California Must Reckon With Its Long History of Drought

In recent days and weeks, we’ve been seeing similar-sounding headlines out of California, such as this:

Sacramento breaks 130-year old for low rainfall

And this:

LA is on track to set dry-weather record

Indeed, as my fellow Discover blogger Tom Yulsman noted last month:

We’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for the official year-end precipitation numbers, but there is no question that 2013 will rank as the driest year in the state since recording-keeping began in 1894.

Now that this has come to pass, California weather watchers will be focused on what happens over the next several months, writes the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR):

Most of the state’s rainfall comes in the winter—roughly a third of the water used in California is drawn from the Sierra Nevada’s vast snowpack—so it’s the fall-through-spring totals that make or break things in the dry heat of summer.

Meanwhile, California Governor Jerry Brown has recently declared a “drought state of emergency.” During a press conference he said:

We’re facing perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records began being kept about a hundred years ago.

It’s unfortunate that much of the discussion of this drought–reinforced by Governor Brown–is framed around such a short-term perspective. As UCLA geographer Glen MacDonald writes in this 2007 paper:

Instrumental records of climate and hydrology in western North America only span the last 100 years or so. They are too short to capture the full range of natural climate variability, drought behavior and drought impact. The instrumental records are also too short to provide evidence on the full range of potential forcing factors that could produce severe and prolonged droughts.

More illuminating are the tree ring records that MacDonald discusses in his paper, which reveal a series of mega-droughts periodically hammering California over the past millennium. This is not breaking news. Researchers have amply chronicled such mega-droughts (lasting decades and even hundreds of years) for California and the American Southwest. Geographer Scott Stine published a seminal paper on California’s prehistoric drought history in Nature two decades ago. Here’s the 1994 New York Times headline of the story covering that research:

Severe Ancient Droughts: A Warning to California

Earlier this month, after announcing California’s drought state of emergency, Governor Brown told reporters:

It’s important to wake all Californians to the serious matter of the drought and lack of rain. We are in an unprecedented, very serious situation that people should pause and reflect on how dependent we are on the rain, nature and one other.

The residents of California may be facing an unprecedented situation in their lifetimes, but by no means is the drought they are experiencing unprecedented for California. Fortunately, this larger context is being reported by some, such as Bryan Walsh at Time, and Paul Rogers at the San Jose Mercury News.

Governor Brown missed an opportunity to educate California residents about the full history of the landscape they inhabit–an important, cautionary history that today’s Californians may eventually be forced to wake up to.

Below is the U.S. Drought Monitor for California last week.

U.S. Drought Monitor forCalifornia


  • D0 – Abnormally Dry
  • D1 – Moderate Drought
  • D2 – Severe Drought
  • D3 – Extreme Drought
  • D4 – Exceptional Drought



22 Responses to “California Must Reckon With Its Long History of Drought”

  1. Bill C says:

    from bryan walsh article you linked to:

    “Ingram notes that the late 1930s to early 1950s—a time when much of the great water infrastructure of the West was built, including the Hoover Dam—may turn out to have been unusually wet and mild on a geologic time scale”

    that is very interesting in the context of ocean cycles.

  2. Buddy199 says:

    Southern California is a desert, San Bernadino looks like the Mars Rover pictures. Deserts do get very dry and hot, no surprise there.

  3. Tom Scharf says:

    Wow, an entire article about drought, and you didn’t even mention global warming once. I’m proud of you, ha ha.

  4. Captain America says:

    California is overpopulated, and there is no restraint on growth. Something has to give.

  5. Cheryl says:

    Finally in approval here…. and on track in Carlsbad

  6. David Skurnick says:

    Great post! Given that history, resources should be used to build additional reservoir capacity. Instead. CA is cutting CO2 emissions, even though the steps taken in that direction will have utterly negligible benefit to the state. Oh, and we’re also committed to a train boondoggle.

  7. Bill C says:

    I was wondering about desal….at the risk of sounding like a cornucopian, I think we’d see a lot of desalination before we have mass evacuations of the Southwest. And California is closer to the ocean than Arizona.
    Coming next…spray-on sewage snowpack!

  8. bobito says:

    I’ll at least give Gov Brown credit for adding the caveat “since records began being kept about a hundred years ago.”

    We NEVER see such caveats after one says something about “the X warmest year ever.”

  9. Cheryl says:

    Lived out here for 30 yrs. and they have been talking about this plant for that long, finally in construction. I drive buy it weekly…right across from the ocean. No one that I know is going anywhere 🙂 They will figure it out in Arizona….

  10. mem_somerville says:

    This gives me chills, from Walsh’s piece:

    Altogether, agriculture uses around 80% of the state’s developed water supply.

    It doesn’t matter where the blame goes, what matters is they produce an awful lot of food.

  11. JH says:

    Well, as Keith notes here, the entire SW is subject to such droughts. Much of the farming in both Cali and the SW is possible because of water mega-projects like the Central Arizona project, which, last I knew, were delivering water at well below cost.

    In the mean time, here in the wet PNW, naturally well-watered farm land is being paved over at an alarming rate. It’s being paved over because the land is more valuable for strip malls and housing developments than it is for farming. And – perhaps – it’s more valuable for shopping centers because food prices are artificially depressed by the low prices farmers pay for water from the SW water projects.

  12. Buddy199 says:

    Not all droughts are the result of natural climate variability. California’s San Joaquin Valley farming region is experiencing a drought that was deliberately legislated into existence:

  13. Uncle Al says:

    1) 20 million tonnes of Fukushima flotsam covering a Texas-sized area of the North Pacific reflect sunlight back into space. Add cold meltwater from Alaska. A cold Pacific generates dense high pressure systems, pushing the jet stream north and stifling the Pineapple Express. The Sierra snowpack will be a no-show for years.

    2) The Central Valley is desert growing rice in flooded paddies. Its water consumption is immense. You can save the Socialist Dutchy of California by not watering your lawn, not bathing, not flushing your toilet, and paying the Carbon Tax on Everything.

    3) California proves the desiccation and incineration of Global Warming. East of the Rockies, the coldest winter in recorded history (“only span the last 100 years or so“) is only weather. Revelation 22:7: Gauged, renormalized, perturbation theoried, dualed, promoted into higher dimensions, exhaustively peer reviewed and published. “I’ll be right back.” It’s only been 2000 years.

  14. Tom Yulsman says:

    Great post Keith! This perspective often is missing from discussions about what’s happening in California.

  15. J M says:

    Steve McIntyre had a post on fallen California lake kevels during MWP. Lake levels for much lower than today for 200 years and forests grew 100 feet below present surface:

    “The author of this paper has discovered large trees rooted at a depth of 36.5 m (120′) below the existing surface level of Fallen Leaf Lake. Fallen Leaf is one of the major watershed areas for Lake Tahoe. Some of these trees measure over 30 m (98′) tall with a circumference of over 4.5 m (15′), which is an indication that they were over two hundred years in age when they died. The significance of this discovery is the fact that for these trees to be rooted below the surface of the lake, the lake must have been down at least 36.5 m for over two hundred years. ….The carbon dating of the raised tree samples indicated that the tree died in A.D. 1215 ± 40 years….”

  16. alexaisback says:

    David, perhaps you do not understand the issue fully.
    You see if you cut CO2 you can control the weather. That is the central goal of the administration and global warming.
    The Government can then make it rain when they want. That is the goal. Control the rain and you do not need a reservoir. Control the weather and you do not need to worry about global warming or anything else.
    The Government has this well in hand, the current administration is genious. They control the money and our economy via the Fed so everything is perfect, they control heath care so everything is better and less expensive and every one will live longer, and soon they will have full control over the weather.

  17. Loren Eaton says:

    I lived in Sacramento between 1987 and 1993 and it was dry in the valley and the mountains got very little snow in the winters. And then it ended in a big way…with ridiculous rain and flooding. This will end. And those of us on the east coast are getting hammered by this pattern.

  18. Alec Sevins says:

    California is still overpopulated and projected to have at least 20 million more people by mid-century (reckless and insane). Regardless of drought stages or assumptions of relief, there are too many people and the whole economy is based on mindless growth.

  19. Alec Sevins says:

    Yeah, any cuts in CO2 emissions in any given region will be dismissed by science-deniers as “utterly negligible” even though CO2 mixes throughout the global atmosphere. Just another way to ignore the evidence and try to geo-engineer nature into submission. Man tends to create an endless series of problems that way, all to support the unsustainable fantasy of endless population/economic growth.

  20. David Skurnick says:

    Alec — You’re concerned about climate change, so you should hope for a method that will actually work. Calling me a “denier” isn’t helpful. To be on the side of science, one needs to talk in the language of science, namely mathematics.
    CO2 is a greenhouse gas. It warms the planet. Cutting our CO2 emissions will mean less warming. However, the key question is, How much less?
    The plan propounded by the EPA and Mr. Obama is fairly rigorous. Even so, when one looks at the climate models, this plan (if fully implemented) would mean a difference in global temperature in the year 2100 of only 0.018 degrees C. This is a tiny amount. The CO2 emissions in China, India and other under-developed nations will cause much larger increases in global warming.

  21. Alec Sevins says:

    You made two dumb comments in one post: the implication that AGW doesn’t exist, and a conspiracy theory about water that implies saving a fish is unnecessary, to gloss over the larger issue of human overpopulation. Brilliant.

    Do you have any clue that the world is finite and humans are vastly overpopulated? California is a textbook case of people crashing into physical limits, but just as with AGW the evidence gets ignored.

  22. Alec Sevins says:

    That’s right, let’s blame China and do nothing at home to set an example for them. America is still a huge CO2 contributor and if you grasped the full situation you’d not try to pass the buck.

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