subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

The Great Drought: A personal reflection



In a few days—April 1, to be exact–California water officials will officially measure the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and I’m predicting the result is going to shock the nation.

If you don’t live here, and especially if you live in the East, where it’s been so cold this winter, you can’t imagine what our “winter” has been like. Except for about ten cold days around Christmas, it’s been Spring-like ever since, well, last Spring. In fact, my local T.V. weatherman recently said, “It’s been Spring-like for the last three years.”

It’s been warm. Flowers bloom all year. Tree fruits, like apricots, are as ripe now, as I write these words, as they normally are in June. Butterflies are everywhere. I haven’t seen any bees yet, but that may be because they’re dying off. Reservoirs are almost empty; ski resorts are bare of snow; groundwater is almost empty in many parts of the state, and rivers and streams already are turning into arroyos secos. The hillsides here in the Bay Area are still green, thanks to some pretty good rains we had in December, but I would imagine they’ll be gold by mid-April.

This Drought Monitor map shows the extent of the drought, which extends throughout western Nevada and southeastern Oregon, on up into western Washington State.


The news is reporting that people are seriously thinking about alternatives to our normal water supply systems, which are ground water and Sierra runoff. There’s renewed interest in desalinizing the Pacific waters. There have been articles about towing icebergs down from Alaska and parking them outside the Golden Gate. And, of course, everybody expects that, sometime soon, Governor Brown will announce the severest water-use restrictions in the state’s history. About time: down in the desert areas of Southern California and Palm Springs, they still have vast lawns of green grass growing on golf courses and private estates. That has got to stop. When I first moved to California, in 1978, at the tail-end of that drought, the message had been given to all the state’s residents concerning toilet flushing: “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow,” the saying went. I think we’re going to have to resurrect that rule.

What this means for grape growers is unclear. Last year, in our third year of drought, there were rumblings of concern, but no panic. Yet you still heard growers saying, “If 2014-2015 is dry, we’re in big trouble.” Well, 2014-2015 is dry.

It could still rain. The truly dry season doesn’t really kick in until late May or June. But nobody is expecting much of anything. The long-range forecast is completely dry, warm and sunny, as it’s been all year. We’ve been averaging 8-10 degrees above normal for our daytime high temperatures for months. I’d love to hear from grape growers and winemakers what your expectations are. How are you dealing with the drought?

  1. redmond barry says:

    I understand that 80% of Cali water use is for agriculture, so un-soaking the rich and the golfers won’t have that much of an impact. It’s going to be really hard.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Recapping some earlier comments . . .

    From “Turning Water Back Into Wine,” San Francisco Chronicle “Food & Wine” Section, October 2, 2011, page unknown:

    On average, 6 gallons of waste water is created for every gallon of wine.

    From “Yet Another ‘Footprint’ to Worry About: Water,” The Wall Street Journal “Main News” Section, February 17, 2009, Page A11:

    It takes roughly 20 gallons of water to make a pint of beer.

    A cup of coffee takes roughly 35 gallons.

    A typical hamburger takes 630 gallons of water to produce — more than three times the amount the average American uses every day for drinking, bathing, washing dishes and flushing toilets. The bulk is used to grow grain for cattle feed.

    As high as 132 gallons of water per 2-liter bottle of soda if you add the water used to grow ingredients such as sugar cane . . .

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Also see . . .


    From “California Has About One Year of Water Left. Will You Ration Now?,” Los Angeles Times “Op-Ed” Section, March 13, 2015, page unknown.



    From “No, California Won’t Run Out of Water in a Year,” Los Angeles Times, “California” Section, March March 20, 2015, page unknown.


  4. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (April 1, 2015, Page A1ff):

    “[Gov.] Brown Orders California’s First Mandatory Water Restrictions”


    Link to related infographic:

    Times Staff Reporters

    “. . . Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday ordered cities and towns across California to cut water use by 25% as part of a sweeping set of mandatory drought restrictions, the first in state history.

    “The directive comes more than a year after Brown asked for a 20% voluntary cut in water use that most parts of the state have failed to attain, even as one of the most severe modern droughts drags into a fourth year. It also came on the day that water officials measured the lowest April 1 snowpack in more than 60 years of record-keeping in the Sierra Nevada.”

    NO APRIL FOOLIN’ . . .

  5. Bob Henry says:

    The Los Angeles Times ran this terrific infographic:

    “It Took 116 Gallons of Water to Produce This Meal”


    See this alternate headline: “How much water is used to produce your food?”

    Caveat: You “may” have to pay them 99 cents to view it.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    A West Coast Pacific Ocean phenomenon that might portend a break in the drought?

    From the front page of today’s Los Angeles Times:

    “Wedge of Warm Seawater Known as ‘The Blob’ Blamed for Marine Havoc”



    “. . . some [climate science and oceanography] experts have argued that this 500-mile-wide, 300-foot-deep wedge of warm seawater may in fact signal an epic cyclical change in the Pacific Ocean — a change that could possibly bring soaking rains to Southern California this winter but also accelerate the rise in global temperatures.

    . . .

    “At the center of this debate is a poorly understood pattern of wind, ocean current and temperature variations that some scientists call the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO.

    “For decades at a time, researchers say, the Pacific Ocean can linger in either a warm or cold phase, switching between the two suddenly and unexpectedly. Each phase exerts unique and far-reaching effects on sea life and global climate, they argue, mirroring the warm and cool tropical cycles known as El Niño and La Niña, but over a longer period of time.”

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “California” Section
    (May 2, 2015, Page B2):

    “Sierra: High and Very, Very Dry;
    Officials call off the May 1 snowpack tally because there is nothing to measure.”
    [Drought Watch series]


    By Matt Stevens
    Times Staff Reporter

    State water officials had planned to make the trek back to the Sierra Nevada to conduct their snowpack measurement Friday.

    But Thursday they announced they wouldn’t bother. For the second consecutive month, there won’t be any snow to measure.

    “This is just another piece of information in a series of increasingly dismal findings,” said Department of Water Resources spokesman Doug Carlson. “It nails down that the drought is severe — maybe as severe as any in our history.”

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Los Angeles Times infographic
    (April 7, 2015):

    “587 Gallons of Water Were Used to Make This Plate [of Food]”



    (Aside: data of U.S. averages for production from the Water Footprint Network, a Dutch nonprofit research group.)

  9. Bob Henry says:


    The headline of the above cited Times water consumption interactive exhibit changes depending on the plate of food being displayed.

  10. Bill Haydon says:

    I heard an author on Teri Gross detail how California farmers, rather than slow down one bit, are now pumping the last bit of groundwater up so quickly that they are collapsing the San Joaquin Valley’s aquafer with ground consequently sinking several feet. This is not a natural disaster. This is a man made problem created over decades by California’s conspicuous irresponsibility, and you will need to solve it. The country looks at how unserious you are by your responses. You come up with crazy ideas to steal other regions’ water, yet all the while, the golf courses still get watered, the clouted up farmers and international bottled water companies are still making their profits. NO, you can’t siphon off the Columbia River. NO, you can’t drain the Great Lakes. You’re going to have to figure your way out of this, or you could perhaps channel the ghost of Sam Kinnison and, MOVE TO WHERE THE WATER IS.

  11. Bob Henry says:

    From the front page of yesterday’s Los Angeles Times:

    “Amid Drought, the West Is No place for a Lawn, as Nevada Has Learned”


    Summary: Across the West, a chronic water shortage may yield what was once unthinkable: The American lawn, that domestic decoration greening the nation’s suburban tracts, could become an ornament of the past, at least this side of the Rockies.

    The average rainfall in New York City is about 50 inches a year. In Los Angeles, 15 inches. In Las Vegas, less than 5 inches.

    A single square foot of lawn requires 55 gallons of water each year.

    Las Vegas officials say they have removed nearly 4,000 acres of grass (173 million square feet — nearly 3,000 football fields), with plans to rip up 3,000 more.

    In Los Angeles, officials want to take out 25 million square feet of grass by year’s end.

    California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered that California rip up 50 million square feet of lawns to conserve water amid the West’s deadening drought.

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpts from the front page of today’s Los Angeles Times:

    “From Oil Fields to Farm Fields;
    Growers plagued by drought are using wastewater”


    Here in California’s thirsty farm belt, where pumpjacks nod amid neat rows of crops, it’s a proposition that seems to make sense: using treated oil field wastewater to irrigate crops.

    Oil giant Chevron recycles 21 million gallons of that water each day and sells it to farmers who use it on about 45,000 acres of crops, about 10% of Kern County’s farmland.

    State and local officials praise the 2-decade-old program as a national model for coping with the region’s water shortages. As California’s four-year drought lingers and authorities scramble to conserve every drop, agricultural officials have said that more companies are seeking permits to begin similar programs. The heightened interest in recycling oil field wastewater has raised concern over the adequacy of safety measures in place to prevent contamination from toxic oil production chemicals.

    Until now, government authorities have only required limited testing of recycled irrigation water, checking for naturally occurring toxins such as salts and arsenic, using decades-old monitoring standards. They haven’t screened for the range of chemicals used in modern oil production.

    In the Kern County program, Chevron’s leftover water is mixed with walnut shells, a process the company says extracts excess oil. The water then flows to a series of treatment ponds. The treated water is launched into an eight-mile canal to the Cawelo Water District, where it is sometimes further diluted with fresh water. The water supplies 90 Kern County farmers with about half their annual irrigation water.

    No one knows whether nuts, citrus or other crops grown with the recycled oil field water have been contaminated. Farmers may test crops for pests or disease, but they don’t check for water-borne chemicals. Instead, they rely on oversight by state and local water authorities. But experts say that testing of both the water and the produce should be expanded.

    Last month, the Central Valley water authority, which regulates the water recycling program, notified all oil producers of new, broader testing requirements and ordered the companies to begin checking for chemicals covered under California’s new fracking disclosure regulations. The law, which legislators approved last year, requires oil companies to tell the state which chemicals they use in oil-extraction processes. The water authority gave producers until June 15 to report their results.

    Chevron and the Cawelo Water District say that the water is safe for use on crops, citing the fact that they are complying with testing requirements under the wastewater discharge permit issued by the Central Valley water authority.

  13. Nanoo Visitor says:

    For perspective, much larger-scale drought from 1276-1299:

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts