Deer in the Headlights

Yesterday the Bay Area saw a feeble weather front move through from the south. It offered little but a faint wave of fluffy clouds that dissipated as the sun set. It felt like the skies were teasing us. I was filled with dread.

This morning I started writing this post in a café with its front door propped open. It was 10 in the morning, January 21, a month after the winter solstice and what should be the coldest time of year. I finished this writing outside at sunset, wearing a light sweater (open in the front!) despite sitting in deep shade.

It was just the top half of a French door open this morning and I was a little bit chilly, but still: Here in Oakland we had yet another day of sun and temperatures approaching 70 degrees. The forecast calls for nothing but warm sun through the end of January.

Weather is not the usual topic of this blog, but in the last few weeks I’ve come to realize that it is perhaps the central factor driving the need for community-based solutions where I live. This has nationwide consequences – global even – considering California’s outsized role in food production.

Meanwhile the East reels from another round of Arctic weather, which is directly related to California’s pleasantly terrifying winter as well as the remarkable warmth and moisture plaguing Alaska (foretold here more than a year ago): The jet stream now goes north with its Pacific moisture, drops it in Canada, cools off and then returns to the U.S. This great atmospheric current is now interacting with an Arctic Ocean that has lost about 80 percent of its historical ice cover, creating a literally steaming weather generator where before there was nothing but ice. We seem to have entered an entirely different weather pattern than anything seen since before Europeans first arrived on these distant coastlands.

Frankly, if you don’t believe that the climate is changing I’m not interested in convincing you. Average temperatures are rising. But even without that wild card we are entering uncharted territory for demographic reasons. Precipitation and snowfall are about half the levels of the previous historic drought of record (1976-77), with a state population nearly double what it was at that time. Put another way, by the end of this month the Sierra Nevada have a snowpack more typical of late October. The snowpack is utterly central to California water management and is it basically missing.

This is not a matter of the wet season arriving late or being less wet than usual; we face the prospect of a year without the rain and snow that make California a marginally habitable place. We face a day of reckoning about whether it was really a good idea to cram nearly 40 million souls onto this lovely but precarious land.

Even if this isn’t permanent, if we are only facing a few dry decades like the 1450s through early 1480s, we are still facing catastrophe. Even if we are only facing another 1580, when tree ring data indicate river flows around 8 percent of normal, we are still in deep shit. Low flow showerheads are no match for this drought, and we’re going to need to rearrange some basic systems. This is the looming truth of climate change.

We are all just deer in the headlights. Some little part of us is screaming: “Run! Change! Do something! If it’s yellow let it mellow!”

But we are mostly just frozen in place.

I know that I’ve been frozen. That’s why I’ve been so sparse with my writing lately; fear and hopelessness is a powerful writer’s block. I got a bit riled up by the recent  “system problem” discussion, and I see this post as intimately related to that: Any planning or collaboration we do must be based upon certain assumptions, and it seems to me that California’s usual assumptions – on climate as well as economics and social stability, which are dependent upon climate – must be reexamined.

It is time for us to move.

Of course, the deer analogy isn’t quite perfect. We, like the deer, have a serious and immediate problem that demands movement. While the deer has two obvious good options, it is unclear where safe ground lies. But it sure ain’t safe where we now stand.

This drought is the real thing. It is going to lead to some dramatic changes,  including conflicts between north and south, suburban and city, urban and rural, industrial and agricultural, upland and valley floor. Even if it does start raining normally for the rest of the winter and spring, we face a period of profound social and ecological tension. Disastrous weather is no longer a future event with an obvious start, like a hurricane or flood. A weather disaster at least as serious as the Dust Bowl is unfolding now. So what are we going to do?

I’ll admit that I’m not yet sure of even the outlines of how to deal with the sort of scarcity that is upon us. I’m not aware of any farmer cooperatives that have fundamentally transformed the need for water; I imagine that co-ops provide some utility for training farmers to use water more efficiently, and cooperative extension programs through state land grant universities also have played a great role. And of course the entire system of irrigation prevalent in the West is based on a foundation of Mormon mutualism.

My experience and current setting is primarily urban, so that’s where I feel called to the struggle. But I welcome any input and ideas from those with insights on rural cooperative water solutions.

One particularly alarming element of the drought is the likely effect on food supply and prices, as well as on employment. People who have previously relied on farming income are quickly realizing that they need to find other work.  Farm town economies may collapse, driving more people into our cities in search of work.

It’s not hard to see how this may cause social tension as urban areas tighten the screws on water conservation. Picture already-crowded homes trying to absorb additional relatives and friends while facing expectations that they’ll reduce household water use by 20 percent or more. Penalties for “overuse” of water may lead to impoverished households being unable to pay penalties, which could lead to their water being turned off.

General water outages may even become a factor in some urban areas, leading to drops in population and economic activity. And we should not forget that industry is a major water user, consuming amounts that are comparable to household use.

We need to start thinking about general community organizing for an unfolding disaster in the present.  It’s going to bring up some legal and social issues that I don’t believe are clear, with an urgency that will make resolution very difficult.

We’ll need to address such issues as whether outdoor household use limits apply to food production. I believe food should be favored over lawns, but that preference brings up challenging issues of its own: Is it really more important to allow homeowners to soften the impact of shocks in produce prices and availability, as opposed to providing apartment-dwellers (who might not have safe park access) with a little patch of green lawn where their children can play?

The real action is going to start in the realm of governments and courts, as a whole range of water rights conflicts play out on a scale never seen before. I suspect that they’ll work it out, but it isn’t hard to see how more affluent communities will come out on top in the same way that they did during West Virginia’s recent water crisis. It’s worth noting that inadequate official water distribution there has been complemented by a mutual-aid system called WV Clean Water Hub. At some point, we may find it necessary to bring in water from outside areas that have gone dry.

Most places are unlikely to literally run out of water, but it could happen. Willits, Santa Cruz and some suburbs of Sacramento have few water options and may see their primary surface water sources dry up this year; Willits has only about a three month supply, which would mean they could run out as soon as the start of the usual dry season.

In summary – for now – we are entering some uncharted territory. And considering the precarious nature of our economic, political and social systems, we may be in for a rough ride; many an empire has been brought down by drought. It’s time to start taking this water crisis very seriously. As it tends to do, California is leading the way – will it be to a new and more sustainable way of managing water and other resources, or into a downward spiral of scarcity and conflict?

Government will have its role, as will individual water conservation. Typically, these two forces can meet in the middle and mitigate the worst effects of a drought. But I have a feeling that this crisis also demands something cooperative to bridge a substantial gap. I look forward to searching for answers.

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2 Responses to Deer in the Headlights

  1. Yeah, it’s really, really weird and pleasantly uncomfortable. And I have deep, deep guilt over running water to wash dishes and clothes and my backyard is a dustbowl (my landlord will probably get mad unless I do something soon) because I am uncomfortable running water. I really hope it rains soon, it’s depressing.

  2. Pingback: Prayers for Rain | Nehemian Organizing

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