Text of Speech I gave this afternoon in Sacramento.
Water is life. We know this but we usually have more pressing concerns to contemplate, and besides, our civilization has, in this country, and for about ½ the world’s population, built systems to deliver it to our home, where we can turn it on at a moment. Let’s take a moment now to look at your neighbors, and the trees and plants around us.
The water in your body has likely, during the millions of years of existence of life on this planet, shared space with the water in your neighbor’s body, these plants, and the animals around us. It shared those spaces in a river, a cloud, or the ocean. Because water is on the move, it flows.
It is the medium by which our blood carries nutrients from our food; by which plants turn sunlight into fruit and vegetables; by which, through evaporation and condensation, water is moved from ocean to mountain top recreating the rivers which flow to the sea. It is the means by which energy is stored in the atmosphere, and as we disrupt the climate with our release of carbon from fossil fuels, we can see the chaos we are beginning to inflict on the weather.
If you read mainstream media about the drought, you will often see the phrase, “which may be related to climate change,” but this is not consistent with the facts we know. In 2011, the CA Department of Water Resources released a study showing that the rate of snowmelt from the Sierras has declined over the past hundred years, which coincides with a slight increase in atmospheric temperatures and with the enormous growth in industrial civilization which came here in pursuit of gold and has stayed.
Historic and archeological evidence shows us that California’s hydrological cycle used to be dominated by snows in the mountains in winter and snowmelt in the spring and summer, filling the central valley with water in lakes and wetlands which would last for months, long into the summer. Since 2000, records show us that the snow melt has been starting and finishing earlier and earlier, and in the past three years the peak has come and gone before the end of April
In April this year, scientists from universities around California gathered in this building behind me to share their studies that showed that this is the worst drought recorded in California, precisely because of its relation to climate change. Increases in temperature of even a few degrees increase the evaporation rates, increase transpiration by plants, dry out the soils and thus make droughts worse moving forward into a dryer future.
And we are likely to have a dryer future. This year’s changes in weather were related to the jet steam, and the same fluctuations which created a polar vortex in the eastern US, created the ridiculously resilient ridge of high pressure which blocked winter storms from reaching the Sierras. As the arctic ice continues to melt more and more each year, we can expect further disruption to the jet stream.
For the first time recorded, more than 80% of California is in extreme or exceptional drought.
Seventeen towns in California were notified by the State Water Resources Control Board that their water supplies were so low that they would have to reduce all use to meeting only basic human needs. Porterville California has begun trucking in water.
Billions of dollars in agriculture are projected to be lost, hundreds of thousands of acres are fallowed, and thousands of people have lost the jobs which their families depend upon.
And because our civilization continues to release megatons of carbon into the atmosphere, we need to get used to this as the future – more droughts, more weather challenges, a dryer, hotter and more stormy California.
What can we do about this?
First, the legislature needs to fix our broken water rights system. We still manage water by prior appropriation, the doctrine of the playground: I got here first, it is mine. A study from UC Davis recently pointed out that under past decisions, the State has issued more rights for water than there is water in the rivers in most years. It may be difficult, it will certainly be cause for lawsuits, but we cannot move forward into a more chaotic future with this system.
The legislature recently took baby steps to manage our groundwater resources. We are the last state in the union to do so. But the new rules allow local districts 5 years to get pumping under control. Many of them will do a good job, but for other aquifers the wild west attitude of “there it is, take it,” will go on for the next 5 years leading to more overpumping, ground subsidence and permanent loss of resources.
We need a new system of water management which recognizes our connectedness, which adapts to our needs for food and human survival, and protects the environment upon which we depend and are a part of. With less water in future years, this will mean prioritizing food crops over luxuries, pricing water to discourage waste, and changing our urban landscape to reflect the biome we live in, not the English lawn.
This will not happen overnight, and we ourselves need to develop new habits. More than ½ of Sac Metro area is paved or under roofs. For every inch of rain, more than 3 billion gallons rush down our gutters into the streets, picking up pollutants and carrying them to the delta. That water used to percolate into the land, helping to produce one of the healthiest ecosystems on the planet.
We need to replenish and restore our soils. This is something each of us can do, by tearing out our lawns, reshaping our landscape to capture rain, and using the graywater from our laundry to grow a little of the food we need to survive.
For every lb of food we grow ourselves, that is a lb that does not need groundwater, does not get put on a truck, and reduces the carbon from fossil fuels burned, and leaves that carbon in the ground.
Drought is a challenge, and as we have seen from the King fire, it is dangerous too. But it is also an opportunity, as Ben Franklin said, “You never know the value of water until the well runs dry.”
Drought has our attention, and it has the governor’s attention. Let’s use this opportunity to change our laws and our habits and reduce our carbon footprint.