AnalysisClimate Crisis

Despite record rainfall, California drought is far from over

Tina Landis is the author of the book Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism.

You may get the impression from corporate media headlines that the decades-long megadrought in California is over. Unfortunately those headlines are misleading. 

It’s important to note that weather is different from climate. Weather is what occurs in the short term, with year-to-year variations in precipitation. Climate is the atmospheric conditions over a long period of time, and all models show a trajectory to an increasingly hotter, drier climate — if we continue with business as usual. 

To overcome the drought, we would need many years of record rainfall and a transformation of water and land management practices. Despite record-breaking rainfall and snowfall in California since December, this has limited benefits. When precipitation comes as atmospheric rivers, and when snowpack melts too quickly, as is the tendency in recent years, the water washes quickly into the rivers and then the oceans, leaving little chance for seepage into the soil and replenishment of groundwater. 

The California reservoirs — many of which are above average levels — should be viewed as a bandaid that will get us through this year’s dry season, but do little to address the long term underlying crisis. Also, the much larger reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell along the Colorado River basin are still at record low levels. Seven states share the water from these reservoirs, with around half going to California. 

We cannot overcome the drought without addressing demand. The drought not only stems from the warming atmosphere, but also from overuse of water resources. Despite being told in dry times to take shorter showers and limit watering of gardens and lawns, the true culprit of water depletion is industrial agriculture and the farming of crops unsuitable for the western climate. This overconsumption has resulted in thousands of dry wells in San Joaquin Valley, where low-income, immigrant communities have been forced to rely on bottled water for all their needs, while big agribusiness has the capacity to drill deeper and deeper wells to irrigate fields. 

Tien Tran, a policy advocate with Community Water Center summed it up well, saying, “There’s so much political pressure to maintain the status quo, and to continue pumping, because it’s tied up with economic profits. And the end result is community members who can’t rely on their wells for safe water.” 

How did we get here?

For over a century, unsustainable agricultural practices throughout the western states have depleted the underground aquifers, along with the diversion of Colorado River waters to thirsty crops and cattle. But the trajectory toward a drying landscape began with earlier colonization of the West, which was driven by the search for profits. Many who migrated here sought beaver pelts and bison hides, timber, and land for cattle ranching and to grow cash crops. They massacred bison by the tens of millions to cut off the food source from Native populations in the Great Plains. Cattle ranchers destroyed prairie dog populations under the false assumption that their cattle would break legs by stepping into their burrows. 

But how did this dry the landscape and begin the trajectory toward the megadrought? 

First, Native populations were stewards of the land and had a reciprocal role with other species, helping to create an abundant and balanced ecosystem and understanding long term ecological sustainability as key to their survival. When Native peoples were massacred or displaced from their land, that reciprocal relationship with the natural world was broken and replaced with capitalist exploitation and extraction of “natural capital” for profits. The new settlers not only lacked the ancestral ecological knowledge of the people who lived on this land for millenia, but were largely looking to “get rich quick” off the land, rather than thinking about the well being of the next seven generations to come. 

Secondly, the species that were killed nearly to extinction — such as bison, beaver, prairie dogs and wolves — were all key to how water cycles through the landscape. Bison dig wallows with their hooves creating shallow ponds that collect water, which can then slowly seep into the aquifer and provide water for surrounding vegetation and other species. Prairie dogs played a similar role in the grassland ecosystem, with their underground tunnel systems channeling waters deep into the earth when rains fell. Beavers, known for their superior hydrological engineering skills, can change a dry landscape into an abundant green waterlogged oasis within months, supporting biodiversity and also recharging underground waters. And wolves, when slaughtered to near extinction by cattle ranchers, created an explosion of herbivores, such as deer and elk, which denuded the landscape of vegetation without predators to keep their numbers in check, adding to the drying of the landscape. 

Biodiversity is a key climate stabilizer. Slaughtering keystone species like these to near extinction has major ecological impacts that ripple out through the ecosystem. 

Thirdly, grazing of cattle, which unlike bison are not native to North America, also decimated vegetation throughout the West through unsustainable grazing practices and water consumption. 

And lastly, growing of thirsty, non-native monocrops like nut trees, rice, corn, alfalfa and cotton that require intense irrigation added to aquifer depletion.

This brings us back to the problem we face today, which cannot be overcome without addressing industrial agriculture and livestock production, which consumes 80 percent of the water resources of California and other western states. 

We must shift to regenerative, agroecological methods for growing food and raising livestock. Growing native, drought-resistant crops along with cover crops and trees using agroecology methods would greatly or completely eliminate the need for irrigation. And any irrigation needed would be implemented sustainably, such as through drip irrigation methods rather than sprinkler systems where much water evaporates before reaching plant roots.

One pound of beef requires over 1,800 gallons of water to produce! Livestock production and grazing in the West must also be greatly curtailed to reduce water needs and allow for vegetation to rebound. 

Capturing rains when they come

Another failure of our current system is how water is channeled away when it falls. In the recent deluge that was experienced in California, outflow mechanisms on dams had to be opened to keep from breaching. And in the majority of cases, water reaching storm drains was directed into the oceans, wasting precious freshwater. 

Considering the increasing unpredictability of rainfall that is creating cycles of flooding and drought, it is crucial that we restore slow water systems so that rains and melting snow can infiltrate the ground and recharge the aquifers so it is available to sustain life during dry times. 

This means opening up the floodplains, restoring freshwater wetland areas and creating a decentralized water retention landscape throughout the West, which would lead to the revegetation of the land, rehydration of the soil, increased biodiversity and cooler air temperatures. And humans don’t need to do all the work! Reintroducing beaver populations, which spanned nearly every corner of North America pre-colonization, would aid in this rehydration, along with bison, prairie dogs and wolves. Reintroduction of these species is happening already on a small scale, particularly by Native tribes, but must be greatly expanded to have the impact needed. 

Gray hydrological infrastructure — concrete dams, levees, irrigation channels — all have negative impacts on ecological systems by channeling water away quickly and blocking its absorption throughout the landscape. Gray infrastructure also impedes nutrient cycling throughout the landscape that surrounds river systems, harms aquatic life and creates more devastating floods and droughts downstream. And eventually dams and levees break as we have seen with several levees failing during the recent months in California. Instead, we need green infrastructure, like bioswales and rain gardens in urban areas and porous pavement that allows water to infiltrate into the soil, as well as other mechanisms to capture stormwater. 

While some small actions are being taken to address aquifer depletion, much more could  and must be done. Some land managers and farmers have dug aquifer recharge basins, but considering that the San Joaquin Valley aquifer is “critically overdrafted,” these measures barely make a dent, potentially recovering only three to eight percent of overdraft. 

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Act, passed in 2014, lacks a clear plan of action to achieve its goals. It requires local agencies to halt long term groundwater depletion and achieve sustainability, but the deadlines are nearly 20 years away! Meanwhile, overdrafting of groundwater basins continues. 

Why isn’t more being done?

So why isn’t more happening, particularly in a wealthy state like California? The answer to that question goes back to how the problem began: capitalism. 

The solutions won’t be profitable to implement and the government lacks any real control over big agribusiness. To open floodplains and restore wetlands, we will need to move some vulnerable populations to higher ground and allow low-lying agricultural fields to flood at least part of the year. To shift to agroecological methods for food production, we need to end the destructive practices of big agribusiness and retrain farmers in new methods for free to small farmers to enable an equitable and rapid shift. We need to greatly reduce livestock numbers and retrain cattle ranchers in regenerative grazing methods, or new occupations, again for free. We need to reforest and revegetate landscapes with diverse native species and implement traditional controlled burns to keep wildfire fuel from building up. Native peoples’ practices of burning to prevent large-scale fires was outlawed by the Forestry Service so trees could be extracted for profitable timber production, rather than maintaining a healthy forest ecosystem. 

But the capitalists will say this is all impractical. That it’s too costly to implement. But considering the trajectory toward climate catastrophe that we face, shouldn’t we use all the resources at our disposal to rapidly change course? The problem is that under capitalism the control of these resources resides in the hands of a small group of the super rich whose primary focus is furthering their self-enrichment. 

Under socialism, where the resources of society and human ingenuity and labor can all be put towards healing our relationship with the planet, overcoming the crisis of floods and drought is very much attainable. Under socialism, workers could be trained for free in all these methods to restore how water cycles through the landscape, which would counter the climate impacts that we are facing, and if implemented globally, could reverse the climate crisis. 

Photo: Folsom Lake, California Drought. Credit: Alan Grinberg. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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