The persistent drought in California has been assumed by some to be further evidence of climate change.
It is spurious to conclude the current drought is being driven by climate change, especially in view of the long history of dry weather patterns, some lasting decades or even hundreds of years. I dare say that politics is behind the climate change/drought connection. It makes about as much sense as saying the recent harsh winters in the east are the harbinger of a new ice age.
There is a well-known saying: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Paraphrasing that: if there is little or no rain for a long time and few people are around, is there a drought?
It would depend on what you mean by a “few people” and a “long time.”
The Anasazi thrived in the desert southwest until a megadrought took hold in 1275. But they had survived earlier droughts, so why would they abandon their mesa villages in the wake of that one?
Archaeologists specializing in the Ancient Puebloans theorize that people had become more dependent on each other and on agriculture, in particular – more so than in previous periods of prolonged droughts – so when crops started to wither, so did their societies. You might say it was the 13th century’s version of the Dust Bowl migration.
The parallel to today’s California is sobering.
The state’s population exploded in the 20th century and agriculture’s role in the economy grew with it. Although we are not as vulnerable as the Anasazi due to technology and distribution systems that allow vital goods to flow into our homes, our quality of life is heavily dependent on water, of which agriculture consumes 80%.
A recent article in the New York Times questioned whether the Golden Sate could continue to sustain a growing population in view of the variability of the water supply.
The Times was right about questioning sustainability, but the problem isn’t so much California’s population growth. Instead, it is the world’s uncontrolled population explosion that is the root cause of our current water crisis. California is the largest single breadbasket on the planet. The demand for farm products from our irrigated fields has grown steadily. International agricultural exports were valued at $6.5 billion in 2001 and increased to $21.2 billion by 2013.
Will the farm output keep pace with growing populations in China and India?
Can other regions step up and supplement California’s food production?
Since agriculture represents only 2% of the state’s economy, a decrease in output will not be disastrous for Californians as a whole. Food prices would go up, other factors notwithstanding, but the implications could adversely affect other parts of the world. And that’s the last thing we need in this era of international chaos.
More efficient methods of irrigation must be developed, and consideration given to shifting away from certain water-hungry crops. Transitioning crops can be costly in the short-run for farmers, so the state must be prepared to offer subsidies to that effect.
Even in prolonged droughts, there are years where rainfall will be unusually heavy. We must be in a position to take full advantage of them. Water reclamation and increasing water storage have to take priority over pet projects such as high-speed rail.
Unlike the Anasazi, we have the technology to adapt. Whether our elected officials will have the wisdom to establish sensible priorities is another matter.