Death, Taxes, and the California Drought

, , director, California & Western States | October 21, 2014, 1:59 pm EST
Bookmark and Share

Some say the only things you can count on are death and taxes, but in California there’s something else: drought. No one knows how long the current drought will last or when the next drought will be, but we can be sure that droughts will continue to cycle through in California. Unfortunately, many of our water management systems haven’t been built with this basic fact in mind and aren’t being operated to deal with longer or more severe droughts in the future.

UCS climate scientist Juliet Christian-Smith is the lead author of a new article in Sustainability Science (subscription only) describing how the actions that have made California relatively resilient to short-term drought are setting us up for trouble in the long run and can be considered “maladaptation.” The article finds that California’s current strategies for dealing with drought are less successful than previously thought when short- and long-term impacts are evaluated together. This finding is particularly relevant given projections of more frequent and severe water shortages in the future due to climate change.

The analysis reveals that while California’s agricultural and energy sectors displayed remarkable resiliency to the 2007-2009 drought, sustaining high production levels, they did so by relying on a series of coping strategies that increased vulnerability to longer or more severe droughts.

For example, California is currently living off credit by overpumping groundwater from its aquifers. Groundwater is one of the primary ways that the agricultural sector insulates itself from drought impacts, yet as groundwater levels continue to drop, groundwater pumping is becoming less economical (more expensive to pump water up from deeper depths or to drill deeper wells) and ultimately unsustainable as we are pumping out more water than is available to refill those aquifers in many locations.

In addition, California’s hydropower was roughly halved during the 2007-2009 drought. This lost hydropower was largely replaced with the purchase and combustion of additional natural gas. Ratepayers spent $1.7 billion extra to purchase natural gas over the three-year drought period; the combustion of this extra natural gas led to emissions of an additional 13 million tons of carbon dioxide (about a 10 percent increase in emissions from California power plants).

Overall, California continues to respond to drought through a series of shortsighted, crisis-driven responses, rather than pursuing more robust mitigation measures (see the following Table, reprinted from the article). The article provides a series of recommendations for the development and enactment of long-term mitigation measures that are anticipatory and focus on comprehensive risk reduction. It is past time to learn how to live with the inevitable: death, taxes and, for Californians, drought.


Crisis-driven responses and mitigation measures for drought-affected sectors.

Posted in: Global Warming Tags: , , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments

Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Richard Solomon

    There is a proposition on November’s ballot which claims to be a ‘solution’ to Calif’s cycles of drought. It is primarily one which involves building more dams in order to have more water stored for the dry years.

    It seems to me that this is a ‘more of the same’ kind of response to what is and will be an ongoing challenge that we face here. Ie, dams have a negative impact water flow and thus the ecosystem in a variety of ways. This would also allow consumers and agribusiness to believe that they can continue their same old, short sighted ways rather than engage in an admittedly difficult but much needed reorientation as to how we use water in our state.

    Governor Brown, who touts himself as an environmentally concerned kind of leader, is actively campaigning for it. I believe he is actually acting as a mouthpiece for the large agribusinesses and farmers in the state and not looking out for the longer term consequences of these policies.

  • californucopia

    Christian-Smith suggests that agriculture switch to drought tolerant crops. What would those be, cactus? What customers would buy them? This is why scientists make poor farmers. They don’t get it. Farmers grow what consumers want, and right now they want what California agriculture grows. It’s not rocket science, it’s supply and demand.

    • Thad Niles

      Google “drought resistant crops” and you will get a list that does not contain a single cactus! Your point about consumer demand is valid, for now, but assumes that consumers would not change their behaviors in response to price increases, availability shortages, and long-term drought strategy buy-in. Further, I’d be interested if you think that consumer preferences ought to be different in arid locations–is it unrealistic to expect field-grown tomatoes in the middle of a desert?

      • californucopia

        Food preferences are not based on what can be grown in arid conditions. People buy food from all over the country and the world. Their preferences are not likely to change because they can’t be grown in an arid area due to lack of irrigation water. First off, retailers will source food wherever they can get the food their customers demand, even through imports.

        One needs to keep in mind that not any crop can grow anywhere. California grows about half of the nations fruits, nuts, and vegetables. The reason for that is quite simply that it has a Mediterranean climate, which is arid. Most of these won’t grow in regions that have wet summers. That eliminates a lot of the country.

        All of California should be considered arid, since very few areas outside of Northern California are self sufficient in water supply, including the coastal areas from San Diego to maybe Santa Rosa. Technology has given the state the ability to provide water for these millions of people and their food supply. Are we going to tell them where they can live, who can live here, and what they can eat?

  • Troy Knutson

    Doesn’t it just come down to math? Too many people living in a geographical area prone to drought? Sooner or later this will become a disaster and people will leave California. Why not be proactive? Think about it, is this a water crisis or an over population crisis?

    • DLL

      I believe the situation is greatly worsened by overpopulation. Crowding too many people into a state prone to drought is an incredibly bad idea. I grew up in the Bay Area and for decades I’ve watched politicians do everything in their power to increase the population of this area without a single thought as to whether or not that is wise. I read recently about scientific research showing that during periods of drought there was increased violence. Skeletons from periods of drought bore more evidence of weapon-inflicted wounds than skeletons from other periods. I am not looking forward to this future!