California reaping what it sowed

the California drought

There are a lot of “funny” cartoons out there about the California drought. But there’s nothing funny about it. Anyone who has lived very long on the Great Plains has experienced drought. Certainly it was one of my earliest experiences in Oklahoma as we choked in some of the last dust storms of the Dust Bowl era.

The Dust Bowl was a man-made disaster and to a great extent, so is the current situation in California. Yes, climate change is part of the problem and adequate rain and snow in the right places would end the drought. Temporarily.

However, the real underlying problem is overuse of finite resources — too much development and sprawl in areas with too little water. The handwriting has been on the wall for a long time — and ignored for just as long. As early as the 1960s, the mighty Colorado River, the river that carved the Grand Canyon, stopped reaching the ocean. Imagine, a river that has existed for millions of years and carved a canyon through solid rock now usually slows to a trickle and disappears somewhere in the sands of our southwestern deserts.

Why? Because developers in America’s desert Southwest keep taking more and more water from it and other sources to supply ever-expanding suburbs with lush lawns, verdant golf courses, and shimmering blue swimming pools while Big Agriculture voraciously plants and waters more and more acres of crops in what is normally, naturally a bone-dry desert.

Several days ago the New York Times ran a story about the drought, “California Growth Tests History of Endless Growth,” that includes dramatic photos like the one below. I urge you to read it, or at least take a long, thoughtful look at the accompanying photographs. There was one oversight, I thought: At least one of the photos should have shown acres of glistening green crops showered by giant sprinklers and bordered by lifeless desert sand.

A housing development in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs. (Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times)
A housing development in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs. (Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times)



29 thoughts on “California reaping what it sowed

  1. I am well aware of your background and why you may feel the way you do.

    My great grandfather came to CA from Missouri in the Dust Bowl, settling in Tulare.

    My grandparents (Missouri & Kansas) actually ended up in Idaho instead of California.

    I’m in Fresno.

    However, we are fundamentally a free country, and people generally are free to live where they choose.

    No one had to build in the high desert, or even LA, which gets their water from Owens Valley. But they did.

    The Colorado feeds several states water needs.

    I would suggest that human ingenuity might help this, with more salinization plants.

    I’m not prepared to throw in the towel, and declare large swaths of area off limit, and control who can have what kids, a la China.

    I don’t want to live in the desert or high desert, but others do.

    We aren’t dead yet, at least. LoL.

    We have a bit of rain today, but at 5% of normal, I don’t have much hope for a decent snow pack this year.

    1. I’m not saying people can’t live where they want to. In fact, many must go where the jobs are, and there are a lot of good jobs in Southern California, Phoenix, Tucson, Vegas, etc. But development precedes population. Just as happens along Colorado’s Front Range, the builders buy and develop plots of land, build the houses and amenities, and people move into them. There’s been talk here of limiting what developers can do unless and until they can prove they can provide adequate water. The problem, of course, is that all water comes from the same existing sources — snowpack, rivers, reservoirs, water tables, and wells. And limiting growth is tough when so many people want to move here and so many businesses want to profit from it.

      I focused on the Colorado because it originates in our mountains. It is fed by our snowpack — which is below normal this year. That’s bad for us and everyone downstream. I’ve always thought it a marvel that the little trickle I can step across up in the mountains becomes a river big enough to have carved the Grand Canyon and provide water to so much of the Southwest. And that makes it an even bigger tragedy that things have been so mismanaged that it actually dries up and dies in the desert. Difficult for me to comprehend.

      I agree desalination plants could help. I’m just not sure how much. In any case, it’s obvious we have not been good stewards of the land and permanent solutions must be found. I read one article suggesting a lot of people should move to the upper Midwest, around the Great Lakes — the algae-clogged, fertilizer-polluted Great Lakes. And how many would leave Southern California, for example, to move to Minnesota, Wisconsin, upstate New York? Not gonna happen.

      I’m glad you got some rain. Every little bit helps. As for snow, we’re nearing the end of the season here. Can’t hope for much more this year.

      1. The El Nino just formed, so we may get a bit more rain than anticipated this late in the season.

        I disagree. I think demand to live in an area precedes development. At least on a large scale.

        At a place like Tahoe, people will want to live there for the sheer beauty, and build it.

        I realize it’s a bit of chicken and egg, and “if you build it they will come”, but the demand exists in beautiful places.

        Palm Springs? Because it’s warm year around, For many retirees, ideal.

        Having worked in Bakersfield in insurance adjusting and covering all of Kern County, out to Ridgecrest and the high desert, I’m familar with the population and people that like to live in the desert. Not many places are as glamorous as Palm Springs, so they don’t get that type of buildup.

        Of course many are there in the military as well, and simply end up based where they are assigned.

        A bit of a tale, my Grandpa went from Kansas to Park City, Utah, to Salinas, CA (near Monterey) before settling in Jerome, Idaho.

        His family was well off, though he was the rounder and disinherited. He passed on buying land in Monterey, Park City, Utah, AND Sun Valley, Idaho…

        I agree not many will relocate from CA.

        Farmers are now tearing out decades old orchards here.

        I realize it’s very complicated. But I start with the idea that we’re free, and try to work from there.

        Desalinization plants are being built. The water molecules are on the planet. Not just where we want them at the particular time.

        I am happy to meet you.

        Have you watched Ken Burns documentary on the Dust Bowl? It’s awesome.

        1. Pleasure to meet you too.

          Idaho. Mmm, sounds nice. Parts of it anyway.

          There’s a lot of fresh water locked up in glaciers and the ice caps, if it could be farmed some way. Of course a lot of it is rapidly melting into the ocean.

          Cloud seeding? Been lots of discussion about that on the Great Plains, for decades. And they’re still dry.

          Yes, the Burns documentary is the best, most comprehensive I’ve seen. It’s a must-see for everyone.

          1. Complicating all this is fracking, which I oppose. Here in the San Joaquin Valley we produce more agriculture than anywhere. They frack down near Bakersfield, and part of the south valley have no water table left. We can’t pump in sea water to frack, the ground salts would go way way out of whack…

          2. Fracking here is big and the pressure for more is huge (pro-fracking commercials on TV every day). I’m ardently opposed to it for so many reasons. The water supply is the main thing. They buy and use our fresh water to frack, then pump their polluted water into storage wells, endangering the ground water. Dirt, noise, visual pollution near the wells. And back in Oklahoma now, earthquake swarms. I lived there for more than 50 years and felt only one quake. Now some places have them every day.

          3. Same here, down around Bakersfield. Which is where The Grapes of Wrath was set. It’s big oil, though largely pumped out, so they want to frack to recover what’s left.

            I worked the Coalinga earthquake as a kid actually. My dad was a claims manager, I went with him, held the dummy end of the tape measure, lol.

          4. The quakes alone would keep me from ever moving to Calif. I’ll put up with a lot but I draw the line at the earth moving beneath my feet. Here in Colo. I only have to worry about floods, wildfires, and avalanches.

            I get downright nasty when people start talking about fracking. I don’t care how much money they make or how much gas and oil they produce. We can’t drink their money and we can’t drink their oil.

          5. LoL. Risks are inherent everywhere. The wildlife is coming down to the valley floor now, a neighbors goat was killed by a mountain lion. The sheriff tracked it back up towards the foothills then lost it.

          6. Lots of wildlife here too. All kinds of critters come out of the foothills — bears, elk, mountain lions. I live a bit too far east to run into them. But coyotes are a concern. They attack and kill dogs, sometimes attack people. Like I said, anything but earthquakes …

          7. IMHO, the wildlife is part of the attraction. I’d be traumatized if anything happened to my dog, but I’d never move. It took me most of my life to finally get here. Not leaving now.

          8. Yeah. Joe’s kind of soft. LoL.

            Personally I’m happy to be 4 hours from SF, LA, Sacto, and the beach on the central coast. Yosemite is 2 hours north or so, and the parks in the Sierra’s 2 hours east.

            For all that I don’t have to dig snow!

            That’s a major attraction for me. I did enough as a kid in Idaho.

          9. I shovel very little snow. I worried about the driveway and sidewalk for a few years, till I got an SUV. Now, except with really heavy snowfalls, I just leave it, knowing it will all melt off in two days at most. That gives the city about 24 hours to come looking for me, and I dare them to give a fat old gray-haired grandma a ticket for not shoveling her walk …

        1. I’m talking about more than just zoning laws. There’s been some discussion here, especially around Boulder, of flat-out prohibitions on development. Period. Zero growth. Tough to enact and enforce, though. Money talks.

  2. I have never believed in man-made climate change and never will. This planet is cyclic and will bring forth rain to the southwest when the time arrives. The other day I was once again wondering why the price for creating fresh water from sea water has not come down.

    It is ludicrous that a planet that is 70 or 80 percent water on it’s surface is “running out of fresh water”. Do you suppose the money wasted on warfare as an example, or space exploration could be better spent on refining this purification technology? Even the Salton Sea could be made viable again…

    1. Surely the cost of desalination plants would come down dramatically if we committed to them and built more of them. But the question is whether they can produce enough fresh water to keep up with our increasing demands. One way or another, supply must keep up with demand … or demand must be reduced to match the supply. Especially when droughts occur, as they surely will, again and again.

  3. The picture at the end of your post could be a before and after shot.

    Fifty years ago – Cathedral City before on the right and after on the left.

    Fifty years from now – Cathedral City before on the left and after on the right.

  4. The best book I know on this topic is ‘The Big Thirst’ by Charles Fishman. Read it. Also, as a retired demographer, I know endless growth is not possible, some people just don’t get it. I grew up in the Midwest and South and take your point on the dust bowl. My Dad worked for USDA (Soil Conservation Service, and Forestry too), and spent much time trying to educate farmers on the care and feeding of soil .

    1. The Dust Bowl taught us a lot about good and bad farming techniques. The current situation in California may finally force us to implement what we already know about conservation, development, etc., that we’ve been able to ignore until now.

... and that's my two cents