Editor's note: I was invited by our neighbor and pal Jim Thomas to attend a Rotary Club meeting this morning. The featured speaker was Bill Patzert, the Jet Propulsion Lab's climatologist, who knows a thing or three about the drought. This is a topic that interests me so I went along. Patzert's comments didn't contain anything I hadn't already heard - at least until he delved into water politics by proposing that the state's agriculture interests should get less water so urban and manufacturing customers can get more. I don't see that happening anytime soon, for sure. But the talk was interesting, in any case. I ginned up a news story based upon what I heard. Here it is:
California's crushing water shortage probably won't end any time soon and likely will be solved only by redistributing some of the water now used by agricultural interests to residential and manufacturing customers.
That was the message from JPL/NASA climatologist Dr. William Patzert, who made this foray into state water politics during a presentation titled "The Drought: Are We In or Out?" Friday, Jan. 23, at a meeting of the Glendale, Calif. Sunrise Rotary Club.
He noted that the state's water distribution is based on legislation from the 19th century - essentially the days of the California Gold Rush - and said the state's water laws "are built for the 19th century, not the 21st."
Those water laws grant water usage based on the concept of "first in, first out." Many of the water districts that supply agricultural interests in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys are organized around senior water rights that date back to the middle of the 19th century. Because of their seniority, those districts are granted first priority on water usage.
Patzert said that California agriculture uses 80 percent of the state's water but accounts for just 2 percent of the state's economy, which he said is the seventh-largest in the world. He said the state's industry and its urban areas get from 10 to 15 percent of the available water.
He urged his audience to keep these points in mind when they vote for state representatives.
Audience members eager to know when the current drought might end heard Patzert assert that the chances that the current water shortage might end anytime soon are not good.
He said that the current drought now has stretched for more than 16 years of below-normal rainfall and said that January is shaping up to be the driest January in the state's history, just as the last three years have been the driest years in the state's history.
Characteristics of drought, Patzert said, are that they are large, regional, gradual and slow to change. He said that since the 1880s, six of every 10 years in the western U.S. have seen rainfall levels below normal.
And he said that rather than reflecting a severe shortage of water, the west enters drought conditions when annual rainfall totals fall just 15 percent below normal.
A striking feature of the current drought, which covers about a third of the U.S., is a persistent ridge of high pressure off the west coast that forces the Pacific Jet Stream to move northward so that it flows over Canada, rather than over the west coast of the U.S. This is important because the jet stream is what carries storms to the continent. Where it goes, rainfall goes.
This high pressure ridge is caused by something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which slowly shifts water temperatures between warmer and cooler. The warmer those temperatures, the more likely a wet El Niño season. The PDO has been tending toward the cool, bringing a strong area of high pressure that pundits have named the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.
When will that change? "That's the big unknown," Patzert said.
He said that unless February and March are extremely wet, California will see its fourth straight year of extreme drought in 2015.
The impact of the current drought is felt more strongly than that of previous droughts because during the last prolonged dry spell, which took place between 1945 and 1978, there were far fewer people in California and thus a far smaller demand for water. He said in 1900, the state had 10 million occupants and now it has a population of 40 million.
"We need better water storage and management," he said.