We’ve had several requests for some California drought blogging. But Eric is too busy installing leaks in his manse’s plumbing (Just because, that’s why.) to think about the issue. And every time I start writing something, it turns into warmed-over Marc Reisner. So we’ve asked a friend, who works on state water issues and writes about water and climate change at On the Public Record, to post something for us. She actually seems somewhat more optimistic than I would have guessed. Unless you’re a salmon. In which case, the news isn’t good. But assuming you’re not — a safe assumption, as our outreach to the anadromous fish demographic isn’t going well — you should pour yourself a tall glass of water and read what follows.

Are we still in a drought even though it rained?

Yes. We went into the winter with reservoirs empty from two dry years. We would have to have gotten 130% of an average year to bring us out of drought this year. Instead we got about 90% of an average year. The February rain took us from ‘starkly desperate’ to ‘gravely concerned’, but we are still in a drought. Besides, the governor declared a drought emergency. Might as well go with the legal proclamation.

What does that mean to me?

If you live in a city in California, you will probably pay more for your water (10-25% more). Last year, most urban districts asked their customers to conserve voluntarily. Most districts were disappointed with the response they got (5-10% reductions). This year they’ll ration water; the common ration seems to be twenty percent less than historic use. But California urban per capita water use is still three to five times higher than the health and safety standard of 40 gallons per person per day. For urban users, it means starting to pay attention to a resource they’ve previously taken for granted. This is still ‘switching appliances’ and ‘smarter watering’ and ‘fixing leaks’ territory, not genuine hardship.

If you’re a farmer in California, or dependent on farming, the story is very different. The combination of drought and enforcement of the Endangered Species Act means that farmers are getting almost no water from the water projects this year (that may be revised to getting 5% of their usual water, because of the February rains). For many of them, this drought means putting in wells and fallowing everything but their orchards. Cattle and dairies are thinning their herds, because dry pastures are too sparse to feed their cows. Farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley are taking the hardest hit, with unemployment over thirty percent in some towns.

If you’re a salmon in California, this drought could well be the end of you. This year’s salmon returns were historic lows, and tepid reduced rivers may finish them off. However, if you’re a wildfire in California, dying forests in the Sierras are waiting for you!

Is this because of climate change? Is this the new normal?

We can’t say for sure that climate change is causing this drought. California’s hydrology has always been extremely variable. This drought is still within the variability recorded in the past hundred years. If you take a longer view than that, tree rings and pollen samples in soil cores can reconstruct paleo droughts that lasted for decades and centuries. We can’t know that this drought wouldn’t have happened in an unaltered climate.

We do know that this drought is roughly what the climate change models predict for California. The usual synthesis from the models is about a ten percent decline in precipitation, and more importantly, loss of the Sierra snowpack. The snowpack captured water for us, releasing it slowly over four months, giving us time to move it to reservoirs, cities and farms. Rainstorms in the mountains mean hard-to-capture floods instead. Whether or not climate change caused this drought, it does give us a taste of the future.

Is this the new normal? I don’t think we’ll return to a time when there was so much water that it didn’t have to be managed carefully. Even if rain and snows return to normal, we’re expecting another twenty million people here in the next few decades. It isn’t hard to imagine that in retrospect, this drought will feel like a discontinuity, the last time when having a lawn was the default, the last time when meat grown on pasture and alfalfa was cheap, or the last time when California salmon were commercially fished.

But how people experience having less water in the future depends heavily on expectations and institutional decisions. Drought, to Californians, is never going to mean a four mile hike to fill a jug from a water truck. Compared to much of the world, what we experience as drought is luxurious. But people expect what they have now, and distributing less water to half again as many people is going to mean that we can’t use water the way we have. This drought has made it clear that with somewhat less water we can’t grow as much food as we have, have robust fish populations and be casual about urban use.

Right now, our collective expectations for water are competing and failing in a jangled mess. Courts, agencies, the governor and the legislature are deciding things left and right, with no overarching vision, authority or principles. There’s no guarantee that we’ll save our salmon runs or Delta smelt, and our efforts depend largely on the will of a single judge in Fresno. Farms are going under willy-nilly, with little or no aid to the growers or farm workers, and equally little consideration for what that means to the nation’s food supply. City water districts are working furiously to get people to believe that they must use less water somehow. Everyone from every angle is making any kind of argument to protect whatever privilege they’re used to.

It is kind of an exciting time, if you like water politicking and turbulence. For all the upheaval, though, even with this drought, the issue isn’t whether people will die of thirst. We are wealthy enough and will have enough water that the issues are whose lives will change most, who will pay for what, and what we prioritize and protect.