The Californian canary

Written By: - Date published: 11:54 am, May 2nd, 2015 - 42 comments
Categories: climate change, us politics, water - Tags: , ,

California is a climate change “canary in a coal mine” (the links with coal particularly apt). There are many other vulnerable regions around the world of course, but California is particularly important because it is an American canary, and (in general) Americans only care about American events.

The Californian canary is in trouble:

The End of California?

…Of course, there is nothing normal about the fourth year of the great drought: According to climate scientists, it may be the worst arid spell in 1,200 years. For all the fields that will go fallow, all the forests that will catch fire, all the wells that will come up dry, the lasting impact of this drought for the ages will be remembered, in the most exported term of California start-ups, as a disrupter.

“We are embarked upon an experiment that no one has ever tried,” said Gov. Jerry Brown in early April, in ordering the first mandatory statewide water rationing for cities.

The Golden State may recover, but it won’t be the same place. Looking to the future, there is also the grim prospect that this dry spell is only the start of a “megadrought,” made worse by climate change. California has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs. What if the endless days without rain become endless years?

In the cities of a changed California, brown is the new green. A residential lawn anywhere south of, say, Sacramento, is already considered an indulgence. “If the only person walking on your lawn is the person mowing it,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, then maybe it should be taken out. The state wants people to convert lawns to drought-tolerant landscaping, or fake grass.

Artificial lakes filled with Sierra snowmelt will become baked-mud valleys, surrounded by ugly bathtub rings. Some rivers will dry completely — at least until a normal rain year. A few days ago, there was a bare trickle from the Napa, near the town of St. Helena, flowing through some of the most valuable vineyards on the planet. The state’s massive plumbing system, one of the biggest in the world, needs adequate snow in order to serve farmers in the Central Valley and techies in Silicon Valley. This year, California set a record low Sierra snowpack in April — 5 percent of normal — following the driest winter since records have been kept.

Not that I wish any ill on Californians, but in the grand scheme of things it is probably good for our global chances of action to limit climate change that such a clear example of the damaging effects are playing out in the USA’s back yard.

42 comments on “The Californian canary”

  1. weka 1

    I agree, a good wake up call hopefully. However this is as much about land use as CC, they go hand in hand (and it’s very misleading for that article to say that California’s problems are created by nature not man).

    The two things are instrinsically linked, and so are the solutions.

    eg turn lawns into food growing areas using water harvesting and passive irrigation techniques, and you do a number of things: produce local food (no food miles); rehydrate the land which in turn rehydrates the water tables; get rid of lawn mowers and all the oil and infrastructure involved in that; cool hot climates by having more vegetation etc.

    Some links on how to use water sustainably (applies to NZ too). Swales can be used on any scale (home garden to large farm).

    How swales rehydrate the landscape (1 1/2 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFeylOa_S4c

    Swales in drought ridden North Texas harvesting rainwater. This is how you hold water in the land instead of having it run off the top, which in a dry and now parched/hydrophobic landscape like Texas is radical (7mins but you can get the gist in the first few).

    • Excellent point Weka.

      It seems to me that much of the work that needs to be done to adapt is on a local scale – individuals, families and communities. Local measures to secure a reliable and inexpensive source of food and otherwise reduce the household costs of, say, commuting and consumption seem an intergral part of meeting the challenges of the wider scale.

    • AmaKiwi 1.2

      California is America’s front yard, not it’s back yard.

      It’s the USA’s media center so maybe California’s media will help to bury the money hungry climate change deniers. By contrast, a drought in Montana would go unreported.

    • Paul Campbell 1.3

      water law in the US is complex – Eastern states follow English riparian law – if it flows over your land you can do what you like with it. Western states inherited Spanish law – and tend to use prior appropriation – if you have a water right those upstream can’t take it away (they can’t dam a river, they can’t even collect tank water from their roof) – I suspect swales are a sneaky way to legally keep water without using a dam

      • weka 1.3.1

        Good point about sneaky swales (although I don’t think that’s the primary reason for using them). Is the water ban on harvesting rainwater old or new? I thought it was a new thing, but it might just be that it’s being policed now as the water extractive industry makes it obvious that water is a finite resource.

        • Paul Campbell 1.3.1.1

          it’s old – as I said it’s law that was inherited from the Spanish – I think going after people with roof tanks is relatively new though

          • weka 1.3.1.1.1

            ok, I had thought the water harvesting thing was coming from authorities rather than private land owners. Is the water right inherent in the ownership, or something that has to be granted?

            • Paul Campbell 1.3.1.1.1.1

              I believe you own a water right separately from land – some may be hundreds of years old – the farm downstream from your home may have rights to the water you’re trying to capture from your roof

  2. ianmac 2

    Wonder if the well meaning water retention in Texas means that normal flow no longer makes it to the rivers and thus to where it is needed?

    • cricklewood 2.1

      No I dont think so. A real problem with a cleared landscape is that rain water enters river systems before it can permeate the ground causing destrutive floods. By slowing the water movement through the use of swales etc a river will rise far more slowly and disperse the water downstream over a longer period of time. Effectivly the river becomes healthier because the massive peaks and troughs in water flow tend to be average out.

      • ianmac 2.1.1

        Yes. I get that. Cleared bush on hillside causes landslides and slumping and instant floods. Some farmers clear land overgraze and complain when the land in their care slips away. Saw a lot of that in the Gisborne area.

        Of course there is a plan afoot to dam and retain water in the hills to the west of Canterbury. Would that have the same effect as swales?

        • cricklewood 2.1.1.1

          Definatly not the same effect as a swale, a swale just slows water down and allows the soil to asborb more. A dam stores water and the effect it would have on a river depends I guess in how the dam was managed. If you took water during very high flow and then released it at a consistent rate during periods of low flow it would be beneficial to a river system. However most dams are built for the purpose of either power, town water suplly or irrigation and in effect any thought to the health of the river is secondary at best.
          The state of the Hutt River been a good case in point water gets drawn off over summer leaving it down to a warm trickle…

          • RedLogix 2.1.1.1.1

            The Hutt River is actually managed very well by GWRC.

            There is only one point where water is drawn off at the Kaitoke Weir. In the summer when the river is naturally low – a great deal of care has been taken to accurately measure the total river flow, and only abstract exactly the amount agreed to in the consent. There is always a minimum of 60 Ml/Day left in the river at that point, and this flow has a higher priority than the drinking water supply.

            Then there are at least 3 – 4 other significant catchments entering below this point. By the time it gets through the gorge and out to Te Marua there is almost always the quality and sufficient flow to maintain excellent river health

            Unfortunately lower down again where the Maymorn valley stream enters just upstream of Brown Owl is where most of the agricultural sourced pollution has entered in the past.

            What most people don’t realise is that downstream again, particularly in the Taita Gorge area, there is a lot of seepage from the river bed down into the Waiwhetu acquifer where eventually it emerges many decades later under the Wellington Harbour.

            This is why by the time the river gets below Tatia it naturally looks like a trickle in summertime. If we stopped abstracting water at Kaitoke you would see an almost negligible difference at Lower Hutt.

            It is true that Wellington depends heavily on the Hutt River; and no-one thinks it’s a good idea to be even more dependent on it. Which is why long-term plans look at collection and storage in other catchments.

            • cricklewood 2.1.1.1.1.1

              Whilst it is “well managed” the effect of allowing the river to drop to 400l or 600l per second before water take is ceased is not beneficial to the river.
              Whilst I understand the cities/people need the water my point around loss of flow been detrimental to a rivers health still stands.
              Interestingly an old boy that I worked for in Petone reckoned the volume of water bubbling up into the harbour has reduced greatly. He told me he had fished around what were visible upwellings not far off Petone beach for years he reckoned they all but dispeared in the late 80’s…

              • RedLogix

                You can of course claim that ANY amount of water taken is not ‘beneficial’ to a river – but in this case as the flows decline during the summer the amount being abstracted also decline, and treatment inflows are supplemented with stored water from the lakes. Which means that during the critical low flow periods the net effect of abstraction for drinking water at Te Marua where the river emerges from the gorge is 3/5th of sod all. Really.

                As you can probably tell – I used to be pretty closely involved – and I know how much effort has been put in to absolutely minimise the impact on the river. And how seriously we took that responsibility when the consents were put in place.

                Oddly enough it was only after the abstraction consents were put in place with the attendant public attention did the idea that the ‘river was being sucked dry’ get into the public minds. When ironically enough in the bad old days before the consent they really did just slam the valves wide open and actually suck the river dry at that point. And nobody downstream in the Hutt ever noticed.

                The Waiwhetu acqifer is modelled and monitored pretty closely too. The one thing the city cannot afford is to draw it down too low and risk saline harbour water backflowing up into the freshwater zone.

                The relative ‘age’ of the water as it flows under the valley is tracked using oxygen isotope tracking which also gives a pretty good idea of the health of the reservoir.

                The upwellings in the harbour are known to move around. There are a number of them, most near Sommes Is, but some right across the other side near Port Nicholson. Whether their relative activity indicates anything important is hard to tell.

        • Draco T Bastard 2.1.1.2

          Of course there is a plan afoot to dam and retain water in the hills to the west of Canterbury.

          Better idea would be to reconstitute the wetlands.

    • weka 2.2

      “Wonder if the well meaning water retention in Texas means that normal flow no longer makes it to the rivers and thus to where it is needed?”

      I don’t think so. If we consider how a natural catchment system works, it’s normal for water to be held in the landscape. But this is where you would need to look at the whole catchment eg in Canterbury, you’d want the mountains and hills to be largely forested (forests act as sponges for all that West Coast rain overspill, and then release water into the watercourses in a slow, sustained way). The plains could be manage sustainably using many of the techniques in the link below, so rather than them being big, open, very dry spaces, they becomes places that need far less irrigation and which keep the streams and rivers healthy.

      In the situation of one property swaling amongst many that are convetionally managed, I also doubt it is a problem when compared to irrigation takes, which are massively wasteful because they dump huge amounts of water on the top of the land, much of which evaporates.

      http://permaculturenews.org/2014/12/15/drought-proofing-california-not-in-the-news/

      Here’s an example from Australia where you can see an explanation of rehydration of landscape degraded over decades, by slowing water moving through a river/creek system (which is how those creeks worked before the land was cleared).

      http://earthintegral.com/2011/11/10/the-dehydration-and-rehydration-of-the-australian-landscape/

  3. Macro 3

    Having just returned from 3 months stay in Perth WA I have to add that unfortunately for many people living in a continuing drought makes little to no difference in their appreciation of the impending catastrophic consequences. WA and Perth in particular is a centre for mining. You don’t have to go far to meet some one who works in, or is related to someone who works in mining. So they have a vested interest in keeping their heads firmly in the sand – and Perth by the way is largely built on sand.
    Inflows into the Perth catchments have been declining steadily since 1970.
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214581814000251
    Perth now has the largest desalination water plant in the southern hemisphere and is building another. It draws water from a large aquifer – but the water level in that is declining. It amazes me when I visit that in the height of summer, with degrees of up to 40+C occurring regularly, that developers persist in trying to lay ready made lawns and planting trees! Day after day of cloudless sky’s and brilliant sun and no one wears a hat!
    As the linked article concludes

    As was found in analyses of previous climate model experiments, the latest set of climate model results (CMIP5, RCP8.5) all project a decline in annual rainfall by the end of the century accompanied by relatively large uncertainty. Some models (ACCESS1-3, BNU-ESM, CMCC-CESM, IPSL-CM5B-MR, IPSL-CM5B-LR, MPI-ESM-LR and NORESM1-M) exhibit time series that exhibit similarities to the observed SWWA time series in terms of a late 20th century decline. This confirms early interpretations that suggested that both natural variability and the enhanced greenhouse effect have contributed to the rainfall decrease.

    my bold.

    Regretfully I fear that even severe drought will have little impact on people’s attitudes until the consequences are so severe that they can no longer be ignored.

    • Draco T Bastard 3.1

      Regretfully I fear that even severe drought will have little impact on people’s attitudes until the consequences are so severe that they can no longer be ignored.

      Yep, that’s my reading of it and even then a lot of people will still blame someone or something else. It won’t have anything to do with them despite them owning large cars, boats and been actively encouraging more burning of fossil fuels.

    • RedLogix 3.2

      that developers persist in trying to lay ready made lawns and planting trees!

      Which is odd because over here in Ballarat (probably overall the coldest and wettest city in the Australian mainland) all the new developments are very water conservation minded. Most new homes are ‘hardscaped’ using combinations of rock, permanent mulches, pavers and a patch of synthetic turf for the kids to play on. Any larger plants are usually in planters or tubs of some sort. They’ve gotten really good at it and many are very attractive indeed.

      If you have a lawn you also have a sign on it saying “Bore Water in Use” to indicate that you are not keeping it green with town supply. And no-one – apart from the golf club that has it’s own sodding great storage lake, tries to keep acres of grass watered in the height of summer.

      Rain water storage and grey water recycling are boringly normal – as are solar cells.

      Then in the common areas of the subdivision there is usually some native re-vegetation and if possible a re-established wetland of some sort. These areas are really popular. The big drought Victoria went through between about 2005 – 2013 has definitely left it’s mark on people’s thinking.

      In some ways the Aussies are well ahead of NZ when it comes to environmental responses. And while it’s true that mining historically has a lot to answer for, these days they typically operate under tight conditions they spend a lot of time and money, monitoring and mitigating. Certainly way ahead of what is typical in many other parts of the world.

    • Shona 3.3

      When I lived in Perth in the late 1970’s lawns were rapidly becoming unfashionable and native plantings were all the rage. Landscaping with drought tolerant plants was actively encouraged by shire councils and there was a very high level of awareness of the importance of conserving water. Perth had population under 1million at that stage. Clearly the influx of Northern Hemisphere migrants has changed that. Perth is an awful city these days.

      • Macro 3.3.1

        Lawns are very much in fashion.
        As are roses and other exotics.
        My daughter and son in law are looking at purchasing a property which is unique in that it is has no lawns and is planted in indigenous plants. (5% deposit – makes home affordability within the grasp of many unlike our 20%)
        I find Perth in many ways a very beautiful city, and many of the suburbs are extremely well planned and set out. Parks abound, mature trees remain (where there have been no bushfires! – many deliberately lit), and the public transport system is improving all the time.
        Furthermore there are more and more Solar PV and Solar heating systems appearing all the time. The result of a generous Govt subsidy initially. Now 2.6 million Australians rely on Solar energy to power their homes. Still only a small percentage of total energy usage but the emphasis is obvious.
        The unsustainability of Perth as I see it, is in the attitude of Business as Usual. Much like in California. In California it’s “Let’s continue the Fracking and the industrial mono culture” and take no cognisance of the reality that we are now living in a place where the Climate has changed substantially.
        Water is fundamental to life. We cannot live without it.

    • AmaKiwi 3.4

      Perth swimming pools. Every suburban house has one.

  4. Paul 4

    These events remind me of a book I read a couple of years ago called Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer. It looked at climate change and some plausible scenarios of how the world could be in the future.

    Here are two.

    By the 2040s, Canada is selling the contents of the Great Lakes to California, and the European Union collapses in the face of millions of refugees escaping from North Africa.

    Sounds familiar?

    • Bill 4.1

      2045, Scandanavian countries discover overpopulation and begins deliberate targeting and sinking of ‘boat people’ as N.African refugees join European refugees in a mad rush to more ‘livable’ northern climes.

      The governments make some unconvincing murmer about people smugglers.

      • Draco T Bastard 4.1.1

        The Age of Stupid has a seen in it where New Zealand closes its borders in the 1920s. IMO, that’s a fairly good estimation. I know a few people are demanding that we take on more refugees but the fact is that we’re a small country and we can’t support many more people. I suspect that Europe will be closing it’s borders before us.

        There’s two catastrophes coming together here. The first is simple over population and the inevitable resource depletion that that brings. The second is climate change which is exacerbating the effects of the first.

        • Bill 4.1.1.1

          Wow! I slept that late!!! 1920’s you say…. 😉

        • Sanctuary 4.1.1.2

          According to the optimum population trust New Zealand has a sustainable population of 16.1 million. We are therefore -11.8 million on the overshoot index.

          Here is the latest index – http://www.populationmatters.org/documents/overshoot_index.pdf

          China and India in particular have overshot their sustainable carrying capacity by 1.4 billion!

          • RedLogix 4.1.1.2.1

            Thanks – that is a most interesting document.

          • Draco T Bastard 4.1.1.2.2

            It’s a good place to start asking the necessary questions about sustainability but:

            The true balance between consumption and demand for resources will appear even more unfavourable when the progressive reduction towards zero use of non-renewables is factored into the numbers. A satisfactory way to do this has yet to be devised. It also assumes that 100% of biocapacity is allocated to humans, since there is no agreed figure for the necessary share needed to conserve biodiversity.

            I suspect that there’s more work that needs to be done on it and that the final figure will be lower and probably quite a bit lower.

  5. Bill 5

    One day before their presumed deaths from dropping through thin ice and drowning…

    In a voicemail on Tuesday, Dutch researcher Marc Cornelissen, founder of Cold Facts, an organization supporting scientific research in polar regions, laughed at his predicament. He explained that unexpectedly warm weather had forced him and fellow explorer Philip de Roo to complete that afternoon’s skiing in the Canadian Arctic in their underwear.

    🙁

    http://www.theguardian.com/vital-signs/2015/may/01/deaths-arctic-researchers-ice-climate-change-cornelissen

  6. Seen this?
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11441247

    Hundreds of methane gas flares found off coast of Gisborne Apr 30, 2015
    A team of scientists have found around 766 individual methane gas flares within an area of seabed off the coast of Gisborne, in what has been described as a “major advance” for science and a first for New Zealand.
    —————————————–

    This could be abiotic methane, being close to fault lines and all.
    CH4 could be between 300 and 1,000 times stronger than CO2, depending on concentrations, these massive methane plumes could be why the east coast of NZ was something like +5 C above normal this summer?

    • Bill 6.1

      I’ve no independent or verifiable source for what I’m about to say.

      But down my way, word is that certain fish species have ‘disappeared’ and warmer water N. Island species are becoming more common.

      So, those flares. Have they ‘always’ been there? Or are they a product of general oceanic warming? There is my preferred thought and then there’s my ‘we’re fucking fucked’ thought.

  7. Sable 7

    Its a tragedy for the average person but maybe a wake up call for those making the decisions. That said from what I have seen from our home grown enviro-half-wits / political leaders and the baying 49% of drongos who think they are doing a good job, this may still be a wafer thin hope.

  8. Reddelusion 8

    Here we go again another leftiy crisis waiting to happen , as sure as night follows day expect the California drought to end shortly. There
    is a very strong negative correlation between level of left shrill to any perceived crisis and that crisis been no crisis at all


  9. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Climate Change Debate HBO

  10. Worst Case Climate Change (2008 TED Talk)
    Kevin Surace
    Published on May 18, 2014
    In February 2008 I gave a talk at TED in Monterey CA. It was a TED-U talk for about 20 minutes. That talk was recorded but never posted online. The idea was to take best case or nominal case climate change off the table, and just for the sake of it…discuss worst case scenarios. No one was giving a talk like this…it was a bit too scary. Many people left the session in tears.
    When I returned from TED we recorded the same talk in a studio even though I was sick (in this video). That was never seen or posted until now (May 2014), more than 6 years later. I remember being sick that day but doing it anyway.
    What is most interesting is to look forward from 2008 when this was taped and see what predictions have come closer to reality (arctic ice melt and antarctic as well) and which have not. Regardless of one’s beliefs or political convictions, the ideas and science here make for great conversation. Hopefully none come true.

  11. http://theartofannihilation.com/portfolio/test/

    The so-called environmental movement refuses to acknowledge, let alone discuss the fact it’s been bought, sold, muzzled and now lies in ruins in a pile of ashes. Civil society remains largely unaware of this truth, let alone the key factors behind it. And this in itself is tragic, because this issue is one of the key factors as to why we, as a global society, have failed to mitigate our environmental crisis, and why we continue to advance further to the very precipice. Yet, trained from birth to not challenge authority, to not offend, to be obedient, to be polite – we remain silent. Yes, impeccable manners, avoid conflict, and above all, do not question those who “know best”. Our deeply internalized passivism is as great a threat as the forthcoming climate apocalypse itself.

  12. Paul Campbell 12

    I lived in California for 20 years, mostly in Oakland and Berkeley – there’s a decided class issue that’s not raised here – I distinctly remember the last big drought, the water district tried to restrict water use in the poorer neighbourhoods so that people could only shower every other day so as to protect the lawns of the wealthier suburbs to the east (where the temperature is 10-20 degrees higher)

    Big chunks of California (especially LA) is desert,s omewhere that was never supposed to have lawns – I think if California wants to survive they’re going to have top change the way they use water, those lawns and golf courses are going to have to go

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