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CALIFORNIA’S DROUGHT: ROUND 3

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“Let’s face it, it’s over.”

That was the grim prognosis this morning from the T.V. weatherman. He was talking about the 2020-2021 rainy season in California. It’s been dry as a dog’s bone, and warm too. We hit 80 a couple times even here in cool, coastal Oakland.

How dry is it? The normal rainfall in San Francisco for the rainy season (Oct. 1-Sept. 30) is 23.65 inches. This season, we’ve had only 8.72 inches. April has seen no rain at all, and the long-range forecasts predict no rain for the remainder of the month—which is why the weatherman said it’s over. By the time May arrives, we’re entering the Dry Season. So whatever water the State of California is going to need for the next year has already fallen.

And California needs a lot of water, not only for our 40 million people but for agriculture. California supplies 13% of the total cash agricultural receipts in the U.S. It’s the sole producer (or very nearly so) of these crops: almonds, peaches, artichokes, kiwi, pomegranates, olives, dates, pistachios and rice, and in large part accounts for the nation’s greens and other row crops. These commodities not only keep food on American tables, they undergird the California economy. The current drought (which, in retrospect, has to be seen as a continuation of the drought that lasted from 2006 until 2017) threatens the state’s farms, and suggests a revival of the infamous Water Wars that have long plagued the state, as portrayed most dramatically in the movie Chinatown.

Already in the Bay Area, counties are warning residents and farmers to expect strict water controls this summer. For example, Santa Clara County—home to Silicon Valley—asked residents to step up water conservation, and hinted that mandatory water restrictions might become necessary. Last month, the state Department of Water Resources announced severe cutbacks in the amount of water available for the state from Sierra snow melt. The Department released data showing that the percentage of water equivalent in snow this year averages between 29% and 52% of normal, with the driest conditions in the south.

And then there’s the scariest aspect of this water shortage: wildfires. I don’t have to cite statistics. Anyone who has watched the news over the last 5 years knows how devastated California has been by these tremendous conflagrations that wipe out entire communities and destroy human lives. The drought, with its tinder-dry grasslands, can only bring about more and worse fires this year.

When I moved to California in 1978, the state was experiencing one of its worst droughts in history. The first thing I was told, concerning going to the bathroom, was, “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” People back then were told not to wash their cars or water their lawns. We dutifully obeyed; the drought ended, and we got through it none the worse for wear. But now, the drought is back with a vengeance. With the current attitude among large segments of the populace of not trusting or listening to the advice, or even the pleading, of government—an attitude exacerbated by Republicans–I wonder if Californians will rally this summer, as we did 43 years ago.

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