Delusion! Delusion! What Drought Is Over?

"The drought is over." "Brown is expected to declare end of drought." I've been waiting for the headlines for weeks, ever since nicely spaced rains filled local reservoirs here in Southern California. Yes, it's been a good rainfall year. The Sierra snowpack is 165% of average for this wet season. Last year it was 102%, a nice figure, but not enough to create plenitude. In fact, snowmelt supplies one third of all water consumed in California. The rest comes from groundwater. This year, there's plenty of snowmelt, so Jerry Brown lifts a statewide drought declaration issued by his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, two years ago.

Give Governor Brown his due. His lifting of the declaration stressed the continued need for water conservation by everyone in a state where demands outstrips supply. But is this enough? At the moment, everyone's relatively happy. The State Department of Water Resources will be able to provide 70% of State Water Project deliveries this year, perhaps more. Farmers in the Central Valley will get somewhat better water allocations as well. But is the drought really over? Are we free to use water promiscuously like we have in the past? The answer is an emphatic no.

Most of our water supplies comes from finite ground water sources, which, for the most part, are not being replenished. So snowmelt is vital. Unfortunately, history tells us that California and the West have suffered under very long drought cycles of a century or more in the past. One cycle identified from tree-rings in the beds of Sierra lakes chronicles severe drought conditions between about A.D. 910 until around 1100, at a time when California's population was a fraction of what it is today. In some dry years, water inflow into Owens Lake was between 45% and 50% of modern amounts before the lake was drained by William Mullholland and the newly formed Los Angeles Department of Water and Power after 1913. With such examples from history -- and there are many more -- it's surely delusional to talk of drought years, when what we mean are endemic, often long, arid cycles.

We Californians live in denial of a water crisis, of the reality that there may one day not be enough water to go around. This is a long-term problem, totally alien to those of us who live from election to election, think on the short term, and assume that water will always come out of the faucet when you turn it on. It's easy to think that there's plenty of water when you watch rivers flowing unchecked into the ocean this spring. "Build more reservoirs," we cry, but, in fact, these are but an ineffective Band Aid. There are few years when the cost of building them for ultra-high floods justifies the expense. And remember that most of our water comes from finite sources far underground.

Drought declarations may attract headlines, but they are meaningless in semiarid regions where dry years are endemic and drought cycles are a way of life. It was no coincidence that the Ancestral Pueblo Indians of 1,000 years ago surrounded their lives with intricate water rituals, developed strong kin ties of reciprocity with neighbors near and far, so they could move in the face of scarcity, and became brilliant managers of a finite resource. We're in exactly the same kind of situation they were, albeit on a much larger scale, but we haven't yet learned to live with it. And this time there are tens of millions of us.

We face a future where permanent, very austere water conservation has to become an integral part of our lives. We cannot live in denial in a world where water may become more expensive than gasoline and where many of future wars will not surround petty nationalisms or religious dogma, but a single word: water. The solution lies in long-term thinking and planning, something we seem to find hard as we live with a primordial reality. History also tell us that the best water managers are often those who live close to the soil and live in small communities. We would do well to remember this as we navigate wet and dry years in world where we will never control the weather, or be able to determine how much rain falls on our fields. We are facing a future where we will have to invest heavily in water conservation for the short- and long-term at the local level regardless of cost. Imposing and lifting drought restrictions looks good in the headlines, but disguises stark reality. If we want to continue our entitlements, we need to think very publically, and act, in the longer term, not just to satisfy our desire for instant solutions and immediate gratification.