The Drought That May Never End

The Drought That May Never End

This is the American West in the early days of climate change.


Last week, like many of you, I took a few days off work. I went up into the mountains, to Lake Tahoe, hoping to ski—the slopes at the nearby Northstar resort having been, as recently as a few days earlier, advertised as being open as of November 19. But when I got there, there was no snow. The weather had been so warm that all of the early-season October snows had melted away, and because it wasn’t freezing at night, the snow machines upon which the big resorts rely on to kick-start their seasons in November hadn’t been able to lay down artificial snow either. The slopes were shuttered, and, as I write this two weeks later, there’s still no definite opening date.

I write this not to provoke sympathy; I’m sure that not one of my readers cares a whit whether I ski or don’t. But I write it to highlight how dire California’s drought has become and how unsettling its long-term prospects are as the climate changes and California’s fabled climate—where one can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon, as the old cliché goes—shifts toward something a whole lot more brutal and less welcoming. By the 2040s, a new model generated by UC Berkeley scientists predicts, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, upon which much of the state, including much of the state’s fine-tuned agribusiness, depends for regular water supplies, will largely vanish for years at a stretch. The wondrous snows of the high country are a likely casualty of a warming planet.

Despite a record deluge in the northern part of the state in late October, the West’s drought has, if anything, intensified since then. Many parts of California, Nevada, and southern Oregon saw no rain or snow at all in November. It was the first time since the early 1980s that the month was entirely dry in cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego. In consequence, every single county in the state is now under a drought emergency. During the last drought, then-Governor Brown ordered significant cutbacks in water usage, and the state’s residents have largely adhered to a lower-usage water model in the years since, making new cutbacks more difficult to implement since the easy changes have already been made and absorbed into daily life. While Governor Gavin Newsom hasn’t yet imposed mandatory water restrictions, more and more localities are imposing new conservation mandates, with fines for overuse.

The cuts are going into effect in cities red and blue alike, with some of the toughest new regulations in deeply conservative Central Valley cities like Bakersfield, where residents have long opposed state mandates as government overreach, but where city utility companies and water districts are now facing a daunting reality of denuded reservoirs and overstretched groundwater systems.

Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which coordinates the distribution of water from the State Water Project—a giant system moving vast amounts of water from the north of the state to the big cities of the south, and storing huge amounts of water in reservoirs throughout the state—urged the water agencies in the cities it serves to limit usage and cut back on how much water they draw from the SWP. Water agencies’ allotments from the SWP are already down a staggering 95 percent this year, and their initial allotments in 2022 are scheduled to be zero. It’s the first time in the project’s history that a year has begun with absolutely no water being distributed, meaning they will have to draw on alternative supplies over the coming months. While they can do so in the short term—and have long prepared for just such an eventuality—the longer the drought continues, the harder it will be to juggle water sources successfully for Southern California’s great urban hubs.

With no sign of a let-up to the crisis, it seems all but inevitable that the state will soon also order residents to restrict how much water they use.

This isn’t just a California problem. Despite a slew of flood-inducing storms along Washington’s coast, go inland a bit and the drought is affecting eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, and even the Dakotas. Further south, large parts of the desert states of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico are even drier than usual. More than four-fifths of New Mexico’s topsoil is now short of moisture, meaning it’s less viable for agricultural usage, and more likely to create Dust Bowl–type conditions in which the topsoil simply blows away.

Back up in Tahoe, instead of skiing, I walked along the shoreline of Lake Tahoe. It’s every bit as stunning as it is in wetter seasons, but look closely and one can see hints of the disorienting scale of the drought. In particular, the old wooden piers that line so many of the beaches are now jutting out not into water but into more sand, as the edge of the lake recedes.

A similarly discombobulating vision hits one when visiting reservoirs such as Folsom Lake, a half-hour drive from my home in Sacramento. These days one can walk across mud flats that are normally deeply submerged.

This is the American West in the early days of climate change. God only knows what it will look like decades from now as the effects of a warming planet accelerate past the point of no return.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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