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

Wednesday, Mar 5 2014
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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.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
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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