Friday, June 12, 2015

Back to the Future

So what is drought? As discussed earlier, it's a condition where the population's requirements for water outrun the resources of a region or country. The MAHB covers this as well, noting that Taiwan is dealing with a severe water shortage, and we see this in devastating impacts in Kathmandu and Sao Paulo as well. It's a worldwide issue that we've seen coming for decades.

In California, the drought conditions are exacerbated by overuse of water from a formerly abundant system of water supply pipes and rivers from the Bay Delta and the Colorado River. It's a massive system of hydraulic engineering developed since well over 100 years ago to bring water into the drier areas of the state. This is a complex picture with no easy solutions and a lot of exhausted old ideas about how water is supplied and the way to keep the water supply system functioning without the environmental devastation that comes from the needs of nearly 40 million people, as well as the farming industry's demand of a significant portion of it. Devin Galloway, a scientist with the geological survey, sees devastation of a historic proportion returning to California. He says that even if farmers stopped pumping groundwater immediately, the damage already done to aquifers now drained to record-low levels will trigger sinking that will last for years, even decades.

A big part of the problem is the water contracts within this system, and as the chart above shows, the demand for water has now begun to outstrip the actual supply. Unfortunately the contracts held by the water suppliers in this system significantly exceed the actual supply of water, and are thus oversubscribed. But since these contracts are not adjusted, this "paper water" will continue to be sold to new water meters as development continues in the state. This slide is part of a presentation given by Bill Patzert, a climatologist with Caltech’s NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He presented it at the beginning of this month, which is covered in an interview at LA Magazine. To quote him: "The biggest change is not a global warming-related increase in temperature. The biggest change stems from the extreme makeover we’ve done in California. In L.A., the average temperature has changed more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 150 years."

The public response to this drought has been a multiple-broadcast presentation by Governor Jerry Brown via television and internet media this last week, in a conversation at USC. He held forth about the need to deal with water resources intelligently. “The metaphor is spaceship Earth,” Brown said. “In a spaceship you reuse everything. Well, we’re in space and we have to find a way to reuse, and with enough science and enough funding we’ll get it done.”

So, our Governor Moonbeam is back, and in the driver's seat. Given his rhetoric, he's evidently aiming for COP 21 and a leadership position with the agreements he's forged with the western states, Canada, China and India. This should prove to be a very interesting year.

Update 7/14/15: Historical background of California’s water crisis; the “paper water” principle is similar to financial derivatives, as paper water can be traded without the need for any tangible collateral. Real estate speculators saw this as a true chimera, enabling them to build virtually anywhere, regardless of the presence of water.