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The California Drought: Water and Power
February 16, 2014 8:13 AM   Subscribe

"During the medieval period, there was over a century of drought in the Southwest and California. The past repeats itself." After three consecutive years of below-normal rainfall, California faces its most severe drought emergency in decades. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the deserts of Southern California have been turned into livable spaces only by huge feats of engineering that divert massive amounts of water from other parts of the state and the country. Marc Reisner's 1986 book Cadillac Desert documents the history of acquiring and diverting water to the American Southwest. A four-part documentary based on the book was released in 1997. Part 1: Mulholland's Dream // Part 2: An American Nile // Part 3: The Mercy of Nature // Part 4: Last Oasis
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates (124 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks for this. I've been contemplating a post on the drought, but have avoided it in part because I'm already depressed and terrified.

This is a depressing and terrifying set of photos of CA reservoirs, before-and-after style, with the "after" being...now. In case anyone who isn't feeling depressed and terrified and wants to join me.
posted by rtha at 8:21 AM on February 16 [11 favorites]


Reisner's book is also notable for being absolutely beautifully written prose.

See also Water and Power specifically about Los Angeles. Slightly drier than "Cadillac Desert" but fascinating. More about the politics than the ecology.








pun intended
posted by mzurer at 8:28 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


I'd love to read a treatment of how San Francisco planned and negotiated the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. It's 150+ miles away, it seems sort of incredible that a single city would figure out how to secure water rights and build a pipeline. Apparently it was basically a federal action after the 1906 fire. There's very little fresh water in San Francisco itself and precious little rain even in good years. Couldn't have a city without it.

I used this USGS doohickey to make a graph of Hetch Hetchy storage for five years. The trend is not good.
posted by Nelson at 8:36 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]


Nelson, Imperial San Francisco touches upon that, though I have lent out my copy and I don't recall how in depth. Also a fascinating read, but I'd check your library before purchasing it at hardcover price.
posted by mzurer at 8:45 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


Oh, god - I have been so hoping this miniseries would become available (by hook or by crook) again. The book itself is wonderful (number 61 on Modern Library's top 100 nonfiction books of the 20th century.) My own (recently departed) father was a hydrologist, and introduced me to Mr Reisner's work.
posted by Guy Smiley at 9:12 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


California must pioneer the future of water, which costs money. Desalination must be developed as well as salt-tolerate trees and plants. City reservoirs must be contained in massive tanks to prevent evaporation and loss, perhaps elevated to supply extra electricity during the day after pumping them full at night. Lawns must be banned as extreme waste. Drip irrigation must be subsidized. Fish and wildlife must be saved, as underground wells are charged with meandering creek water anyway.
posted by Brian B. at 9:15 AM on February 16 [16 favorites]


More likely they'll get it from Canada which has an embarrassing banana republic mentality towards its resources.
posted by klanawa at 9:18 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]


Desalination is perfectly practical with nuclear power. Taking shorter showers isn't going to fix our water problem.
posted by Nelson at 9:21 AM on February 16 [4 favorites]


You can't beat the weather, though.
posted by ReeMonster at 9:35 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


Can we just for once let such a thing lie, as a testament to man's hubris? Cali or Vegas I'm not picky w/r/t/ hubris testaments.
posted by angerbot at 9:37 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


'tain't nothing some good old-fashioned prayer won't fix
posted by Renoroc at 9:48 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


Great links, and I will read, being a native Californian.

Even though I hate posters who correct word useage, I find myself leading a losing battle to end the phrase "based off of." It is "based on."

Sorry for the slight derail of an excellent post. It's just my personal issue. Carry on.
posted by cccorlew at 9:51 AM on February 16


No, you're correct. It was an error on my part. If the mods want to fix the OP, I'd appreciate it.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 9:52 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


San Jose Mercury News: Why is there no mandatory water rationing?
posted by univac at 9:53 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


I remember taking a tour of the Hoover Dam a few years ago, and the local tour guide was more than a little pissed at California for taking his state(s)' water away.
posted by Melismata at 9:53 AM on February 16


[Prepositions swapped!]
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:54 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]


Can we just for once let such a thing lie, as a testament to man's hubris? Cali or Vegas I'm not picky w/r/t/ hubris testaments.

Specifically living in homes, perhaps. They could all live in condos and do just fine. It is important to identify water as being wasted, rather than conservation efforts. Fracking currently wastes more water than can be imagined, assuming most energy is wasted (ie, not much effort to conserve).
posted by Brian B. at 9:55 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


I recommend listening to the very entertaining 1941 radio series The Romance of the Ranchos. It details the history of Southern California, and of course water is one of the most common themes. There is one episode entitled Water Development.

The Romance of the Ranchos!

Los Angeles 1836 - Citizens fight Mission over water rights.
Owens Valley 1908 - World's greatest aqueduct system started.
Colorado River 1936 - Fight to save mighty dam project.

The Title Insurance and Trust Company of Los Angeles presents "The Romance of the Ranchos," a weekly dramatization of the march of events which founded our Southern California of today. Each week our wandering vaquero Frank Graham returns with another colorful and dramatic true story from the days of the Dons.


I used to listen to this during my daily commute in Los Angeles, it's fascinating, and the presentation is hilarious. It is essentially a half-hour commercial for TICOR, they want you to believe you must buy Title Insurance just in case some remote descendent of a Don of New Spain actually owns your land through a valid royal grant from King Charles III.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:59 AM on February 16 [8 favorites]


Random thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head on this topic for the last few weeks, in no particular order:
* I'm bracing myself for when SF runs out of water and all the techies move to Seattle. Get your real estate speculation done now folks.
* I'm glad I left SF and moved home to Seattle when I did.
* When I lived in SF I couldn't fathom the ballot initiatives that wanted to drain Hetch-Hetchy to restore the valley to it's natural state. I mean, I count myself as a conservationist, but to a certain extent what's done is done and what are we supposed to drink then? Maybe it's part of their plan to make real estate affordable again in SF.
* I can't believe people are still building things in Las Vegas and other parts of the southwest. It just seems really irresponsible as a race for us to do that.
* Can we just for once let such a thing lie, as a testament to man's hubris? You've got my vote.
* This is one of those things where nothing is going to change until something horrible happens, isn't it?
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:01 AM on February 16 [4 favorites]


Taking shorter showers isn't going to fix our water problem.

Actually conservation efforts have been very effective in California - total water use is the same as it was in 1984 when we had half as many people. Los Angeles is at the same level as 1970.
posted by one_bean at 10:01 AM on February 16 [30 favorites]


I was in Palm Springs a couple of months ago. It's an amazing feat of engineering that they can somehow maintain 110 lush green golf courses in a place so dry that I had to carry lip balm, skin lotion and contact lens solution with me everywhere I went.

Seems pretty silly now though.
posted by fungible at 10:01 AM on February 16 [4 favorites]


I feel the same about golf courses in Vegas. It just pains me.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:02 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]


Can we just for once let such a thing lie, as a testament to man's hubris?

I'm curious: what does this mean? Because if by "letting such a thing lie" means "let California die off," I would like to point out that the state has a population of 50 million and an economy that's the 12th largest in the world, and is the largest supplier of food in the U.S. (and the 5th largest in the world). So letting California twist in the wind might sound like a fine way to make a satisfying point about "man's hubris," but it's not only the residents of the state who would pay a terrible price to do so.

That said: I think grass lawns ought to be banned here.
posted by scody at 10:03 AM on February 16 [26 favorites]


38 million, not 50 million.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 10:05 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


38 million, not 50 million.

Well, then! Bring on the dying off!
posted by scody at 10:06 AM on February 16 [16 favorites]


Okay scody: we'll save Cali but can we sacrifice Vegas?
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:06 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]


That said: I think grass lawns ought to be banned here.

There was a short piece on sfgate not too long ago about a HOA in I think Contra Costa county that was fining homeowners for not maintaining their lawns (i.e., for not watering them and making them green). Assholes.
posted by rtha at 10:09 AM on February 16 [9 favorites]


Taking fewer showers isn't really the answer, as urban water use only accounts for 15% of consumption. UC Davis estimates that more than three times that, or about half of all the water consumption goes to agriculture.

Of course whenever there's an attempt to get them to pay more, they trot out the obligatory "family farm" that will be ruined, despite the fact that corporate farms grow the majority of the food.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:11 AM on February 16 [9 favorites]


Too many Jakes have been told, convincingly, to forget about it for too long. It's all Chinatown now.
posted by penduluum at 10:13 AM on February 16 [12 favorites]


It's always interesting when people hit the hard edges of compromise. At some point there physically isn't enough water for households and industry and farming (plus hydropower, recreation, and wildlife), and that's when the hard negotiations start. I expect soon we will see serious proposals to acquire water from the Columbia or Frazier basins; the treaty water rights insuring reserved flow into Mexico are already being reworked. Water all across the west is over appropriated (meaning more people have legal access to it than there is water available), so all it takes is one dry year to create a crisis, and a sustained drought becomes catastrophic.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:14 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


Actually conservation efforts have been very effective in California

Sure, but most of those savings are from improved farming, no? Somewhere around 77% or 80–85% of California water use is agricultural. About 14% of use is residential. To put it another way; you could stop all residential use of water: no showers, no lawns, import all our drinking water from Fiji and shit on the sidewalk with the dogs. And we'd still not have enough water in a real drought.

"Don't flush more than twice a day" and "save your dishwashing water" are nice feel-good things we can do. They even help a little. But real solutions come from technological improvement in farming techniques. More efficient irrigation, crops that need less water, hell even less wastage in irrigation networks all have way more impact than having urine stinking up your bathroom.

Or we manufacture fresh water from the ocean. That requires a shit-ton of electricity, but nuclear power could provide it. Or we could curtail California's farming, wrecking the economy and making people go hungry.
posted by Nelson at 10:16 AM on February 16 [13 favorites]


Can we just for once let such a thing lie, as a testament to man's hubris? Cali or Vegas I'm not picky w/r/t/ hubris testaments.

Yeah, fuck those people. Oh, wait. I'm one of those people. As are 40+ million others. And half of the country's supply of produce.

I feel the same about golf courses in Vegas. It just pains me.

Many desert golf courses are watered with gray water now. More of that needs to happen with residential and municipal landscaping as well.

They're building a desalinization plant in Carlsbad. People against the idea hated the cost was going to be more expensive than buying from MWD, but in the not too distant time horizon the cost will be cheaper and predictable compared to traditional methods. It is by no means a solution, but it does help close the gaps.

As a Californian (I was a kid during the 70s drought living in far northern California, now I'm in San Diego) I certainly don't want to perish as angerbot gleefully fantasizes. People here are doing a much better job conserving water than in the past. But there is a lot more to do. The thing that will work best to curb water consumption and bring it in with water supply is charging more for it. There's a lot of unmetered water being consumed in California. People will cut back on their water use if their water bill goes up. Of course this will drive prices of anything that uses water like food up as well.
posted by birdherder at 10:17 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]


Thanks for posting those videos, which I can't wait to watch. Too many articles focus on weather and oversimplify or omit the kinds of political and management decisions you learn about in Cadillac Desert. On that note, there are some interesting claims made in this article:

"While the drought has received major national and regional mainstream and alternative media attention, most media outlets have failed to explain how the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources systematically drained northern California reservoirs last summer...while filling Southern California water banks and reservoirs."
posted by salvia at 10:24 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]


*eyes lake michigan, cocks shotgun*
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 10:27 AM on February 16 [8 favorites]


Mmmmmmmmm, delicious Owens Lake water!
posted by carsonb at 10:27 AM on February 16


total water use is the same as it was in 1984 when we had half as many people. Los Angeles is at the same level as 1970.

And this is why further conservation efforts, while needed, aren't going to solve the problem: the easy gains, and plenty of the hard ones, have already been made. Each incremental conservation benefit is going to be harder and return less.

The real crisis isn't going to be in the cities, but in the fields. Most of the water goes to agriculture, in the state's incredibly soil-rich but desert-dry valleys. That's going to do a number on the state economy, and raise food prices considerably across the country.

I wish someone would write a new "Cadillac Desert"; the book is more than 25 years old, and thus worryingly before most of the science of global warming. A more recent book, mostly about Arizona and Nevada, but full of information about Lake Mead, is "A Great Aridness" by William DeBuys. For California history, and how LA got that way, you MUST read Kevin Starr's "Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s" -- and then every other volume of his "Americans and the California Dream" series.

By rights the water of the Colorado belongs to Mexico, but they've had those rights stolen from them. I'm still holding to my prediction of a shooting war (probably between Americans, not with Mexico) over water in the Southwest by 2025 or so.
posted by Fnarf at 10:28 AM on February 16 [9 favorites]


How much saline waste would be produced by a California-sized desalination operation, assuming that would be affordable? I'm all for desalination technology but it might be essential to plan out some safe way to store it all ahead of time.
posted by XMLicious at 10:28 AM on February 16


Many desert golf courses are watered with gray water now. More of that needs to happen with residential and municipal landscaping as well.

This always sounds like the right thing to do, but it mostly just reduces the load on the water treatment plant and distribution system. That's a good thing, but it doesn't do anything for cases where the total water available, treated and untreated, is limited. Agriculture is competing for that same water.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:31 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


If Skunkworks comes through with its truck-sized fission reactors we might see lots of desalination plants popping up all along the coast.

Saline waste will be turned into vaguely fish-flavored Cheetos or something.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:32 AM on February 16 [7 favorites]


If the sub-literate signs along the 5 freeway in the Central Valley have taught us anything, it's that the drought is Boxer & Pelosi's fault.
posted by univac at 10:34 AM on February 16 [10 favorites]


Wetland loss is a huge deal too. The entire central valley used to fill up with water when it rained, forming a vast inland sea for months each year and recharging ground water so that the rivers and creeks flowed at much higher base levels and were more drought resistant. We drained that shit and now a billionty acre feet shoots out into the ocean each year instead.

And as far as farming goes, yes high value farming isn't going away but flood irrigation via open unlinked canals? That's super common and ridiculously wasteful. An acre foot of water is maybe $20 in most water districts.
posted by fshgrl at 10:41 AM on February 16 [6 favorites]


Sure, but most of those savings are from improved farming, no?

Yes, which is why I referred to conservation efforts broadly and only quoted the "taking fewer showers won't help" as shorthand for all of the black and white thinking that degrades conversations about water issues in California whenever they come up. This is one of those actually complicated environmental problems that won't have a single solution. Busting the dams and letting the state wither and die, or starving the salmon in favor of farmers, or forcing people to have old pee in their toilets and brown lawns, or putting a bunch of nuclear plants on top of a major active fault line are not mutually exclusive. The fact that we're having the driest three years in a very, very long time and yet expecting not much more than some mild economic hardship is quite astounding. We don't need the National Guard to storm in with trucks full of Dasani. And it's only thanks to the very hard work the good and smart people of California have put into solving this problem over the past four decades to maintain our historical water use while allowing for the massive population growth that has occurred.

It's really fun to catastrophize, and it's especially fun to catastrophize wicked environmental problems because it's easy to do so. California has been a leader in the United States for 100 years on basically every social, cultural and political front. We can and will continue to solve this problem of water distribution. The solutions will not be entirely satisfying to any one interested party - farmers, anglers, folks in other states and nations, golfers, disciples of Muir or Abbey, suburban dreamers - but we will find them. You can sit on the sidelines and declare that we should just give up on the whole state, or people shouldn't bother with low-flow plumbing, but saying that one or another thing won't work is actually, ironically, the only thing that's not helping us get towards our final goal of a healthy and sustainable state that nourishes the rest of the country.

You want to know the biggest problem for water in California right now that we could do something about? Cannabis grows that suck water out of every stream and rivulet in every remote mountain valley from Inyo to Weott, totally unauthorized. Legalize it and grow it in the San Joaquin, submit it to the same regulations that every other crop in California must follow, and suddenly riparian areas will bloom. There is no ground water left.
posted by one_bean at 10:43 AM on February 16 [18 favorites]


BTW, here's a YouTube playlist for Cadillac Desert, the video linked in the OP. Unforunately it was uploaded in the era when YouTube videos were limited to 10 minutes, so it's 27 pieces. It was a documentary produced by KTEH, the PBS affiliate in San Jose, CA, and had one tiny VHS release. This would be a good time for them to rebroadcast it or put it online.
posted by Nelson at 10:44 AM on February 16 [4 favorites]



Or we manufacture fresh water from the ocean. That requires a shit-ton of electricity, but nuclear power could provide it. Or we could curtail California's farming, wrecking the economy and making people go hungry.


. The way farming is done in California makes it a liability more than an asset, both to California and to the United States.

For all the talk about "family farms," the valleys of California are run by corporations that split the lands among "families" and then get permaleases on the land in order to have huge plantations. That results in regions of Cali getting insanely overspecialized, with individual towns claiming (with good reason) to be the world's main source of this or that crop. Which in turn means the harvest is done by migrants, with all the meth-fueled misery that implies.

American farm policy needs to stop favoring the location of farming in waterless California, and move vegetable and fruit farming to the Mississippi valley where it belongs.

2 generations from now, California will still have a vibrant economy, and people will roll their eyes when they read that the nation tried to turn the place into fruitbasket.
posted by ocschwar at 10:48 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


"While the drought has received major national and regional mainstream and alternative media attention, most media outlets have failed to explain how the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources systematically drained northern California reservoirs last summer...while filling Southern California water banks and reservoirs."

This is dumb. Castaic and Pyramid reservoirs are always full because they're where the water waits short term before it goes into municipal water systems. When these lakes dip it will mean the end is nigh in terms of water coming out of faucets.

Plus, they're a fraction of the size of Shasta, Folsom, etc. Those lakes are for longer term water storage. The fact they are are historic lows is due to the problem there's no replenishment. The USBR didn't drain the lakes to piss off fishermen as the article suggests, but it released water in order to provide agriculture with the water they needed for their crops. A more honest comparison between NorCal and SoCal water would be to compare SoCal's version of Lake Shasta (Lake Mead and Lake Powell, it isn't geographically in SoCal, but it was built for the energy and power needs of SoCal) with Lake Shasta. Both are at low levels because there's been no fucking rain or snow to replenish the reservoirs.
posted by birdherder at 10:48 AM on February 16 [5 favorites]


Part of the reason we waste so much food is because of artificially cheap fruits and vegetables grown in California. Not just artificially cheap water, but labor and transit costs too. What cheap produce out of California is really supporting is not more eating, but more careless and thoughtless waste in distribution, retail sales, and home consumption.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:58 AM on February 16 [4 favorites]


You can watch the water level at Lake Mead here: http://lakemead.water-data.com/

It goes up and down seasonally, of course, but the number to watch is the low. If it drops below 1075 feet, automatic shortage measures go into effect everywhere, and if it goes below 1050 feet, Las Vegas gets cut off -- not by law but by physics, as that's where the intake pipe is. They're building another one, even lower, but it may not be built in time (and doesn't solve the long-term problem). Oh, yeah -- and Hoover Dam gets shut down.

In 2010 the level went below 1082. It's currently 1108, in a high season.
posted by Fnarf at 11:04 AM on February 16 [4 favorites]


Driving through the Central Valley is nuts. I was there two summers ago. Looked like a brown desert pretty much. And a lot of signs that said "Nancy Pelosi, hands off our water!" What water? There was none to be seen.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:05 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


Love Cadillac Desert. One day I got up on my high horse and started explaining to my good friend from LA how unsubstainable Sourhern CA is, hasn't he read Cadillac Desert, etc, etc, etc. His response: You live in Minnesota. The only reason that's possible is because massive amounts of natural resources are dug out of the ground elsewhere so you can heat your house.

Not that any of that makes the excesses of the desert southwest ok, but it was a great reminder of the whole glass houses / stones thing.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 11:05 AM on February 16 [6 favorites]


*eyes lake michigan, cocks shotgun*

Best bring lawyers, instead, bub. That's our water you're aimin' for.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:35 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


If we curtail farming, people aren't going to starve. Like, why don't we just thin out our herd of cows. We've got about 5 million. That will reduce direct water usage (100L per day for a dairy cow!) as well as feed crop usage. Prices for meat and dairy will go up until the drought is over, as they should.

We'll also get the bonus of reduced greenhouse gasses from cow farts.

Of course this is totally reasonable, so it won't happen.
posted by danny the boy at 11:38 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


If we curtail farming, people aren't going to starve. Like, why don't we just thin out our herd of cows. We've got about 5 million...Of course this is totally reasonable, so it won't happen.

That's exactly what's happening.
posted by one_bean at 11:45 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


Scary. Of course, Atlanta and much of the rest of the southeast was facing an equally severe drought until a few months ago when the heavens opened and the reservoirs refilled. West Texas was also in the same boat (probably still is) as far as dried up lakes. After over a year without rain, it finally started raining in Amarillo again sometime last year.

Much needs to be done regarding conservation in the parched West, but catastrophizing it helps nobody.
posted by wierdo at 11:45 AM on February 16


Two more Lake Mead graphs: last 3 years, since 1935.
posted by Nelson at 11:46 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


I don't think it's catastrophizing to acknowledge that what we're doing isn't sustainable, and that one or two wet years here and there aren't going to fix anything in a long-term system of wasteful useage and short-term "it rained so everything's okay now!" thinking.

And it's not just California and the Southwest; it's also, as you pointed out, the Southeast. And the Plains aren't immune either, what with the appalling draw-down on the Oglalla Reservoir, which irrigates the farms that produce a lot of the food that isn't produced in California.
posted by rtha at 12:06 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]




Fracking currently wastes more water than can be imagined, assuming most energy is wasted (ie, not much effort to conserve).

California Drought Emergency Sparks Call To Ban Fracking And Protect Water
posted by homunculus at 12:21 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]


Like, why don't we just thin out our herd of cows. We've got about 5 million...Of course this is totally reasonable, so it won't happen.

To follow one_bean's link, I have an anecdotal report that's exactly the same from a family friend, who is also raising cattle near Paso Robles. He's going to have to drastically thin his herd soon if they don't get lucky or figure something out.

This same source also reports that vineyards seem to be doing better, because they can afford to dig deeper wells and thus more or less take from the water table first.

So, you know, beef will be scarcer, but when water stops flowing from the taps, we'll have something else to drink.

That last part could be lingering regional bitterness from the massive change the wineries have brought to the area over the last two decades, though.
posted by weston at 12:21 PM on February 16


We actually have done a very good job in Tucson with water conservation. We have a low per-capita water use, and you won't find many lawns out here. But the sheer numbers of people out here mean we've outrun what the aquifer can supply and so we get a portion of our water from the Colorado River. (We also have a proposed mine here that would destroy some fantastic scenery and take a chunk of our water.) so we've got a dog in the fight about California's water usage.

Truth be told, though, nothing meaningful is going to happen until things get really bad. We've come close to the point where Glen Canyon Dam would be unable to release water downstream, but there was enough snowmelt to replenish it to the point that they wouldn't have to go that far.

The big question is what will happen when water becomes a problem somewhere? When a major city has problem delivering to houses, when water prices skyrocket, etc. That day is coming sometime. There is simply not enough water to sustain the west. This is why investing in large scale desalinization is such a big deal. It doesn't just affect Arizona, California and Nevada. It affects pretty much every state which has waterways that drain toward the Pacific. Water rights are so complex, and what happens in a city 1000 miles away can affect a river in a farming area. Large scale desalinization changes that. It makes so much more water available. If it gets going on a large enough scale, the entire western US will see the benefits, even if a drop of the seawater never gets more than 50 miles from the coast.
posted by azpenguin at 12:22 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


Drought Prompts Australia to Turn to Desalination Despite Cost

Seems that in Australia the desalination plants remain idle for large amounts of time and are quite expensive, and a political liability.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:22 PM on February 16


Policy is always set during best-case times. Often, sensible policy is amended during best-case times to be unsustainable, which then becomes the new permanent policy.

A weird thing about humans is how we'll just pretend things are normal until things are gone, completely. It's like logging old-growth trees to "preserve jobs". Yeah, you get another two years of jobs, and then the "jobs" are gone forever because the old growth is now gone forever. Those two years in reality helped no one, and we lost something permanently.

I'm so sure anymore there is such a thing as "sustainable development".
posted by maxwelton at 12:27 PM on February 16 [7 favorites]


More likely they'll get it from Canada which has an embarrassing banana republic mentality towards its resources.

Please elucidate.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:30 PM on February 16


rtha: "And it's not just California and the Southwest; it's also, as you pointed out, the Southeast. And the Plains aren't immune either, what with the appalling draw-down on the Oglalla Reservoir, which irrigates the farms that produce a lot of the food that isn't produced in California."

Happily, much of the Ogallalla area could be irrigated with surface water and canals if only we would decide to build a few impoundments. Unlike the Colorado, the Missouri/Mississippi system only rarely runs low thanks to the vast area it drains and the basin not being mostly desert. But yes, we've had some severe droughts the last few years in the middle of the country, which have led to failed corn crops in some states and thinning of cattle herds over the past few years. Beef was stupid cheap there for a couple of months because everyone was sending their cows to slaughter early.

Sadly, we continue to mostly draw on aquifers for agriculture in this part of the country rather than surface water, even in places where surface water is already easily available. Change that, possibly combined with injection into the aquifer during wet years, and the plains would not have a long term water problem at all. It would help if people here would think back to the Dust Bowl and realize that relying on only surface water or only groundwater in this part of the country is just dumb, dumb, dumb.

Unfortunately, we as a society have a really hard time with the idea of saving things for later.
posted by wierdo at 12:35 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]


Seems that in Australia the desalination plants remain idle for large amounts of time and are quite expensive, and a political liability.

Idling desalinization plants is not unusual. Santa Barbara built one for use in emergencies after a drought in the 1980s. If water from other sources is available at a lower price, it sort of makes sense to idle the plant.

The Carslbad Desal plant will be online in 2016 and will run full-time. Although it won't stop the need for importing water from MWD and the Colorado River, it will make San Diego County less reliant. I also hope it will act as a model for future desal plants up the coast.

There's also a desal plant the US government operates in Yuma, AZ. Its mission in life is to desalinate Colorado River water at the US/Mexican border to comply with the water treaty between the two countries. It is not used presently because the saline levels and volume of water at the border is high enough. But if Lake Mead and Lake Powell fall too much, they'll need to fire it up. It won't help with the water problem but with compliance with the treaty.

Speaking of the treaty, after the earthquake in Mexicali, the Mexican government asked the US government to delay the delivery of some of its allocation until the damage to the water infrastructure was repaired.

The whole Colorado River Compact and associated treaty with Mexico is interesting. Like the part where Arizona sent its national guard troops to the river to stop the damn meddling federal government and California from taking their water. Arizona didn't accept its allocation from the compact until the 1960s when it was upheld by the Supreme Court.
posted by birdherder at 1:10 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


...grass lawns... shorter showers... dishwashing water..

I've heard that the biggest domestic-use waste of water is the evaporation from swimming pools.
posted by ceribus peribus at 1:54 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


How much saline waste would be produced by a California-sized desalination operation, assuming that would be affordable? I'm all for desalination technology but it might be essential to plan out some safe way to store it all ahead of time.

Clearly you do not understand how capitalism works.
posted by notreally at 2:14 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]


"During the medieval period, there was over a century of drought in the Southwest and California. The past repeats itself," says Ingram, who is co-author of The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climate Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow. Indeed, Ingram believes the 20th century may have been a wet anomaly.
So typical of National Geographic to publish an article on an interesting subject and yet studiously avoid giving readers real information wherever it can.

Why in the world would they fail to specify the actual dates during the "medieval period" when this horrible drought took place? That would have required ~11 more spaces in the text, but added immeasurably to the context of the article and given the reader a chance to explore the topic a little further independently; for example, I read with the idea in mind that the drought might coincide with part of the medieval warm period, and that if it did I could compare conditions now with what was happening then in terms of such things as volcanic eruptions and sunspot abundances-- and it's hard to avoid concluding that this absence of easily provided information is a delberate choice of the author or the editors.

Consider the section on causes:
What's causing the current drought?

Ingram and other paleoclimatologists have correlated several historic megadroughts with a shift in the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean that occurs every 20 to 30 years—something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The PDO is similar to an El Nino event except it lasts for decades—as its name implies—whereas an El Nino event lasts 6 to 18 months. Cool phases of the PDO result in less precipitation because cooler sea temperatures bump the jet stream north, which in turn pushes off storms that would otherwise provide rain and snow to California. Ingram says entire lakes dried up in California following a cool phase of the PDO several thousand years ago. Warm phases have been linked to numerous storms along the California coast.

"We have been in a fairly cold phase of PDO since the early 2000s," says Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, "so the drought we are seeing now makes sense."

That said, scientists caution against pinning the current drought on the PDO alone. Certainly ocean temperatures, wind, and the weather pattern in the Pacific have contributed to the drought, says Nate Mantua, a professor in the department of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, where the PDO pattern was first discovered and named. "But it's more nuanced than saying the PDO did this." After all, as its name suggests, the PDO is decades in the making.
Anything you notice there?

Or more to the point, anything you notice which is NOT there?

How about Global Warming?

Global Warming is not mentioned even one time in this article in any context.

In fact, by approaching the drought exclusively in terms of cycles, with a pervasive frame of 'what has happened before is happening again, as ever was and ever will be' this article is essentially a denialist hit piece.
posted by jamjam at 2:15 PM on February 16 [7 favorites]


No, you're correct. It was an error on my part. If the mods want to fix the OP, I'd appreciate it.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 12:52 PM


This is no way to run a thread. You were supposed to get all huffy then invoke Nazis. Followed by the inevitable thread derail.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:25 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]


I've been encouraging everyone I know to read "The Great Thirst".
It talks about California, but also about the southeastern US and Las Vegas, the latter as a surprising lesson on how to do conservation right (hint, stop using potable water to flush toilets).

It's also very scary, and forced me to disabuse myself of ever retiring to the southwest (esp New Mexico/Arizona).
posted by dbmcd at 2:33 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]


I agree that this problem appears to be so large that a drastic solution might be required to genuinely solve it. My current favorite option is a sea-level canal to bring salt water into the Salton Sea, which is transformed into part lake, part desalinization plant. There is a lot of energy available in the area in terms of both solar and geothermal. (At this point, why not tap the San Andreas?)
posted by feloniousmonk at 2:40 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


The real fun starts when you ban watering of lawns
posted by thelonius at 2:44 PM on February 16


ceribus peribus: "I've heard that the biggest domestic-use waste of water is the evaporation from swimming pools."

That's not actually true.
posted by gingerbeer at 2:59 PM on February 16


The material in the video (thanks for the youtube playlist) is amazing. In the 2nd 10 minute segment they have Reisner talking on camera about the Owens Valley acquistion and he says (maybe not verbatim) "this is what Los Angeles was like in those days get what you want any way you can."

It's an ethos!
posted by bukvich at 3:19 PM on February 16


this article is essentially a denialist hit piece.

Is this based on anything specific, like higher temps are causing less snow?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 4:20 PM on February 16


On the subject of getting people to give up their grass lawns, a number of cities appear to offer rebates through the local water companies. Does anyone know if there are additional incentives (existing or proposed), e.g., tax deductions for costs associated with putting in more environmentally sound landscaping?
posted by scody at 4:44 PM on February 16


It's really fun to catastrophize, and it's especially fun to catastrophize wicked environmental problems because it's easy to do so.

It's not cataztrophizing if it's already happened. California has wiped out the world's largest salmon runs, cut down nearly all the world's largest trees, drained the west's largest freshwater wetlands, destroyed not one but two major deltas, contaminated a vast amount of its own groundwater with selenium and salt, poisoned the sediment of most gold country streams with arsenic, caused probably the biggest geomorphic man made alteration ever, in history, via placer mining, filled SF Bay in with feet of mud, destroyed its native oysters as well as most other native aquatic species plant and animal, eradicated grizzly bears, Panthers, most tule elk, most beavers, most sea otters, nearly all the condors and we're not doing so good with the marine species either. And that's in just 100 years. Think what destruction can be wrought going forward!

Ps: desal is pretty much guaranteed to mess with nearshore fish.
posted by fshgrl at 4:55 PM on February 16 [11 favorites]


Best bring lawyers, instead, bub. That's our water you're aimin' for.

Michigan resident here. The shotgun is for defensive purposes!
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 5:16 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


I love rock lawns. I grew up in houses with rock lawns, and I want to die in a house with a rock lawn. You never had to take care of it and you always had something to throw. They used to be all over North County (northern area of San Diego County) when I lived there in the early 90s, but it seems like they've been replaced with really awful grass lawns. It doesn't seem particularly practical.
posted by Redfield at 5:35 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


It's not cataztrophizing if it's already happened. California has...

Would I like to travel 500 years into the past and experience the California that was? Absolutely. Are the 38 million people who live here now going away? Is anybody seriously advocating removing San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento or San Diego so that we might somehow restore what's gone? There are reasonable solutions to restore a healthy state, these are not among them.

Do we still have mountain lions? Are tule elk recovering? How about the Roosevelt herds? And beavers, and sea otters? Are condor populations stabilizing thanks to the lead ban? Are gray wolves returning? Those remaining tall trees, are they protected? And the trees on private lands, are they following the habitat plans dictated by state and federal wildlife officials to promote structural diversity for the spotted owl, marbled murrelet, and (soon enough) fisher? The positive answer to all of those questions are thanks only to the will of environmental folks who didn't panic when they saw disaster. There are solutions that would work eventually to restore the natural wonders you're envisioning - remove all the people - and then there are political solutions that have some chance of reaching a resolution that will work in concert with the millions of other interests within the state that have nothing to do with grizzly bears or fish. Let me repeat myself: we have nearly twice as many people in this state as we did 30 years ago, but we're using no more water than we did then. That is a miracle. Can you imagine what would be happening to those salmon runs if water use had followed historical patterns?
posted by one_bean at 6:19 PM on February 16 [6 favorites]


one_bean: "That's exactly what's happening."

I stand corrected! I'm sorry to knee jerk with the cynicism, it's a tough complicated problem all around.
posted by danny the boy at 6:39 PM on February 16


The other problem the lack of water over winter will produce is a staggeringly large number of wildfires. So the state will be on fire and we'll have to use... that's right: water, to put them out.
posted by marylynn at 6:47 PM on February 16


I'm from New Orleans and I lived through Hurricane Katrina. While I didn't lose my house I lived among those who did and worked for several years to fix things that had been destroyed in a very direct, visceral way.

None of that compares to the morning I got up in the Fall of 2003 in San Diego, prepped to take my Napa wine tour, to find the hotel full of refugees. In the bustling hotel breakfast room a fellow who looked as if he must have slept in his suit greeted me with a smile saying "Hi, I just lost my house." He had been roused by firefighters around 4 AM and told to get every human and pet into the car and leave NOW. Five minutes later his house was ablaze and ten minutes later there was nothing left.

And that Napa wine tour? Forget it, standing outside was like smoking a pack every few minutes.

So later the hurricanes came and yes that was a pain in the ass, but give me hurricanes any day instead of fires and earthquakes. At least you can see the hurricanes coming.
posted by localroger at 7:11 PM on February 16


This same source also reports that vineyards seem to be doing better, because they can afford to dig deeper wells and thus more or less take from the water table first.

Grape vines do fine in desert climates and can root fantastically deep, so (assuming the right varieties and time to adjust) they can survive serious drought even if production is temporarily reduced to zero.

And as far as farming goes, yes high value farming isn't going away but flood irrigation via open unlinked canals? That's super common and ridiculously wasteful.

Flood irrigation and unlined canals are wasteful in some ways (eg evaporation) but are also the last remnants of what was naturally massive seasonal groundwater recharge from flooding, side channels, wetlands, and stream networks. Modernizing irrigation systems for efficiency is great for protecting instream flows in mainstem rivers, but comes at the expense of the groundwater. There's no free lunch...
posted by Dip Flash at 7:12 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


"The Great Thirst" also contains a chapter about San Francisco and Hetch Hetchy, which is not to be found in "Cadillac Desert". I would also point out there is sharp difference in the academic style of "Thirst" compared to the journalistic style of "Cadillac". Both good books.
posted by polecat at 7:22 PM on February 16


localroger they have vineyards around san diego but the napa valley is about 500 miles north of there as the condor flies.
posted by bukvich at 7:29 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]


The other problem the lack of water over winter will produce is a staggeringly large number of wildfires. So the state will be on fire and we'll have to use... that's right: water, to put them out.

Yeah. We had a wet winter last year (relatively, anyway), and so many things grew. Now we're having a dry winter. Last fire season was (again, relatively) quiet. This coming fire season, with abundant fuel from last winter all dried out from this winter, may be terrible.

Look at the plot point (PDF) for "Current Daily Precip" from the "Northern Sierra Precipitation: 8-Station Index, February 14, 2014."
posted by rtha at 7:35 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


right bukvich it was those vineyards we were supposed to tour. I was actually preoccupied with getting my teeth fixed in Tijuana.
posted by localroger at 7:39 PM on February 16


There are solutions that would work eventually to restore the natural wonders you're envisioning - remove all the people

That is definitely not the only solution. Limiting development in sensitive areas, improving infrastructure, less wasteful farming practices, less government sponsored and funded depredation (hello Klamath farmers, I'm looking at you!), vastly improving public outreach to increase support for practical and necessary measures and a general willingness to tackle the big problems would go a long, long way. But instead everyone in CA basically acts like they don't give two shits what happens to the place once they got theirs thankyouverymuch. And I think maybe they don't.

I have both personally flood irrigated my own grazing land with not a care in the world, because hey, it's cheaper than buying hay! AND worked on large and small water saving infrastructure projects in CA. There are a lot of very practical solutions out there that are ignored or shut down because they are politically unpopular or they would impact a rich minority or a few rich individuals or companies. Hell, there are laws that are ignored for that reason. The rural/ urban divide does not help, neither does the massive number of people who are from somewhere else and don't have any connection to the land.

btw, you don't have to go back 500 years to see CA in its glory. Read Aldo Leopold's account of floating the Colorado River delta.

The positive answer to all of those questions are thanks only to the will of environmental folks who didn't panic when they saw disaster.

You can thank the Feds for most of that, not locals.
posted by fshgrl at 8:04 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]


They used to be all over North County (northern area of San Diego County) when I lived there in the early 90s, but it seems like they've been replaced with really awful grass lawns.

Er, what now? If we're comparing notes I spent most of the past 30 years in North County and I'm quite certain you'd be hard pressed to find a worse offender in the 'green lawns of suburbia' stakes. It's hard to think of a single city in North County in the 90s that had anything other than HOAs mandating green lawns. Poway, maybe? Agricultural use is certainly the vast majority of water use in the state, but North County with its many golf courses and suburban lawns has not exactly been blameless.

That desal plant in Carlsbad has been in the works forever (twenty years at least) and along those lines there was a 'toilet to tap' initiative in the 90s that was widely opposed. The water problems in California aren't new or novel, but it always takes a bad year (or in this case, a really bad year) to get people talking about change.

For those who are interested in a global perspective on this, The Big Thirst: the Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water is a really interesting read. The author looks at water use in Las Vegas, India, Australia, and a host of other places in order to reach some conclusions about the best ways to go forward with water use.

Finally, you can blame California's increasing--and increasingly devastating--wildfires on climate change (yes, among other reasons such as a ridiculous fire suppression strategy that will reap what it sowed for decades now, but climate change has a role to play in the devastation level and the number of Santa Anas that fan the flames).
posted by librarylis at 8:32 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]


btw, you don't have to go back 500 years to see CA in its glory. Read Aldo Leopold's account of floating the Colorado River delta.

Or heck, go visit the over 14,000,000 acres of wilderness currently protected in the state. In your previous comment you'd said that the environmental destruction in CA only took 100 years - assuming you're starting with the gold rush, that puts us at 1949. That's a little early, but it's a pretty good marker for when we actually started doing the things you list:

-limiting development in sensitive areas: NEPA, CEQA, ESA, Clean Water Act, Wilderness Act
-improving infrastructure and less wasteful farming practices: see my two previous comments about water conservation. That's exactly what's happening, and with the advent of distributed sensors and automated irrigation, it's going to get a whole lot better
-less government sponsored and funded depredation: the farming part of the Klamath issue you're talking about is really mostly happening in OR, and is indeed the responsibility of the feds, but we could move forward if Congress would actually ratify the accord that all of the locals agreed to
-improve public outreach: I don't really know what this would look like; from who? NGOs? Educators? Jerry Brown or Obama?

As for federal versus local, I don't see the US Congress passing anything like AB 32 any time soon.

I feel like we're on the same page, but reading a different language. Yeah, the environment's fucked, it's not going back to the way it was, rich people are assholes and get to skirt the law, but despite all that we as a state are in a much, much better position than we were at the end of your 100 years of environmental destruction, and the trajectory is positive. The "catastrophizing" I'm lamenting is about this particular drought, which is bad, but not as bad as it could be had we followed a different political path over the past five decades. I guess fundamentally I believe we're making progress, but it sounds like you don't think that's possible.
posted by one_bean at 8:43 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, we as a society have a really hard time with the idea of saving things for later.

Well, if you don't make your dollars today, someone else will make them tomorrow. I think all the stuff we've been taught about how markets allocate scarce resources was a pack of lies told by people who worry that the money tap will be turned off.
posted by sneebler at 8:48 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]


I've seen before-and-after photos like the ones rtha posted for central Texas. I feel like I ought to read and watch, but the whole prospect is terrifying and depressing, in part because it's happening so many different places. (But there is no global climate change and we don't need to do anything that will inconvenience anybody, right.)
posted by immlass at 8:56 PM on February 16


Is anybody seriously advocating removing San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento or San Diego so that we might somehow restore what's gone? There are reasonable solutions to restore a healthy state, these are not among them. There are reasonable solutions to restore a healthy state, these are not among them.

It seems to me there should at least be a conversation about the ecological sustainability of the relatively recent explosion in human population, projected to reach 9 billion globally by 2050 with 500 million in the US. If there is a human 'carrying capacity' problem that won't be fixed exclusively by reducing poverty and improving education, it would make sense to consider intentionally lowering population rather than hoping the problem will solve itself somehow.

FOOD, LAND, POPULATION and the U.S. ECONOMY
by David Pimentel of Cornell University and
Mario Giampietro Istituto of Nazionale della Nutrizione, Rome
In the United States, surface water supplies about 60% of the water used in irrigation, with the remainder coming from ground water supplies. Ground water is referred to as fossil water because it accumulates in aquifers deep below the surface and once removed is replenished only very slowly. That is, less than 0.1% of the stored ground water mined annually by pumping is replaced by rainfall. The overdraft of U.S. ground water averages 25% greater than its rate of replacement. But in some locations, like the vast U.S. Ogallala aquifer, which stores water for Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas, the annual overdraft is 130% to 160% above its replacement rate. If this is allowed to continue, the Ogallala will probably become non-productive within the next 40 years. Thus, the Ogallala and all ground water resources must be carefully managed to prevent their overdraft and subsequent depletion.

On arid crop lands, convenient water supplies from lakes, rivers, and aquifers are pumped for irrigation to make crop production possible. Irrigation costs 2 to 5 times more per acre than rainfed crop production in both equipment and fossil energy needed to power the application of the water. Therefore, farmers generally irrigate only when no alternatives are available or the irrigation cost is subsidized. Note, the U.S. government is currently spending about $4 billion annually to subsidize irrigation in our western states.
[...]
Given the fact that the supply of natural resources is finite and that the ability of technology to replace many of these resources is limited, we are left with the necessity of controlling population numbers. Certainly, diminishing consumption levels by stringent conservation programs will help slow depletion. But individual responsibility on the part of men and women to control family size is vital to control population numbers and maintain a high standard of living, otherwise the harsh realities of nature will impose its control on the population.
Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity
Lester R. Brown
A startling 80 percent of oceanic fisheries are being fished at or beyond their sustainable yield. 7
[...]
Faced with falling water tables, not a single country has mobilized to reduce water use so that it would not exceed the sustainable yield of an aquifer.
[...]
If world population growth does not slow dramatically, the number of people trapped in hydrological poverty and hunger will almost certainly grow, threatening food security, economic progress, and political stability. The only humane option is to move quickly to replacement-level fertility of two children per couple and to stabilize world population as soon as possible.
I wonder if it wouldn't be prudent to aim a little lower, maybe 1.5 children per couple, until we have a better scientific understanding of the long term sustainability of human civilization at its present scale.
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:13 PM on February 16 [8 favorites]


In the real world, every one of those cities is full of voters and has a direct line to congressional representation. The very, very last thing that will ever happen is any major city going dry.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:18 PM on February 16


As a resident of Melbourne, the whole drought / desalination debacle feels like God punishing humans for their hubris.

1. "Unprecedented" 15 year drought under which dam levels fell to critical levels and everyone was living under water use restrictions...

2. People gave up waiting for water from the sky and decided they would take things into their own hands and spend billions of dollars building a desalination plant...

3. Construction of the plant starts and the drought immediately breaks... construction is hampered by torrential rain.

4. Within the year all dams are full to the brim. Even with another 10 year drought we still have enough water to not need to buy a single liter of water from the new desalination plant. Desal plant is completed a year later to no applause.
posted by xdvesper at 9:33 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]


I'm from Ontario, Canada, where a government report several years ago flat out laughed at the idea of conservation because our province has more water than it can possibly use. So forgive the inevitable privilege...

I'm currently visiting the Central Valley. Amidst all the talk of the historically horrible drought, every lawn here is lush green. Sprinklers run unabated as you drive through manicured corporate and educational campus frontages. I just don't get it. Aside from government-mandated rationing, farming is the entire economy here, so where is the social pressure of farmers saying "everyone needs to pitch in if the local economy is going to get through this." Despite everyone knowing how dire things are, it feels like the response is a collective shrugging of shoulders.

Maybe individual conservation only makes a small difference, but Australians legitimately take three minute showers, and at least they understand they can't be profligate.

Desalination must be developed

Again, all kinds of privilege here, but am I the only one that is terrified by the prospect of desalination? It feels like one of the few things protecting the oceans right now is that we are so limited in the ways we can use salt water. I feel like if we can suddenly start tapping into it, all bets are truly off as to whether we use up this planet Firefly-style.
posted by dry white toast at 10:09 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]


It feels like one of the few things protecting the oceans right now is that we are so limited in the ways we can use salt water.

Would it help you to know that the oceans are a closed circuit, that regardless of what humans do with that salt water, it will all eventually return to the sea? Unless we start refining a lot of oxygen and hydrogen from the oceans, of course. Desalinating this water will not destroy it. It will be used, and then returned to the environment. Sometimes right away, sometimes over a matter of years, but it will all be returned to the oceans.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 11:21 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


As I sit here in England, with so much rain that fields are flooding, rivers are overflowing and water is seeping up through the ground. I can't help wondering at what point it becomes economically viable to ship water in tankers.
posted by vacapinta at 3:19 AM on February 17


OK I watched through the end of the Arizona episode. I still have one question. The most interesting subject is the Bridge Canyon Dam project which was pursued until around the mid '80's when Big Dam appears to have finally run out of gas on the sucker. When did Barry Goldwater turn?

They quote the retired Goldwater as saying if he could have a re-do he would be against the Glen Canyon Dam. They also quote the youngish Goldwater as saying the people of Arizona want the Bridge Canyon Dam to go ahead, at the beginning of the controversy. Apparently at one point almost everybody in the country was against it except Floyd Dominy and his 150 closest friends. I got a kick out of them saying Reader's Digest and My Weekly Reader opposed the project.

The quotes from Dominy were amazing. The reservoir was planned to back up exactly to the west boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. Dominy claimed this was acceptable because the flatline would not have been visible from any of the rim road lookouts at the top of the canyon. Only a lawyer could make that argument with a straight face, and he calls Brower the Sierra Club president a lying sanctimonious bastard for telling everybody that the dam would flood the Grand Canyon.

Is there anybody now living who would say that dam would not flood the Grand Canyon?

I have heard but cannot find documentation that Barry Goldwater was the congressional leader who led the critical fight to stop building the Bridge Canyon Dam in the 70's, but the documentary implies that he was a follower on the issue, not a leader.

(The glitches and stretches of video-audio mismatch make this a tough viewing. I ended up doodling and not giving it my undivided attention. You might want to think about some similar strategy for watching it because the content is so valuable.)
posted by bukvich at 6:53 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure when he flipped, but in 1966 he was for it.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 7:21 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]


Would it help you to know that the oceans are a closed circuit, that regardless of what humans do with that salt water, it will all eventually return to the sea?

Ehhh, sort of. Desal could be low impact if you've got an equivalent municipal wastewater stream. Basically water in = water out because all the showers and drinking water goes right to the sewage treatment plant within a few hours. You can mix that post treatment wastewater stream with the brine and return water of roughly equivalent salinity to the ocean.

Problems arise when you're using that water for irrigation because that water is not returned in any direct way. It may be that you can return brine that has a slightly higher concentration of salts to the ocean with very little effect, given that it'll be massively diluted and the higher salt concentration could be within a range that local sea life can tolerate. It may also be that localized areas of high salinity water may be detrimental to sea life, but well confined, but since no one is really doing desalination on a massive scale these are issues that are going to have to be examined.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 8:28 AM on February 17



Problems arise when you're using that water for irrigation because that water is not returned in any direct way. It may be that you can return brine that has a slightly higher concentration of salts to the ocean with very little effect, given that it'll be massively diluted and the higher salt concentration could be within a range that local sea life can tolerate.


Yeah, but pretty much all of California's coast is within easy reach of the Humbolt Current, which means there's lots of mixing already going on.
posted by ocschwar at 8:48 AM on February 17


Humbolt is South America, but I get your point. Still, it's not as easy as just assuming that there's enough mixing that there will be no ill effects. That was the attitude towards early wastewater treatment and it led to massive dead zones due to nutrient pollution.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 9:21 AM on February 17


google street view is continuous along the Colorado River over the entirety of what the Bridge Canyon dam would have submerged if you want to see up close what was saved.
posted by bukvich at 9:34 AM on February 17


There's also the potential for holding on to a lot of that brine for commercial purposes.
I suspect a desal plant can have a lower environmental impact than the tidal pools used for traditional sea salt harvesting.

And if you're doing this in California, where there is lots of solar potential, you can use periods of cheap power to be more selective about which salts you're harvesting. m
posted by ocschwar at 9:36 AM on February 17


I visited Disneyland as part of a trip to southern californa a while back and the thing that I remember most about the trip is how disgustingly, menacingly artificial everything was once I left the park.

Inside Disneyland, everything is fake. But in an environment where that is expected. What was just so nightmarish was the endless miles of stripmalls and subdivisions in the rest of SoCal where every blade of grass only existed because of the conspicuous deployment of human resource.

Suddenly the way all the asshole Californians who moved north when I was growing up would cut down all the trees on their land started to make sense.
posted by Riemann at 5:49 PM on February 17


Again, all kinds of privilege here, but am I the only one that is terrified by the prospect of desalination?

I'm more scared by us not doing it.

Want to resolve global warming? Here's the most concise way to do it (as in it fits in a simple paragraph, but there are some technical issues to resolve):

1. Install huge amounts of concentrated solar thermal power in the Sahara. Or PV. Only catch is if you use a steam cycle, it has to be all closed, as there's no water to spare.

2. Transmit the power to suitable spots along the northwest African coast, for use by desalination plants.

3. Pipe the desalinated water inland, and inject it into the aquifers.

Like I said, easy to describe, hell of a thing to implement. But what would happen is the Sahara oases would expand, and then new ones would form, and the desert is so rich in phosphates in that part of the world that there would be immense conversion of desert to grassland, with resulting reductions of CO2.
posted by ocschwar at 6:06 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]


Thorzdad: "*eyes lake michigan, cocks shotgun*

Best bring lawyers, instead, bub. That's our water you're aimin' for.
"

Yeah, I'm on a river subject to parts of that compact (which also, incidentally, has international treaty bits with Canada), and it's illegal for us to sell river water out-of-county. There is absolutely no way we could send it out-of-state, and a large part of that is that the Great Lakes basin states looked at the problems brewing with water rights in the American West, and in the Southeast, and said, "Yeah, we don't even want to start with selling water because that seems like a slippery slope, what with our own aquifer being slowly drained and the likely future demands of agriculture, industry, and residential customers, and the likelihood that 21st-century wars will be over water, not oil."

(Much of the American West has a different water rights regime than we do in the midwest -- we generally have traditional riparian rights, while the west has prior appropriation -- which makes some difference but not a ton.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:14 PM on February 17


I would think having two mountain ranges in the way makes it unlikely that midwest water will be sent to California any time soon. The Columbia basin is a possibility, as are Canadian basins to the north. But even at current energy prices it is probably cheaper to just build desalination plants than it would be to put in the pipeline or barge transport systems, not to mention the endless legal battles.

There is absolutely no way we could send it out-of-state

I'm willing to bet cold, hard cash that if a major US city was actually running out of water, any legal issues barring cross-basin or interstate water transfer would get solved in a hurry. Things like the Endangered Species Act and international water treaties matter right up until governors and senators start dialing the president's direct phone line, at which point the Corps of Engineers will get handed an enormous appropriation and told to solve the problem immediately.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:40 PM on February 17


Dip Flash: "right up until governors and senators start dialing the president's direct phone line, at which point the Corps of Engineers will get handed an enormous appropriation and told to solve the problem immediately."

I don't know; it's sort-of amazing to us in the midwest that there are big pipelines that carry water into LA and Las Vegas that come from ... well, really far away. The water rights issues on the Colorado are also totally contrary to how riparian law works here. Governors might try to sweep the issue away (I don't think ours would), but it would immediately get stayed by the courts and litigated. Water law in the midwest is just totally different than it is in the West, and "sending water other places in aqueducts" is not really something our law allows for. We also have a long history of multi-year lawsuits when one Lake Michigan community (like Chicago) wants to take an extra million gallons a week out of Lake Michigan and lots of other cities (Gary, Milwaukee, Green Bay) counter-sue, and Canada joins the lawsuit to enforce treaty rights because it might affect Lake Superior water levels. There are Supreme Court rulings dating back 50 years on how the Great Lakes' water can be used and by whom. It's not an easy set of things to override, especially once Canadian treaty interests get involved, because a governor of a state can't easily override a treaty approved by Congress.

It's not like an untapped fresh-water resource; it's a tightly-regulated and highly-litigated resource. Illinois communities sue each other over it CONSTANTLY because Illinois is allowed 2.1 billion gallons/day out of Lake Michigan and have to share that allotment among themselves, which Chicago being the biggest user. They constantly sue each other over use and allotment and conservation.

And like, California cities and California agriculture are really important -- but so are Midwestern cities and Midwestern agriculture. It'd be awfully hard to convince 14 Senators, 7 Governors, and 125 Representatives (including swing states Ohio and Pennsylvania and very large states New York and Illinois) to send water AWAY from Midwestern agriculture. California keeps us all from dying of scurvy, but the Midwest's grain production feeds the entire continent and half the world.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:45 PM on February 17 [3 favorites]


"sending water other places in aqueducts" is not really something our law allows for

Use the word "canal" instead and you'll see them all over areas covered by riparian water law, connecting across basins and states. Riparian and western water law both allow for this and have for a long time. The underlying difference is that one assumes a state of water scarcity and the other doesn't, but both allow for the full range of extractive uses.

There are no serious proposals on the table to bring midwestern water west that I know of (and if there was it would probably go to Texas, not California), but treaties get renegotiated all the time and water law always proves flexible in the face of political exigencies. The Columbia River treaty is being renegotiated now, and the treaty with Mexico for the Colorado River was renegotiated a year or two ago.

If New York City's water supply totally failed and the only alternative was to build a pipeline and pump out of Lake Erie, Haliburton would have a no-bid contract by the end of the week.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:19 AM on February 18


If New York City's water supply totally failed and the only alternative was to build a pipeline and pump out of Lake Erie, Haliburton would have a no-bid contract by the end of the week.

Practically speaking, all NY would have to do is jigger with the locks on the Erie Canal.
posted by ocschwar at 8:58 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


> how San Francisco planned and negotiated the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.

One of the issues that came up when the Presidio changed hands and PG&E stole its electrical system (which it didn't build) is that the federal action that paid for H.H. requires that S.F. have municipal power distribution so the ratepayers aren't supporting a freeloader.
posted by morganw at 2:36 PM on February 18


SF Bay Guardian's chronology [PDF] of the B.S. involved with PG&E & H.H.
posted by morganw at 2:40 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


weston: I have an anecdotal report that's exactly the same from a family friend, who is also raising cattle near Paso Robles. He's going to have to drastically thin his herd soon if they don't get lucky or figure something out.

This same source also reports that vineyards seem to be doing better, because they can afford to dig deeper wells and thus more or less take from the water table first.


A few things to note: drawing from deeper wells means that the water table has been depleted, and recharging the groundwater aquifers takes time. San Luis Obispo County has been looking into the issue for a while, and a major problem is that most agriculture uses don't meter their wells. Add to that, the winery business has been booming for a while, changing the intensity of the agriculture in a relatively dry region. A few years ago, there settlement issues that were related to reduced groundwater levels, and by the time the land starts to sink because there's not enough water, you're really screwed, because you probably can't re-"inflate" the sunken ground to bring up potential capacity to what it used to be.

But Paso Robles isn't alone in groundwater issues in the Central Coast. The community of Los Osos were over-drawing from their groundwater, leading to saltwater intrusion into their lower aquifer, another nigh-unreversable impact that most likely will forever limit the local capacity.


dbmcd: I've been encouraging everyone I know to read "The Great Thirst".
It talks about California, but also about the southeastern US and Las Vegas, the latter as a surprising lesson on how to do conservation right (hint, stop using potable water to flush toilets).

It's also very scary, and forced me to disabuse myself of ever retiring to the southwest (esp New Mexico/Arizona).


Lalalala, I'm not listening, lalalala ... OK, not really, thanks for that reference. My family recently moved to New Mexico from coastal California, and we're happy here. I know we're facing water issues, but I'm optimistic for the future. It's that, or hope we move out before the desert is a desert again. It's no Palm Springs here with acres of golf courses, but there are some questionable uses of water in the region.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:35 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]




A World of Vanishing Lakes
American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga - "A $25 billion plan, a small town, and a half-century of wrangling over the most important resource in the biggest state"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:29 AM on February 25


Water: the Drying of the West. "Agriculture accounts for 80% of water consumption in California, for example, but only 2% of economic activity. Farmers flood the land to grow rice, alfalfa and other thirsty crops. By one account, over the years they have paid just 15% of the capital costs of the federal system that delivers much of their irrigation water."
posted by Nelson at 2:33 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]








The unprecedented water crisis of the American Southwest - "A river that doesn't reach the sea"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:58 PM on March 9






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