Last month, I told you about the effects of our 13 month drought, the longest driest year California has had in the last 500 years. Four weeks later, things are a little better, but not much. We had a huge storm system that brought us as much as 10 inches of rain in some parts of Northern California. Better yet, the storm finally punched a hole in that huge area of high pressure system that has parked itself off the coast of California for the past year. And please note, when I say “huge” in this instance, I really mean huge. This ridge of high pressure is four miles high and as long as the Sierras. So, it’s been like a brick wall blocking us from the Pacific storms that usually gives us all our year’s water in a few months. Granted some storms were able to sweep down from Alaska, but that’s not the same thing. Those storms are cold and usually fairly dry. The net result was little moisture.
Contrast that to our usual winter weather systems. It’s an effect called The Pineapple Express. These are warm storms, originating in Hawaii and further East — usually the by-product of typhoons — that carry massive amounts of water. It wasn’t unusual to have several inches of rain in one day and a wave of storm systems that would last for weeks or even months. If you’ve never lived in a semi-arid environment, you have no idea how wonderful rain is. If you’ve never lived in Coastal California, you can’t imagine how beautiful the Pineapple Express is. A day or two before the storm hit, you’d feel it as a warm moist wall of air. In usually chilly San Francisco, all of a sudden, it would feel as if you were in the Belize. The fog would move out, the evening would be warm and the air would be torpid. Then it would hit — usually with a solid wall of water. Not drizzle, not just a downpour, but a torrential deluge that was positively monsoon magnificent.
The best part is what would happen after the storms. Remember, we typically get no big storms or even a drizzle much later than April. Often all our water would come November to February, with the weather turning hot and sunny (at least outside the City of San Francisco) from March through late November. The hills would be burned golden and crisp and fire danger would escalate. Then the storms would hit and, within a day, everything would turn green. It would be a green more emerald than anything you’ll see outside of Ireland. In places like Sonoma, in addition to the sudden greening of the hills, wildflowers popped up, trickling streams became raging torrents, waterfalls suddenly appeared in the hills, aquifers filled and farmers rejoiced. The whole landscape perked up, drank up and prepared itself for the long dry season.
Okay, so we’ve had one huge storm system two weeks ago, which is late in our usual rainy season. The good news is that it punched right through that high pressure ridge. The bad news: State officials are warning us that we are still in a severe drought, reservoirs are way down and our Sierra snow pack, which supplies most of our water, is still a fraction of normal. Underscoring that, an Internet friend who is in the water business wrote in to say that water, at least in price, is turning into the new oil:
I’ve been following the price of water. Recently the starting bid for a 10,000 acre-foot block of water started at $600/AF. SHEZAM! That’s crazy. The winning bid was $1,350/AF. Good grief. This is going to get beyond obscene before spring begins.
We’ve got another big storm system cued up to hit us Wednesday and last through the weekend. It won’t be enough to pull us out of this drought. But every drop helps. It certainly won’t help the many farmers who are fallowing fields and ranchers who are selling off livestock because they can’t afford to feed and water them. It’s looking grim for all those wonderful agricultural products that we love and depend on. And certainly for green lawns and golf courses that really have no business in a semi-arid environment. The future is scary and uncertain.
But you know what I have faith in? All those California native plants that were born and raised to survive lack of water. I don’t know how many years they can take of stress as severe as this last year. But in the short-term — as in this month — they are back with a vengeance. New grass sprouted within a day of the storm and the wildflowers are opening everywhere. Well, not exactly everywhere. Louis, our Ranch Manager, spread wildflower seeds everywhere and he was waiting for an explosion of yellow from large plantings of California poppies.
Well, Circle of Life, my friends. Now we’ve got a second big storm system due to hit us this Wednesday through the weekend. It certainly won’t get us out of a drought situation. But I think our California natives will make good use of it.
Not that this lets anyone off the hook. Conserve water and pray for more rain!
When you referred to California natives, I had people in mind. As you know, farmers are keenly aware of the drought. I do not look forward to upcoming dust storms made much worse from the fallowed fields. Urban citizens really are clueless. Conservation should be a way of life for every Californian always. Recent visits to the Central Valley by Obama & Brown were quite fruitless PR appearances for politicians that aren’t very welcome here. The POTUS posed in a fallowed field only to jet off to Palm Springs to play golf on ridiculous desert greens. The Gov is slightly better; but to finish your conservation phrase – if it’s brown, flush it down.
The outlook is not brilliant. At the end of the year, we can at least look back to know that we witnessed history and made it.
I’ve read that a lot of farmers, especially independent farmers, are making great strides in water conservation. Although one has to ask if our land can really support that much agriculture, and certainly not swamp crops like rice that can be grown only by flooding a desert. I cringed at Obama playing golf. That was one of the most ham-handed PR blunders I’ve seen in a long time as golf courses, especially in the desert, are just criminal (not to mention the pesticides they need.) But I was still glad to see Obama here. At least we’ll start to get some media coverage. Farmers here have been worried about the drought since the end of last winter and panicked since this past November with barely a media story in sight outside of California. Sadly, I’ve found that the further you get from the water, the less conservation minded the civilians seem to be. I remember the last drought when San Francisco citizens were slashed to 75% of their previous water usage with big fines for violating that limit. Those of us who had always been water frugal found we were unduly punished, but we took our GI showers, captured the extra water in buckets for toilet flushes and to water plants (I actually just ripped out my garden of all plants that weren’t native and low water) and carried on. I’d have friends from LA call to complain that they couldn’t wash their cars more than once a week! NO rationing down there apparently, although I guess pools were drained.
And Maybelline, hopefully the farmers fallowing fields have sprinkled native grass seed. That will sprout up with just the little rain we’ve gotten and are getting and will hold the soil in. But then again, you haven’t gotten event the rain we’ve gotten down your way.
I was reading somewhere that a lot of the livestock in your area was being sold and shipped out mostly to Texas, which has depleted herds of their own from drought. We get some moisture here, but it’s ill timed and not nearly enough, so we’re still officially in a drought here.
Rather than asking if our land can support that much agriculture, I ask can our water supplies support that many people?
Jeffro: A few ranchers I know in Kern County have sold off their herds because there was no winter moisture to produce grasses in the mountains. Alfalfa is simply too expensive.
This is truly a scary year. The tension in the water industry is very, very high. Thankfully, most everyone is in a single level building. I honestly believe there would be people jumping out windows.
Ugh. I hope that the current PR about the drought makes people everywhere think more about what they eat and how and where it is produced. When we eat that which is grown locally and in season, we are not requiring crops to be grown and shipped using resource-intensive methods. It’s just common sense. So glad to hear there is finally rain, and hope that the good weather continues… “asshole deer…” love it.
I have heard that agriculture takes 80% of the water in California. But then again, we “civilians” can’t point fingers as long as we patronize golf courses in the desert and have Kentucky Bluegrass lawns in semi-arid areas. Keep us posted, Maybelline, on the official side of the drought. Your insights and knowledge help round out the picture.
Crossing everything that the rains come as predicted. So many people, so few sources of water. This is what scares me about much of the West. I am sorry to see such dire conditions in California.
Here in the Ohio basin, more or less, we have ample water but can’t be trusted to keep from poisoning it. Runoff of one kind and another, short-sighted decision making, long history of use and abuse. Sometimes I think the plentiful springs and rivers and streams lull us into believing we will never have to worry. But really that is true only if we are good stewards.