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Troubling View From the Oasis: California's Abundance May Be a Mirage 

Wednesday, Mar 5 2014

The rains came, finally, on the 26th of February. Rain fell on the grapevines of Napa and the grassland of Marin, on the almond trees and tomato fields of the Central Valley, on the strawberries and lettuce rows of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Runoff gushed down dry gullies, sluiced through drainage culverts, filled up thirsty lakes and reservoirs. Farmers watched with relief as their dusty soil turned to mud and hoped that the long drought was finally coming to an end.

The rainstorm was greeted differently in San Francisco. Of course everyone was glad to see water come to the parched state, but citizens had more concrete annoyances to contend with: delays at SFO and on Muni, small lakes at every street corner, wet socks. But that's about it. San Francisco's multiple and robust water sources — not only Hetch Hetchy but also three other reservoirs, plus access to groundwater, and money in public coffers that keeps systems working properly — have ensured that the water shortage has barely affected the daily life of its residents. Conditions that have devastated rural communities have registered in S.F. as a period of extended pleasantness, a string of warm, sunny days perfect for lounging in the green irrigated grass of Dolores Park. Weather is mostly a matter of convenience in the city; droughts are an abstraction.

This disconnect between the complex, unpredictable natural world and the safe, controlled parklet version of it is a symptom of modern urban life whether you live in San Francisco or Singapore. An extreme event like a drought just makes the separation between city and country priorities all the more obvious.

San Francisco may exist in a bubble, but the drought's consequences will finally penetrate it in the coming months. No one knows for sure how much food prices will rise this spring and summer as farmers try to recoup their losses — a lot of it depends on how much rain we get in the next two months — but everyone from food producers to grocery store buyers to the USDA agrees that they will. Everything will cost cents or dollars more: fruits and vegetables, meat and cheese, wine and beer, all the items grown or produced in California. Restaurants that use local, sustainably raised food will have to raise menu prices to keep up with ingredient costs. And because California produces about a third of the country's fruits and vegetables, the higher prices will ripple out through the rest of America.

No one knows how much worse things will get, either. Last week's rains, while helpful, were not enough — the state needs at least four more big soakers to replenish its low water supplies. Even if the rain comes back, its absence has illuminated the fragility of California's agricultural ecosystem. There's new evidence that suggests that drought is a more persistent condition in the region than previously thought, and dry spells could come more often and last longer in the future. Water resource management is an issue that most city dwellers have had the luxury of ignoring. But the further back in time you look, the more you understand how things must change in the future.

It's Been a Rough Three Years

Drought doesn't seem like it could penetrate the self-contained ecotopia of Straus Family Creamery in Marin, provider of organic milk, cream, butter, yogurt, and other dairy products to the Bay Area and beyond. Unlike the city, the farm is hyper-aware of the cycles of the natural world, and uses its tech and infrastructure to make the most of what is provided for free. The family-owned businesses' "methane digester" converts cow manure into electricity that powers the dairy and electric cars. It runs on wastewater from milk production, which is then used flush barns, wash equipment, and fertilize fields. And the farm is actively trying to do more with less, including converting wastewater back to potable. "We're trying to close the loop on everything we're doing," says Albert Straus, owner and second-generation dairyman. "[We're] looking at how we can reuse our resources to have as little of impact on the environment."

Even the best conservationist can't play God. Straus says that his bottom line has been directly affected by the lack of early rain, the dairy's main source of irrigation. Without rain, there's no pasture; without pasture, the cows have nothing to eat, and the dairy's eight suppliers have to feed the herd on trucked-in alfalfa — an already pricey proposition that becomes more so in a market like this, when so many dairymen and ranchers find themselves faced with the same bare fields.

This then is where the drought starts to penetrate into the oasis of San Francisco: The added financial burden for the dairy farms will be reflected in increased prices for Straus products in the coming months.

The Straus story is one that's playing out all around the state as farmers try to cope with the worst drought in California's settled history. Almond and walnut growers are removing trees from their property that they can't afford to irrigate; pig and cattle raisers are culling their herds because they can't afford to feed their animals. David Evans of Marin Sun Farms had to sell off 100 cattle in January because he was worried about the herds damaging bare fields where there would normally be pasture this time of year.

"From a grazing standpoint or livestock production standpoint, there's no way to recoup what has happened already," Evans says. His company also manages the production of other ranches' grass-fed cattle — or cattle that would be grass-fed in any other year, but whose diets now must be supplemented with barley.

Other farmers had to start paying for irrigation water in January, when nature usually gives them a free pass until April. At Eatwell Farms in Dixon, Nigel Walker had to spend $4,000 to irrigate for 10 days straight in January. Eatwell Farms grows fruits and vegetables that it sells at farmers' markets and online at Good Eggs, and Walker says he's luckier than many — his irrigation district, Lake Berryessa, had a big reservoir at 70 percent capacity before the rain. "When people talk to me about drought, at least I have the water, it just causes me a lot of extra expense. ... Hopefully my customers will understand when I have to raise prices this summer. I just can't absorb those extra costs. There's not enough wiggle room when you're farming to do that."

By now the facts of the drought have been repeated so many times they already have the cadence of history. It's not just that this year has been dry, but the two before it also saw very little rainfall, and three years of abnormally dry conditions have left reservoirs at record lows and emergency supplies taxed. Before the rains, 15 percent of the state — including its most prolific farming regions — was in an "exceptional drought," the most severe ranking of the U.S. Drought Monitor. Not that the rest of California had it much better: Seventy percent of the state was classified as "extreme drought," the second-worst. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January, opening up those afflicted to federal relief funds. On a trip to Fresno in mid-February, President Obama pledged $183 million in federal aid.

Farmers are still hurting. Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the state's managed water, and rural regions don't have the reserve water purchased by rich cities like San Francisco, or even the infrastructure to support it, so farms are usually among the first to feel the effects of a prolonged dry season. In February, state and federal water-allocation services announced that they didn't have enough water to provide to farms that requested it — a first for the state-run California Farm Water project in its 54-year history. Because of this, estimates by the California Water Coalition, an interest group, say that 500,000 acres of farmland will go unplanted this year, and the dry conditions will cost the California economy about $5 billion. And that's if the drought ends tomorrow.

The uncertainty of how much worse things can get is what makes a hard situation even harder. 2015 is a major concern of Greg Massa at Massa Organics, a small family-run farm on the Sacramento River near Chino. This winter, the farm had to let some of its fields go fallow that usually provide grain for its pigs, which led to some animal culling and curtailing of a breeding program. Massa's sows would normally be pregnant now with piglets that could become bacon and pork chops in the future. But because he doesn't know how long the drought will last, Massa decided not to add to his hungry herd.

But those decisions have been made. Massa is currently grappling with his 90 acres of organic rice. He hasn't planted it yet, and is facing the tough decision of how much to plant because he doesn't know how much water he's getting from his district. Right now he's still selling the rice crop from last year. The outlook for next year's crop is not so good. "It's going to catch up to us later in the year," he says. "That's the scary part, how to plan for that, dealing with the uncertainty of it all."

So imagine if your boss asked you to spend the next six months on a project that the company may or may not ultimately use; if management decides to go in another direction, you won't be paid for the work you put into it. If they decide to use your work, you get a sizable bonus. How do you make that decision? If you've spent your life at the company, if you know the predilections of management and the swings of the market, you might decide that it's a risk worth taking. But that requires understanding the context beyond your immediate needs, and even more importantly, the perspective of how things like this have played out before.

The Century that Lied to Us

There's a great video on YouTube, the kind of earnest Public Service Announcement they don't make anymore, created by the California Department of Water Resources immediately after California's previous worst drought of 1976-77. Save for the hokey graphics and feathered bangs, the video could have been made today.

In a normal year, five or six big storms come rolling over California from the Pacific in the wet months of November to April, dropping rain on the western half of the state before breaking up against the Sierra as snow. That snow eventually trickles down creeks and rivers and through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta on its way back to the ocean, and is siphoned off in a series of dams, canals, and tunnels that provide water to the population and irrigate the fields of the Central Valley and beyond. In a dry year like 2013, a mysterious ridge of high pressure — climate scientists don't know why it happens — acts like a fence to those offshore storms that the state's economy depends on.

This is what happened during the drought of '76-'77, as outlined in the scratchy YouTube video: the high-pressure ridge, the ranchers culling their herds, the farmers anxiously scanning the skies for rain. The difference then was that severe water shortages hadn't been seen in the state since the 1930s, "beyond the memory of most consumers," the video's narrator somberly intones.

Droughts are as inevitable as earthquakes in California — they're the price paid for settling a semi-arid region. The 20th century was punctuated by dry periods, but only two lasted more than four consecutive years. One was the six-year drought in the 1930s that caused the Dust Bowl in the southern plains. California escaped the Midwesterners' fate because it had a small population, not as much established agriculture, and plenty of groundwater.

Normal conditions returned in the late '30s, and as the rains fell, the state and federal governments looked to how they could harness the water from the Sierra to irrigate the rest of the state.

The 20th century saw the construction of massive engineering projects that set up the labyrinthine water infrastructure that exists today. It was an age of men gleefully manipulating the natural world, moving water from places that had it to places that didn't. The state was girdled with impressive public works: dams, aqueducts, hydraulic pumps, all the systems that we still use, including the California Aqueduct that brings water from the Sierra down through the Central Valley and over the Tehachapi Mountains to Los Angeles.

The drought of '76-'77 and another in '87-'92 ushered in a new age: environmental conservation instead of manipulation. Part of it was geographic reality: California didn't have many choice river sites left to dam up. Part of it was a growing population: The state had 7 million residents in the 1930s, 31 million in the 1980s, and the need for much more water. And policymakers started seeing that even with all the infrastructure they'd developed, shortages still occurred. "We'll never drought-proof California," says Jay Lund, head of the Center of Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. "It's the nature of our climate. Just like the East Coast will always have hurricanes and the Midwest will always have tornadoes."

After the droughts of the latter half of the 20th century, policymakers realized that in some cases it was cheaper to conserve the water that we already had than to go out and try to find more. Lund compares it to another issue in urban life: transportation. "We all get caught in traffic from time to time, but we never think we should build the freeways so big we never have more traffic jams," he says. Instead we put in HOV lanes and encourage carpooling, we take Caltrain and BART, we try not to tax the already taxed infrastructure any more than we need to.

The '70s drought video ends with a call for continued vigilance from the head of the agency, pleading with the public to not let the lessons of the drought fade from memory. "If we have learned our lessons well, the effects of future droughts need not be so traumatic," says the then-head of the Department of Water Resources from behind his desk, '70s brown suit and shaggy hair and all. "It is likely that there will be more dry years in the future."

They didn't know quite how likely. Since that video was made, paleoclimatologists — looking at thousands of years of climate history through tree rings and sediment samples — have uncovered evidence that the 20th century was perhaps an abnormally wet century in California. If that's true, it means that more dry years in the future aren't just a likelihood, they're an inevitability.

A Thousand Years Says a Lot About a Place

When we say California has a half-dozen big storms in a "normal" year, we're using a definition of "normal" that's been developed since the state started keeping records in 1850. A century and a half is four or five generations in human time, practically an eternity. But it's barely a ripple in global time. And evidence has been uncovered that suggests that California's "normal" is much drier than the 20th century led everyone to believe.

Paleoclimatologist and author B. Lynn Ingram was a geology Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley in the '80s studying core samples of San Francisco Bay. She was looking for big shifts in glacial and interglacial cycles — weather mood swings in the region that lasted thousands of years — when she and her colleagues found a curious thing. Instead of these large-scale shifts in climate, they found that the region's weather was much more variable. It swung between wet and dry in 10- and hundred-year cycles instead of thousands.

The bay acts as a drain for about 40 percent of the state's water; it's saltier in drought years and fresher in flood years. When the phytoplankton and mussels that live in the bay die, they sink to the bottom, where they become fossils. By pulling out long cylinders of sediment and analyzing the chemical content of the fossils, Ingram has a pretty good picture of which years were dry and which years weren't. And she and her team discovered that severe droughts, ones that lasted way beyond the six-year record of the 20th century, were far more common than previously thought.

Around the same time, fellow Berkeley Ph.D. student Scott Stine was looking at tree stumps that had emerged from the shrinking shores of Mono Lake in the Sierras during the late-'80s drought. Some of these trees were more than 160 years old, which meant that the shoreline had been low for at least that long. He carbon-dated the stumps and compared notes with Ingram. They realized that San Francisco Bay was saltier in the same years that the trees had grown: during two long, dry periods during A.D. 900-1100 and 1200-1400, together called the Great Medieval Drought. That's the same major drought that historians think could have ended the Anasazi civilization and others in the Southwest. And it means that the six-year droughts of the 20th century were nothing compared to what has come before.

But even the medieval megadroughts had nothing on the granddaddy of California dry spells, the not-so-creatively named "Long Drought" that started more than 6,000 years ago. The Long Drought was discovered by carbon-dating more submerged tree stumps in Lake Tahoe as well as stumps from other lakes in the Sierra; it spanned more than a thousand years.

Both of these seem so far back that they might as well be myth, but consider this: Both megadroughts occurred when the planet's overall temperature was warmer, which led to less snowpack in the Sierras and less water all around, conditions that could occur in the next few decades if climate change scientists' predictions are correct. Look at how much havoc even a three-year drought has wreaked. S.F.'s endured this myopia before, back in 1906, when its makers realized they had misread what nature was capable of.

If the 20th century was indeed wetter than usual, then California's foundation was laid with a sense of false abundance. Myopia 150 years ago led to a civilization that kept growing as though all of it — its green lawns and golf courses, its fields of lettuce and strawberries, its olive and almond trees, its grazing pastures and ranches, its cities — was built on credit. California has been borrowing on a future that might not look like the present.

The Absolute Worst-Case Scenario

Say the recent rainstorms were the last of the free water that will fall from the sky for years to come. The drought lasts a decade and everyone keeps using the same amount of water, hoping that the rain will come back. Water experts say farms without access to groundwater go out of business first. Those that can pump water from underground aquifers do so increasingly more, causing the water table to drop precipitously. Wells go dry. The water that is left is so salty that it's useless.

The first hint of things beyond the months of news reports is a change of prices in the grocery store, in California and across the nation, as farmers try to make up for their losses. The rains refuse to come for another season. The drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles along the 5 becomes even drearier than normal without the green of the orchards. Small, family-owned farms that can't afford to pay for water anymore begin to fold. The bigger ones eventually follow. California's agriculture industry collapses. Local food becomes a luxury of the past; "California cuisine" seems as extravagant and wasteful as a medieval feast. The nation eventually finds other places to grow olives, dates, pistachios, artichokes, and other crops exclusive to the state, or imports them from other countries. Bottles of Napa and Sonoma wine sell for millions at auction.

San Francisco would be okay for a while, but eventually the water supply would get low and the city would need to start conserving. It would start with the relatively easy stuff: more water recycling, trading with other municipalities, changing the water pricing structure. Eventually, easy and cheap solutions would run out; the city would start looking elsewhere for water. A pipeline from the damp Pacific Northwest, maybe, or ocean water made usable by expensive desalination plants dotting the coast. The whole myth of California as the abundant, blooming Eden, the "breadbasket of the nation," would dry up and blow away.

And everyone will look back with amazement to the years they flushed their toilets with some of the most pristine water in the world.

The Probably- More-Likely Scenario

As dumb and shortsighted as modern civilization can seem sometimes, it's not suicidal. The drought has ensured that policymakers and experts are aware of the fact that water management will be one of the biggest issues of the 21st century. Smart water management is a question of figuring out where we need the resources and then allocating them, says Jay Famiglietti, director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling and an Earth System Science professor at UC Irvine.

Society mostly uses water to grow food, sustain the environment, provide for human use, and produce energy. So we all need to decide what's the most important for us, he says, and make hard choices if we can't do everything. He and others like to talk about the example set by Australia, which recently went through a decade-long drought and had to completely reassess its water use. Other societies have either faced water crisis and worked to solve it (like Israel) or are on the brink of one (like Las Vegas). There are lessons in both.

One thing that's clear is that voluntary conservation only goes so far — much of the change will need to come from policy. Experts stress the importance of groundwater regulation, to make sure that the natural aquifers underneath California don't irrevocably dry up. (Unlike many of its Western siblings, the state has no regulations for how many straws can be drawing from these sources, and how much they can take out.) Then there's treated wastewater, proven to be safe and purer in some cases than generic bottled water, but the mental barriers might be insurmountable. It can still be used to flush the toilet. And then there are economic incentives and regulations for things like landscaping with native plants instead of green laws — commonsense changes that can be made after accepting the reality that California is more desert than not.

On a more traditional level, Governor Brown recently proposed a controversial and ambitious $25 billion plan for an engineering project on a par with those of the 20th century. He wants to build two tunnels underneath the failing wetlands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to support the state's water needs while preserving the ecosystem there. It's not popular with area farmers, who are worried about the encroachment of the San Francisco Bay's salty waters onto their fields, or many in Southern California, who are worried that it wouldn't generate as much water for its use. But then, all of California's water history has been a question of tough choices and compromises.

The drought has put some smaller conservation methods out of reach for some farmers. Nigel Walker at Eatwell Farms knows what he wants to do to conserve: Install a more precise timed sprinkler system so he can irrigate his crops at night, when there's less evaporation. He estimates that it will cost $2,000 an acre for his farm's 102 acres, and it will take five, maybe 10 years to get the capital together to make such an investment.

"If I can't grow the crops because there's no water than I can't get the money to buy things that will save water," he says. This paradox is common to farmers across the state.

The rains will most likely come back, maybe even this season. (National Weather Service officials refer to a deluge of rain at the tail-end of the rainy season as a "miracle March.") In San Francisco, the threat of myopia is high. The city needs to look beyond its bubble and think beyond the next trip to the supermarket, as the people who live and work and grow food outside of it already do.

"[Farmers] are the conduit, the connectors, from the pastures to the plate. This is a very important time for people to really assess where their purchase dollars are going," says David Evans of Marin Sun Farms, the grass-fed beef company. "The price of meat is going up. Look what you're influencing with your purchase, look for companies that have the values that you believe in. If you support people who are thinking that way, you will be supporting those missions and the future productivity of our landscape."

As the rains fall and the reservoirs fill up and the pastures become green again, we'll all gradually forget this dry season, even the ones who have been the most impacted by it; that's human nature. Those in the water industry are fond of a quote from John Steinbeck, no stranger to the whims of nature during his childhood in the Salinas Valley: "And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way."

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.


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