Heavy Rains Ease California Drought

March 9, 2023

Los Angeles Times Editorial Board:

Consider the Great Plains during the 1930s. Now, that was a drought everyone could understand. When the rain stopped in 1930, the soil dried up and blew away. Destitute farmers moved from Oklahoma and adjacent states to the San Joaquin Valley. In 1939, it finally rained again. The drought was broken, the soil recovered, the corn and wheat grew, the U.S. became the breadbasket of the world, and everything was back to normal.

Unfortunately, much of that narrative is myth, and in any case irrelevant to the terrain and hydrology of California in an era of heat waves, longer summers and urban living.

Drought was never the right word to apply to this state’s dry streaks. Californians need a term that describes not just how much water is coming in, but how much we use every day and how much we save for later. We need a word or phrase that suggests how long we can stand in the shower, whether farmers can keep growing pistachios and if the forests and cities will once again burn when summer comes.

Instead of drought, we should talk about going into water debt, and refer to wet periods as winning the water lottery.

We also continue to overdraw from some of our biggest water bank accounts, the aquifers under the San Joaquin Valley. To recharge those, we’d need to invest much more land and money into restoring floodplains to allow winter stormwater to settle and percolate into the soil over time, as it did until the early 20th century at formerly sprawling but now-vanished Tulare Lake and Buena Vista Lake. Meanwhile, even some empty aquifers are disappearing, as dried-out subterranean layers compact and lose their ability to hold moisture. It’s as if we won the lottery, gave up our job, blew through our winnings, spent all our savings and then burned down the bank.

This is not a uniquely California story. At the end of the Dust Bowl drought, the rains returned, but farmers wanted more and began pumping from the Ogallala Aquifer, a Great-Lake-sized underground water source created over thousands of years. As in the San Joaquin Valley, over-pumping is depleting Great Plains groundwater at a shocking rate, and without better stewardship it could all be gone by the end of this century. 

We don’t tend to call that kind of depletion a drought. But the U.S. is building up a national water debt that can never be managed the way we handle our more traditional debt. We can always print more money, but we can’t print more water. We have to do a better job of managing what we’ve got.


One Response to “Heavy Rains Ease California Drought”

  1. gmrmt Says:

    The phrase you’ll hear the most this century; “When things get back to normal…”

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