to tell strangers they deserve the fear and confusion of mass evacuation?
    Some of the chaos is already here.

    • delveg

      That’s amazing me as well. One of the people I game with has been heavy with the Brown resistance / Federal Disaster “begging” meme, which is dismaying. Particularly since he’s a Californian himself.

  5. Just to provide some balance from a boring, old engineer, I don’t think that there is any connection between Trumpian Chaos and the problems at Oroville Dam. There might be a connection between increasing bureaucracy and lack of insightful inspection and maintenance. Not that Donald is aware enough to understand that in detail, but his supporters who complain broadly about too much regulation, perhaps without understanding the wider problem, might be on to something. Maybe we need to try to talk to these people? I know it’s a challenge, but you don’t know if you don’t try. In case I’ve lost you, what I am suggesting is that by the book regulatory inspections tend to get into a rut and not necessarily ask the hard questions. I’ve been there and it is not easy to think outside the rut.

  6. I was thinking the chaos is already here, but in a different way. One of my early thoughts, when I’d heard that California had asked for federal assistance to deal with and/or repair the Oroville dam was that Congress and/or the White House was going to start playing games, trying to extort something out of California in exchange for dumping a yuge amount of money, largely on Republican contractors, to fix the damn. Dam, I mean. Then I remembered that the house Republican Majority leader is Kevin McCarthy out of Bakersfield. Odd how California has both leaders right now. Anyway, I’m not sure how much thuggish politics congress will tolerate before the money goes to repairing the dam. In a way, it’s an interesting test to see how (if, whether) Washington will keep functioning.

    In any case, the chaos in the White House aids non-violent efforts to fight back. After all, the simple way to do that is non-compliance. You know, confusion, work slowdowns, failure to tell your appointed bosses all that’s going on, that sort of thing.

    Since I’m even more of a contrarian than I am a catastrophist, I’d point out that there’s a wee little bright light here: it may be that having a chaotic dilettante in the process of getting disensock-puppeted from Russia is just what we need to make the notion of an imperial presidency go away. Hell, at this point, we on the left are praying for that most libertarian of institutions, a kritarchy (rule by judges). Not that this is a terribly effective way to rule (Somalia seems to be the only nation where it’s used), but chaos makes for weird bedmates.

    Anyway, getting back to the non-violent resistance thing: do it strategically. Organize, or become part of an organization. Do it with a positive goal in mind (like restoring a system of checks and balances where the rule of law, the voice of the people, and the functional needs of the nation and states all matter equally in running the US). Figure out what powers (media, bureaucracy, military, various industries) are propping up the people you don’t like, and spend most of your effort pulling those pillars towards you, working to get them on your side and not supporting the power. Think of the government as a Greek temple, where if too many pillars go askew, the power structure comes crashing down. The one problem is if you push on those pillars through angry protests, especially with violence, you can push them into a tighter alliance with the powers that be, even if they’d prefer not to be there.

  7. I have been reading these for about a year plus, and they’re wonderful. It was ever since I stopped being an energy geek and got interested in water and the incredibly bad policy choices that Calif was making. And the dismal state of knowledge about what we have, where it is, how it is used, etc.

    But never mind that. Suddenly drought becomes yesterday and flood coupled with dam failure becomes today. Please look at the graphs published by something called the DWR California Data Exchange Center. Here’s the URL:

    Click to access rescond.pdf

    I studied these for a while until I figured them out. Then I started wondering about the blue numbers—where each reservoir stands now compared to the historical average of where it stood on this date. Many numbers are over 100. So…if I understand this correctly, and we get only “average” precipitation (and we already know we have way more than average snowfall) doesn’t this mean that all the reservoirs end up far too full? Which of course cannot happen as they will be over-topped (a keen new word I recently learned) or else there will be massive releases onto spillways that may or may not be in good shape. I personally am not a catatrophist, but this seems to me to be pretty worrisome. Am I nuts?

  8. Mike Johnston

    Good reading for a catastrophist: Scientific American article from a few years ago about the 1861-1862 California mega floods. We ain’t seen nothing yet!

    • Saul Travers

      That flood was quite an event. 2 rivers (that I know about, there might be others) changed course: The Kaweah River started flowing in what is now called the St. Johns River in Visalia and the Tule River changed course in Porterville.
      Another disastrous flood came in 1938. Writer John Steinbeck tried to help desperate, flooded farmworkers near the Kaweah River but the water killed many. The memory of the real suffering was fictionalized in The Grapes Of Wrath when the Joad family was flooded out of their tent and they came across a man dying of starvation because the flood overwhelmed relief efforts..

  9. Martha

    This may be too late, but just in case…. In reply to your request for books about Mono Lake and the Bishop area, I would add to the list above the Quaternary History of the Mono Valley, California, by Isreal Russell (1889), any of a series of books by Dave Carle (now a retired park ranger for the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve), My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir, and Farewell to Manzanar by Jeane and James Houston. Make sure your sister stops by the Mono Lake Committee Visitor Center in Lee Vining — its a great bookstore in addition to providing information and guided tours of the area. I would also encourage a visit to Manzanar (one of the largest WWII detention camps for Americans of Japanese descent, now an NPS historic site with its compelling “three farewells to Manzanar” interpretation theme) and Joshua Tree (oldest trees in the world, but sadly also showing impacts of climate change). I am a fan of your blog.

    • onthepublicrecord

      It isn’t too late! I’ll tell her your recommendations. Thank you for reading here.