Drought

Driest year in California history sparks arid memories and previews the warmer world we're creating

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steve@sfbg.com

I remember the dead lawns, 90-second timed showers, empty fountains and pools, and water cops issuing tickets for washing one's dirty car. "If it's yellow let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down," went the toilet edict they taught us in school. Water was too precious to just wantonly flush away.

I was 8 years old in 1976-77 during California's last severe drought, but I retain vivid, visceral memories of that time. Water was an ever-present concern. I learned how dependent we are on the natural world and the role that individual responsibility plays in collective action, particularly in times of turmoil.

Everyone's yards were brown; nobody's cars were clean. We were in it together.

But even deeply implanted memories and learned behaviors fade. I may still feel subtle emotional pangs when I watch the water running down the drain when I shave or wash the dishes, yet I'd content myself with the knowledge that water is a renewable resource and we were no longer in a severe drought.

Or at least I was able to do that until this season. California experienced its driest year in recorded history in 2013, and it's still not raining as we go to press. Yes, there are welcome predictions of finally getting some rain this week, but not the sustained precipitation we need to make a difference.

If current long-range weather forecasts hold true, this winter could be even drier than last winter, causing by far the most severe drought in state history, worse than '76-'77, even worse than 1923-24, the driest winter ever and the beginning of a seven-year drought.

"We're facing the worst drought California has ever seen," Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters on Jan. 17 as he proclaimed a state of emergency, invoking powers to redirect water resources and asking Californians to reduce their consumption by 20 percent.

Yet as dire as this situation may be — and we'll have a better idea by the end of March, when more stringent water restrictions will be enacted if we don't get some serious rainfall by then — one of the scariest aspects to this drought is that it may be just a preview of things to come.

This could be the new normal by the end the century. Most reputable climate change models predict California's average temperature will increase 3-8 degrees by 2100. That's enough to radically change our climate, causing shorter winters with less precipitation, and more of it coming in the form of rain than snow, undermining the elegant system of storing water within the Sierra snowpack.

That also translates into more extreme conditions, from more flooding in the winter and spring to more dangerous heat waves and wildfires in the summer and fall — and more frequent and severe droughts.

"People should reflect on how dependent we are on rain, nature, and other another," Brown said at the end of his news conference. "This is Mother Nature. At some point we have to decide to live with nature and get on nature's side and not abuse the resources we have."

That theme of interdependence was one he returned to several times during that 14-minute event. Brown was governor during that last big drought in '76-'77, and when a reporter asked what lessons he took from that experience, he said, "We're dependent on rain, we're dependent on one another."

He expressed confidence that Californians will find their way through even the most severe drought, although he acknowledged it will exacerbate existing conflicts between cities and rural areas, farmers and environmentalists, and Northern and Southern California as each fights for its interests.

"This takes a coming together of all the people of California to deal with this serious and prolonged event of nature," Brown said. "This is going to take a lot of support and a lot of collaboration on the part of everybody."