REIMAGINING THE CADILLAC DESERT, Part 1: Are we in a forever drought?

BB&K’s ‘Reimagining the Cadillac Desert’ was held at the Autry Museum of the American West on September 15, 2016.

Climate scientist Bill Patzert gives an overview of our water reality

Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert” masterfully chronicled how early settlers transformed the West, turning barren desert into rich agricultural land and residential oases.  Now, faced with a historic drought, a growing population and a changing climate, we must reimagine our Cadillac Desert. On Sept. 15, 2016, Best Best & Krieger LLP gathered leaders and experts in design, municipal planning, academia, agriculture, policy, finance and technology to share their visions for the West’s water future.

Eric Garner, Managing Partner with Best Best & Krieger, gave some introductory remarks to set the context for the day’s discussion.

Marc Reisner wrote the seminal work, Cadillac Desert, 30 years ago, in 1986, and sadly he passed away in 2002.  It would be fascinating to hear what he has to say today,” began Eric Garner.  “Reisner’s great service with Cadillac Desert was starting a conversation about water.  He really opened up a world that was opaque, to put it mildly, to pretty much everyone but those involved with it.”

eric-garnerHis perspective was not particularly optimistic one.  Cadillac Desert really portrays a people, us who live here in the western United States, at war with the environment, trying to conquer it.  It frankly is a story of corruption, overexploitation of resources, environmental destruction, and unsustainability.  Now admittedly, in Reisner’s afterward to his revised edition, which came out in 1992, he strikes a somewhat more optimistic tone.  There have been some progress on issues during those half dozen years, but overall the tone of the book is still pretty dark, surprisingly dark as I went back and looked at it.

I think perhaps the most important realization that everyone in the water world has had in the past 30 years is that we’re not going to conquer nature, that environmental protection and creating sustainability is really about sustaining ourselves, and that balancing water supply and environmental protection is just something we have to do,” Mr. Garner said.  “But that realization was far from present when he wrote the book in 1986, and his chapter titles included ‘A Land of Illusion’, ‘Things Fall Apart’, and ‘The Epilogue: A Civilization if You Can Keep It’.

In a ‘A Civilization if You Can Keep It’, he wrote, looking back on water resource development, how much was sensible, how much was right?  Was it folly to allow places like Los Angeles and Phoenix to grow up?  Were we insane or far sighted to build all the dams, and even if such questions seem academic, they lead to an emphatically practical one.  What are we going to do next?

We’re here today to further that conversation about what are we going to do next, because the challenges we face in the water world are very serious, and success in meeting them is far from a given,” Mr. Garner said.  “The challenges are surmountable, things don’t have to fall apart, the west can and I think is becoming a land of reality not a land of illusion, and although we still have a long way to go, I think we can keep this civilization for a long-time if we work together and make good choices, but we can’t take any of that for granted.  … ”

A lot has changed since Cadillac Desert and I think enough that we can be optimistic that we can meet our water resource challenges.  But a lot has not changed, and I think enough hasn’t changed that we can be concerned that we could still fail to do that.  But let’s use that concern as motivation to action, and the first action that we can take is have a great day conversing about these issues and working towards answering Mark Reisner’s question, what are we going to do next.”

BILL PATZERT: The forever drought

Bill Patzert is a climate scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Bill Patzert began by posing the question, are we in a forever drought?  “The answer is probably yes, if we stick to the status quo and the way we manage water here in the American West, considering the growth we’ve had.  But I’m optimistic.  Californians really is the most innovative place, not only in the United States but in the world.  So we can definitely beat not only this drought, but future droughts.  And California is still in a drought, and there’s no doubt about it.”

So what is a drought?  Mr. Patzert said he looked up the definition of drought and found about 250 definitions.  “Everybody has a different idea,” he said.  “In its simplest, it’s less than normal rain.  Scientists have a way of defining drought.  It’s often talked about as when there’s not enough water to sustain the agricultural output of the region.  But in its simplest, it’s really the unsustainable use of our water supplies, which is really the topic of my talk today.”

Mr. Patzert reminded that droughts occur not only in California and in the American West, which is really semi-arid, but droughts occur normally in just about every climatic zone, whether wet or dry.  “Now essentially the history of the American West and of California is really written in great droughts,” he said.  “But I summarize it, as we all know that when we read Jerod Diamond’s books, is that water really controls society.  The rise and fall of all great civilizations, the foundation really was on the availability of water.  The important thing is that we have the ability not to be a slave to that, but we govern that water.”

patzert-slides_page_04California and all over the west is in a severe drought and it’s been painful, Mr. Patzert said.  “Last winter, we expected the great Godzilla El Nino, and I put my foot in my mouth and called it the Godzilla El Nino, but what we really got here in Southern California was more like a gecko El Nino. It was a little disappointing.  Often after an El Nino where the tropical waters are very warm, it’s followed by resurgence in the tradewinds, and the tropics get very cool, and then we get what’s called the dry sibling of El Nino which is called La Nina.  As of right now, we’ve canceled that La Nina watch, so the La Nina has not shown up.  All I can say is that we’ve really had weather whiplash with all kinds of surprises over the last five years.”

Over the last 5 years from 2011 to 2016, the total rainfall in LA has only been 38 inches; normal is about 75 inches, he said.  “So for five consecutive years, we’ve had about 50% of our normal rainfall, which is pretty painful.  There have been other drought periods … but this one is record breaking.  So the drought continues.”

patzert-slides_page_05It’s the driest five years in the historical record which goes back to the 1870s, so that’s a record,” Mr. Patzert said.  “But this drought really began 16 years ago.  Here’s Lake Mead with the ring … the top of the ring was 1983.  Level was high again in 1998 … so essentially we’ve had a drop in the level of Lake Mead for 16 continuous years, more or less.

Right now, Lake Mead is at a critical level, he said.  “This is as low as it’s been for the last year or so on and off, since we began filling Lake Mead.  It’s only at 1074, which means that the lake is only 37% full.  That’s a record.”

Essentially Lake Mead is my gauge for drought in the American West,” said Mr. Patzert.  “Because as the Colorado watershed goes, so goes most of the west with regards to rainfall and water availability.”

patzert-slides_page_06He then presented a slide showing the rainfall record for downtown LA for the last 70 years.  “Now notice that from the mid-1940s to the mid 1970s, we tended to have less than normal rainfall, so that was a 30 year period.  And rather than the average of 15 inches, it was about 13 inches.  Then in the 80s and 90s, that was sweet for water managers.  We tended to have a lot of El Ninos, a lot of above average years, and the average was about 17 inches.  Since the last big El Nino, we’re back to 12 and a half inches the last 16 years, so droughts are long.  They are not four or five years; in California they tend to be decadal, 10, 20, 30 years or even longer.”

Mr. Patzert pointed out that he has voted for Jerry Brown four times, and three out of four times, Jerry Brown has been elected into a drought.  “So the issue here with these droughts, I tend to blame Jerry Brown.  Every time he gets elected, we’re in a drought.  So the question is, has Jerry Brown’s luck run out or are we actually going to get out of this drought?

patzert-slides_page_09He then presented a slide of drought data plotted in time, noting that the darker colors are more extreme drought.  Since the last big El Nino, there were five dry years, a wet year in 2004-05; then four more dry years.  In 2010, a little relief, and since then, there have been five dry years.  “It starts dry, it gets drier, and right now it’s driest.  So these droughts wax and wane, but the longer they go, the more painful they get.

One of the great myths we had to deal with is that El Nino is going to be a drought buster, said Mr. Patzert, but he pointed out that not all El Ninos are wet, and wet El Ninos actually happen quite infrequently.  “You only get really wet El Ninos about once a decade,” he said.  “So when you add the sums of California’s water supply, El Nino accounts for only 7% of our water supply.  So El Ninos are never going to be drought busters.  They are not the great wet hope.  Our real supply of water really comes from atmospheric rivers or a series of storms out of the north Pacific; they supply about 80 – 90% of our water supplies.”

patzert-slides_page_11He then presented a graph of rainfall in downtown LA, pointing out that the big El Ninos of 82-83 and 97-98 doubled the average rainfall and can be over 30 inches of rain in a rain year.  “Last winter, we only had 9.6” of rain in downtown LA, so they are not always wet El Ninos.  Regionally, this one was pretty disappointing.”

Mr. Patzert pointed out that the two driest years in the historical record going back to the 1870s are the water years of 2001-02 and 2006-07 which were really dry.  “So not only has this drought been dry for the last five years, we’ve had the two driest years in history since modern recording,” he said.  “Now 15 inches is average … Normally, 7 out of 10 years in Los Angeles are drier than average.  So whenever someone asks me to make a long range forecast for the coming winter, I always tell them it’s going to be dry next year – your chances are 70% – you wish you had those odds in Vegas.”

The important thing to remember when you talk about rainfall in California is that normal is not average,” Mr. Patzert added.  “An actual fact: there are very few average years, so the rainfall distribution is bimodal and it’s mostly dry.

patzert-slides_page_12He then presented a graph comparing rainfall in Southern California, showing an ‘average’ year, last year, and the big rainfall years of 82-83 and 97-98.  He noted that he plotted the rain year from July 1st to June 30.  “In 82-83, we had a big January and February, a huge March, and then in 1997-98, we had a monster February.  That’s what rainfall looked like during the big El Ninos;  it was really only a couple of months of heavy rainfall and about 7 to 9 big storms.  Here was the disappointing part.  It looked promising in September; but after that, it was all below normal, so that was quite disappointing.  This was not a normal El Nino.  This was a puny El Nino.”

patzert-slides_page_13He presented the drought monitor for May of 2016, after the winter season.  “A lot of storms went into Washington and Oregon; they essentially got all our rain; Northern California got a little rain,” he said.  “So how did El Nino perform?  The Pacific Northwest, they got out of their drought, so for them, it was a Godzilla.  Now in Texas, it started raining last spring and essentially hasn’t stopped yet.  It rained continuously in Texas for many, many months, and of course along the Gulf Coast, but for us here in California, except for Northern California who got some relief, this El Nino was a gecko.  So it dissed Southern California.”

But this El Nino was huge,” continued Mr. Partzert.  “This was the earliest, longest-lasting, largest most intense El Nino in my career, so when you look across the planet, this El Nino was punishing.  Droughts in Asia in Africa, flooding in South America, so this El Nino was huge – but not for us.”

patzert-slides_page_14He presented a cartoon from the LA Times in 1933 of Lady LA chastising the weatherman.  “What I learned from all of this last winter is that forecasting El Nino rains for Southern California is definitely not for wimps, and so I apologize for my bad forecast,” he said.

California droughts are really joint ventures, said Mr. Patzert.  “What causes California drought?  Part is Mother Nature, and a large part of droughts today is just human behavior.  It’s us.”

patzert-slides_page_16To illustrate his point, he presented two pictures taken from Mount Wilson: one in 1902 and the other in 2016.  “There has been tremendous growth in Southern California throughout the 20th century,” he said.  “Just in the last 50 years, the population in Southern California (actually all of California), has quadrupled.  In the 1950s, the population of the state was only 10 million.  We’re closing in on 40 million now.  So that creates a tremendous thirst, not only for urban areas, but for industrial areas and everybody, so it’s us to a large extent.”

In a semi-arid region, growth creates drought, and we tried to keep up with that with all the tremendous infrastructure that we’ve built going back to the Colorado Aqueduct, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, California Water Project.  “An actual fact, we’ve done a pretty good job,” he said.

Who uses all that water?  “Part of it goes to the environment, the EPA has mandated it, agriculture and ranchers use a big chunk of the water, and then urban users and industries, so if you take the environmental water which is mandated by law, that’s about 25%.  What’s the net?  The net is that if you calculate it this way, is that agriculture and ranchers essentially get 80% of the water, urban users and industry get about 20%.”

I’m going to try to convince you that these numbers are wrong,” Mr. Patzert said.  “Agriculture gets about 90-95% of the water, we get about 10%.  So what’s the 800 lb gorilla in the water business here in California? Agriculture and ranching, there’s no doubt about it.  They use about 90% of the available water.  If you put all the gross state product of agriculture and ranching, it’s about $50 billion a year, which is a lot of money.”

Agriculture and ranching do about 13% of agriculture in the United States – it’s not 20%, it’s not 50%, it’s 13%.  Now California’s total economy is about $2.5 trillion dollars, so that means that agriculture is actually 2% of the state’s economy, if you calculate it that way,” he continued.  “We only get 10%, the industrial and urban users.  Now I’m going to ask everybody if we think that’s fair.”

patzert-slides_page_20The deep aquifers in the Central Valley are what have really sustained agriculture and water in the state, said Mr. Patzert.  “We’ve been pumping water here out of the Central Valley since the beginning of the 20th century.  What’s really sustained agriculture here are our pumping of deep aquifers.  It only used to be 200 feet; now some of those wells are over 1000 feet, so you can actually measure or estimate how much water is being overpumped; in other words, some water gets back in, but most of the water is going out.”

Over the last 50 years, groundwater pumping has been about 2 million acre-feet per year.  “That’s a lot of water so of course they are getting lower and lower.  Sometimes they do get pumped up a little bit.  Notice that the 82-83 and 97 El Nino, so there was a reversal.  An El Nino can change all that.

That water was put there when the ice sheets retreated northward, leaving gravel deposits all over the Central Valley and the Los Angeles Basin, but not as far as San Diego, he said.  “So that’s old water – 10,000-20,000 years old.  And right now, I estimate it’s being pumped by about 100,000 wells, unregulated and unmetered most of them, pumping water out of that great aquifer.  Remember without that, there wouldn’t have been a state of California and there certainly wouldn’t have been a great agricultural industry like we see today.”

There’s a myth about these aquifers that there’s no bottom to them, that the water is infinite, Mr. Patzert said.  “But we know that’s not true, because an awful lot of wells in the Central Valley are already sucking air.  As we look ahead at the rate we’re pumping water out of those aquifers, it’s going to be like when you get to the bottom of the milkshake from In and Out burger; all of a sudden you’re going to hear a big slurping sound.  And when that happens, you are in the forever drought.”

patzert-slides_page_21He said that over the last 5 years in this record breaking drought, estimates from satellite data at NASA are that the aquifers are being overdrafted by 8 million acre-feet per year.  “How much is 8 MAF?  That’s about the total amount that all the municipal water districts in the state of CA use every year.  That’s a lot of water.  So that’s a record.”

Nobody’s too happy about water,” said Mr. Patzert.   “The farmers are not happy, the cities are not happy, the ranchers, the fishermen, the environmentalists – everybody thinks everybody else is taking everybody’s water, so that means what’s the best profession in the state of California?  So if you’re kids are undecided about what to study in college, tell them to study water law or be air conditioning technicians.  Those are guaranteed jobs.”

There are many big drivers long-term, he said.  “We have a roller coaster – we have dry decades, we have wet decades, we’ve always had that.  Then there’s the question of the fair allocation of water.  Because there is a lot of water in the state of California and there’s a lot of infrastructure, but the question is whose water is it?  What’s the fair allocation?  The other driver will be growth and economic expansion.  California is the sixth largest economy in the world all by itself.  It has a bigger economy than Russia or France and it’s going to continue to expand.  A big issue is can we save the environment and sustain human civilization here, and it’s always contentious.  It’s a big issue.  And the 1000 lb. gorilla – climate change.”

Some counties, such as San Diego, import 95%; depending upon what’s available, LA imports 50%.  “The problem with imported water is it’s short-term.  Let’s look at Lake Mead today.  There’s a problem there because it waxes and wanes.  It’s not that dependable.  Not only that, supply is shrinking from Northern California and from the Colorado.  And the aquifer water.  It’s shared somewhat; it’s sold, it’s traded, and the other thing that’s important about it, like imported water, it’s shrinking.  It’s definitely shrinking.”

patzert-slides_page_24Mr. Patzert pointed out that California is not only a big agricultural state; it’s a big oil state.  “Some of the biggest oil booms in the United States happen here in California, and there’s a tremendous amount of oil exploration and oil pumping,” he said.  “So can fracking in clean water basins coexist?  Because almost everybody who is a water manager here has some kind of oil or gas beneath their groundwater basins, and so the issue is, everybody likes the oil revenues and taxes, but can you clean up your water basin and frack and drill at the same time.”

What are the solutions? “I’m a big proponent of a water efficiency revolution,” said Mr. Patzert.  “Some countries that have a similar climate to us – Australia, Israel – they’ve already engaged and made water efficiency a major industry.  So for California, with the drought that we’re in today and the drought that we’ll be in in the next decade and thereafter, this is a tremendous business opportunity.  California is the most innovative place in the world, so we should be the world leaders in water efficiency.”

Everybody would agree that we have to clean up the groundwater basins, and store and use it more efficiently.  In the good years, we have to store water, and then, how can we fairly manage and allocate water, given that the farmers are using 90-95% of the water,” he said.  “And then there’s pricing water.  Can we revisit the water laws and make them more equitable in the state of California?

We all can do a lot better in conservation,” Mr. Patzert said.  “Wastewater recycling, Orange County is doing a tremendous job.  Stormwater capture, we can do better.  Desal, now we do a lot of desal anyhow because a lot of water that we get out of the ground or from the Colorado, and so we’re already heavy into desal, but ocean water desal, we have to definitely look at that seriously.”

As for the champs and the chumps in Southern California, Mr. Patzert said he’d give everybody a B-.  “Metropolitan has done a tremendous job, but frankly I could give you a long list of things they could do better.  I live in the San Gabriel Valley; we’re doing a great job of cleaning up the groundwater basins.  The State Water Resources Control Board is under a lot of pressure, and they do a pretty good job, but they could do better.

The big one is the California legislature,” he said.  “Recently, there’s been a lot of fairly progressive legislation with regard to climate change and air quality, and I think Jerry Brown and a lot of people in the legislature want to do the right thing.  But that’s going to be the key.”

patzert-slides_page_28He presented a chart of statewide temperature for the winter months since 1900, and pointed out the trend.  “California is warming in the wintertime.  The snowpack comes later, it leaves earlier, and there’s less of it.  That’s a 2.5 degree increase in the last century.  Also notice that the drought has been exceptionally hot this year.  Look at that big spike here in 2014-15.  So this drought has not only been long, it’s been extremely hot.”

patzert-slides_page_29So here’s my bottom line,” he said. “This is the global temperature going back to the 1880s.  Notice that this year, for the last 14 months, its set a record every month in terms of global temperature.  So that change in temperature is about 1.3 degrees Celsius, which is 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

So what’s going to drive California water in the future?  The number one thing in 2050 and 2100 will be global warming, and ag and aquifer depletion will be number two,” he said.  “Global warming is the real deal.  It’s not an opinion, it’s not a rumor, it’s not a liberal conspiracy.  It’s what’s called a scientific fact, so get over it.  It’s real, factor it in.”

What we need here is water leadership,” Mr. Patzert said.  “It’s important that we use low flow toilets, lose your lawn, shower together, drive a Prius, but what really counts is how you vote.  This is America.  If you want to change law, if you want to change policy, it’s done in the legislature.  At the local level, at the state level, at the national level.  So if you want to get ready for a more fair reallocation of water in the state of CA and deal with global warming, which is definitely the real deal, what really counts here is how you vote.”

Coming up tomorrow …

  • Coverage of the Reimagining the Cadillac Desert event continues with coverage of a panel discussion between Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District; Mark Gold, Associate Vice Chancellor for Environment and Sustainability for UCLA and formerly with Heal the Bay; and Dr. Richard Howitt, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis.

For more information …

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