Wednesday, March 11, 2009

California - Running on Empty

The southwest has run dry. Years of drought and over-dependence on dwindling groundwater stocks has brought the Day of Reckoning to California and other states in that region.

Mother Nature played a dirty trick on us. When we came to settle the West (including our own Alberta and Saskatchewan), we thought that the rainfall patterns were normal. We grew our cities, states and provinces on that core assumption. We didn't know that the white man's arrival sort of coincided with what would be a century of unusually wet conditions. We didn't know that drought is normal in the West with mega-droughts of up to 60-years being the history of the region.

Then along comes global warming and the disruption of normal precipitation patterns. It's now become feast or famine - either too much rainfall causing floods and mudslides, or too little. California, America's market garden, has been especially hard hit. From Reuters:

Water raised leafy green Los Angeles from the desert and filled arid valleys with the nation's largest fruit and vegetable crop. Each time more water was needed, another megaproject was built, from dams of the major rivers to a canal stretching much of the length of the state.

But those methods are near their end. There is very little water left untapped and global warming, the gradual increase of temperature as carbon dioxide and other gases retain more of the sun's heat, has created new uncertainties.

Global warming pushes extremes. It prolongs drought while sometimes bringing deluges the parched earth cannot absorb. California Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow says two things keep him up at night: drought and flood.

University of Arkansas Ecological Engineeering professor Marty Matlock warns the essence of climate change is greater swings in precipitation -- and thus food production. At times of peak demand, prices can skyrocket, he said, as happened to food prices last year.

"There's no slack any more. The rope is tight, and if you give it a tug, it yanks on something," he said.

While farmers suffer, cities continue to grow. The sunny, warm American West remains a magnet.

"Add water and you have the instant good life," said James Powell, author of "Dead Pool," a book about global warming and water in the U.S. West.
"For the last few years, the driest states, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, have been the fastest growing. And you know that can't be sustained," he said.

California is looking at a basket of measures including conservation, groundwater rehabilitation, storm sewer water reclamation, new dams to catch torrential runoffs and desalination. California is actually luckier than many inland states but one thing is clear - its days of cheap water are just about over.

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