Drought Takes Hold of California

Drought Takes Hold of California

As the recall election nears, rising heat and access to water may become defining political issues for the state.


On September 14, barely two months from now, Californians will vote on whether to recall Governor Newsom. Until recently, it was fair to assume that most voters would make their decision as to whether to keep the governor or ditch him based on how they viewed his response to the Covid crisis. But now, with the most chaotic and deadly days of the pandemic hopefully behind the state, other issues could well come to the fore.

The two most obvious are drought and crime.

This weekend, the heat is going to be in the 110–120 degree range throughout much of California, and into Arizona, Nevada, and other states of the American West. From the Mexican border all the way north through this vast state, California is on yet another extreme heat watch, and yet another red alert for wildfires. Already this year, more than 100 square miles of land has burned in California, more than double the amount burned by early July in last year’s fire season—a fire season that ended up being by far the worst in the state’s history.

At the same time, the West’s access to water is rapidly dwindling, as a brutal drought takes hold. According to hydrologists I have spoken to in recent weeks, the lack of usable snow melt this year is attributable less to lack of snow in the Sierras than to the extreme dryness of the soil, which meant that when the snow melted it simply seeped into the soil pores rather than flowing into streams and then reservoirs. The result has been a water shortage far worse than at a comparable point in the last drought, which lasted from 2011 to 2017. Where California’s water systems are now, barely two years into this drought, is where those same systems were at least three years into the previous extreme dry period, in 2014–15. There just isn’t enough surface water to allocate to all who need it, and the groundwater systems are so strained, so overdrawn that increasingly, in many parts of the state, accessing that water is becoming an exercise in uncertainty.

None of this is Newsom’s fault—after all, his environmental policies and priorities are far more progressive than are those of the national Democratic Party. But that doesn’t mean at least some Californians won’t blame him as their wells start to dry up and, for farmers, their water allocations are reduced.

Seven years ago, when I was reporting on drought conditions in the Central Valley and the western edge of the Sierras, I interviewed numerous residents, many of them low-income and nonwhite, whose wells had run dry as the drought intensified. It wasn’t that there was no groundwater; but the groundwater that remained was being sucked up by agribusiness, and as a result the water table was falling—meaning that shallow residential wells were no longer reaching drinkable water. This time around, even though the drought is still young, I am hearing those same stories. Over the coming months, thousands of wells, and many small-town water systems, will fail as climate change-induced extreme heat and drought tighten their vise on the region.

Anyone who’s seen Chinatown will have at least an inkling of the ruthlessness and corruption associated with the doling out of water rights in California. Historically, irrigation districts have been controlled by cash-wielding Big Business, and ordinary residents have been left on the sidelines.

In recent years, however, a series of progressive bills have passed on water access and distribution in the state. Access to sufficient quantities of safe water has been labeled a human right. After centuries of Wild West water-grabs by landowners and businesses who had the right to take pretty much unlimited amounts of groundwater, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act has mandated that local water districts develop plans to make groundwater usage sustainable by the year 2040. Basic principles of equity are now front and center when it comes to state-level decisions surrounding water access and distribution.

That newfound interest in water equity is playing out in fascinating ways. In the Imperial Valley, for example, an irrigation district charged with distributing water from the Colorado River was once hand-in-glove with large-scale farmers and their needs. Now, however, its board is ethnically and economically diverse, and it isn’t automatically sacrificing all other interests to satisfy the water needs of agribusiness. Last month, the US Supreme Court refused to hear a case brought by an Imperial Valley farmer who argued that the Colorado River water flowing through the area belongs to the farmers rather than to the local irrigation district, paving the way for a more diverse distribution of the precious liquid over coming years and decades.

It was a surprisingly decent ruling, given the court’s composition, but it will almost certainly fuel anti-government sentiment in conservative regions of the state, and will further politicize the availability of water as supplies dwindle. And while Newsom neither caused the drought nor was behind the Supreme Court’s ruling, that doesn’t mean that water won’t be a growing issue as the recall election nears.

As for crime, as in most other regions of the country, California is experiencing a spike in violent crimes—particularly shootings. Last year, the state saw a more than 30 percent jump in murders; this year, too, that trend has continued. In Los Angeles, murders are up by more than 40 percent compared to the same period in 2020.

Last year, neither Newsom nor the progressive DAs—Boudin in San Francisco, Gascon in Los Angeles, and a handful of others—paid a political price for the escalating crime levels. But now both Boudin and Gascon are, like Newsom, facing campaigns to recall them. In LA County, 17 of the county’s 88 cities have already passed motions of no-confidence in Gascon.

Between wildfires and drought and crime, California’s politics could soon get a whole lot more acrimonious and a whole lot more unpredictable. True, for the past quarter-century, the state has by and large been moving in a more progressive direction, but don’t be fooled by the headlines. This is far from a politically monolithic state, and a pandemic followed by a crime spike and a growing environmental cataclysm has the potential to scramble California’s political calculus in strange ways over the coming months.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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