I remember first learning about “drought” in the early 70s, back when Jerry Brown was governor. Oh yeah, he’s STILL governor! And we still have drought. Not that it’s ol’ Jerry’s fault, by any means. His pop—Edmund G., Sr. aka “Pat”—was the guv when I was a kid, just before Ronnie Reagan. Pat was the architect, in many ways, of the gigantic state plumbing system that moves water from where it is (northern mountains) to where the people are (southern deserts). It’s a continuing refrain of NorCal-ers that the SoCal-ers are “stealing our goddamn water.”
Whatever. I note the rain has stopped this morning and the sun is coming out. And as saturated as the state has been this winter, we still have drought. That’s because drought means “shortage” and we will always be short of water here in California. In fact, we will always be short of water anywhere in the American West. Head Pacific-ward from the Mississippi River and you’ll cross the 100th meridian before encountering the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide. West of the 100th meridian, roughly speaking, is the semi-arid region of the country, distinct from the humid continental areas blessed by moisture from the Atlantic and, more importantly, the Gulf of Mexico.
Climb the Rockies and descend into the Great Basin and you will encounter deserts of vast extent. The reason much of the West is still wide-open is because of its inhospitable climate. It’s too damn dry. There’s no goddamn water! People can’t live where there’s no water, and if you wonder how people can live in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or Phoenix, it’s because enormous pipelines and canals ship water to these thirsty regions. Few parts of California have the moisture necessary to sustain large populations, unless you’d like to see urbanization along the North Coast in the Redwood Region or perhaps metropolises in the Sierra Snow Belt.
Even the vaunted production of California’s agriculture—breadbasket of the nation—is dependent on water shipments. There’s not enough to go around. And there never will be. The climate in the Golden State makes it among the most desirable places to live in the country. The pull of 60ºF days on the beach in San Diego in January when the Northeast is gripped in ice storms is strong, and the migrants keep coming. Most of us in California are from somewhere else (my parents are from Massachusetts, theirs were from Ireland). We came to find gold, or flee the Dust Bowl, or to find work in the war factories. We came for economic opportunity and a chance at “the good life” in the sunshine along the seashore.
Now there are close to 40 million of us. And we all want to drink, bathe, wash our cars, and water our lawns. Demand for water is always increasing, supply is not. So we will always have drought. It’s part of life in a Mediterranean climate where six months of the year can pass with neither rain nor snow touching the ground. Some of the population pressure has been reduced by northward migration. Cities like Portland in Oregon or Seattle in Washington enjoy temperate climates with abundant natural water. But both of those states, like ours, have a narrow band of habitable regions along the coasts and the near inland valleys. Head east over the Cascades and you are back in the arid wilderness. Over half of both states get a foot or less of rain in a year.
If you aren’t native to the Golden State, you might think we are a lush, garden paradise. If you are, you know that’s bull. We are dry most of the time. Our greenery is the result of engineering. The Bay Area for example, home to seven million people, gets almost all of its water from the Sierras, 100 to 200 miles away, via pipelines, aqueducts, and reservoirs. They have to—there’s not enough otherwise. The mountainous regions of the state store our life-giving liquid in the snowpack, but we don’t live there. We live in the temperate valleys, foothills, river basins, and coastal plains where there are year-round roads and ports and all the other amenities of modern civilization.
Here in the High Country we don’t really feel the impact of drought because we don’t use enough water. Sure, we have times when the snow doesn’t fall and our forests are tinder-dry and our irrigated pastures can’t get their share out of our over-stressed streams. But there’s not enough of us to cause a crisis. We can make it through the dry time and enjoy the blessings of winter. This year the state will have full reservoirs (assuming the Oroville Dam holds!) and likely an above-average snowpack, so we’ll muddle through. But it can rain from now until July and we’ll still have drought.