California's Water Woes Threaten the Entire Country's Food Supply

Nearly a third of the country's food supply comes from California, but drought there may be a catastrophe for farmers -- and the rest of us.

What a difference an administration makes. Samuel Bodman, the previous secretary of energy under the Bush administration, spent his short term stumping for nuclear power plant construction, polluting the hell out of the Earth, profiting off global warming and trying to significantly downplay America's singular role in greenhouse-gas emissions.

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The new one? Well, he's a doom prophet with a Ph.D.

"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen. We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going," Steven Chu told the Los Angeles Times in February, shortly after taking office in January. "I'm hoping that the American people will wake up," he added, just in case there was any confusion about the gravity of the situation.

That kind of apocalyptic foresight has made Chu a breath of fresh, dystopian air. For eight nearly insufferable years, the American public has had no shortage of political tools telling it everything is going to be all right, that the United States is the greatest country in the world, that reports of our impending environmental devastation have been greatly exaggerated, and so on. By contrast, Steven Chu is a Cassandra on a mission from reality. But few, especially in the state he singled out, feel like buying what he is selling.

"Dr. Chu is not a climate scientist," argued Jim Metropulos, senior advocate at Sierra Club's California chapter, echoing the same conditional given in the Los Angeles Times article in which Chu was quoted. "Obviously, he's versed on it, but he's taking an apocalyptic view. I think it's not sustainable in its current form. We rely on imported water to grow high-value crops, but maybe the agriculture we have today may not be the agriculture we have decades from now."

That's a big maybe.

Here are some not-so-fun facts: California's agricultural sector grows approximately one-third of the nation's food supply and is nourished by diverted rivers and streams filled yearly by runoff from its prodigious Sierra Nevada snowpack, as well as groundwater pumping and other less-reliable methods. That snowpack -- which once sparked the first, but not the last, water war that helped transform a semi-arid Los Angeles into an unsustainable oasis less populous than only New York City -- is disappearing fast. Hence Chu's worrisome prediction.

To make matters worse, a crushing drought, now well into its third year, has made simply everything problematic. In California's central valley, home to a majority of the state's agricultural output, farmers are leaving hundreds of thousands of acres fallow, and the resultant economic depression is having a domino effect that could cost California $1 billion to start and is causing residents of a one-time food powerhouse to go hungry.

In April, a series of spring showers and storms upped the snowpack to 80 percent of normal. At the beginning of May, it stumbled to 66 percent, compared to 72 percent the year before. Complicating that are recent federal directives mandating reductions of water deliveries to California farmers and urban users by 5 to 7 percent in hopes of preserving the Pacific Coast's salmon fishery, which is hovering, like the state's snowpack, on the brink of extinction.

"This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger self-righteously fumed after the federal directive came down in June. His sound and fury is unjustified, but instructive.

"Sooner or later California is going to change how it uses water," explained Environmental Defense Fund officials Cynthia Koehler and Laura Harnish in the Huffington Post. "We can do it before we lose our fish, or after."

But these are short-term issues clouding, pardon the pun, an inevitably larger one. According to recent climate science, California is never going to get its regularly scheduled snowpack back. Which means that even well-intentioned conservation outreach programs and bad-faith battles over agricultural irrigation are missing the point.

Like other geographies once sustained by an uninterrupted supply of water, California is going dry. And when it dries up, so does its cities, its people and its future. Simply put, global warming, human-induced and otherwise, has significantly broadened the range of the tropical belt by a rate of 70 kilometers per decade. Southern California, like the Sahara Desert and Sahel savanna, is already subtropical in the summer. But with climate crisis expanding its reach, that subtropical heat could claim not just Northern California's snowpack, but even part of Washington's and Utah's bounties.

Game over. Right?

"We don't share Chu's assessment," asserted John Andrew, executive manager on climate change for the California Department of Water Resources. "The hazard here is that you are trying to predict the future. Even if you are as brilliant as Chu, you're pretty much guaranteed to be wrong."

Fair enough, one supposes. But then why does the DWR have its own internally generated climate models forecasting what Andrew claimed as a "25-40 percent reduction of the snowpack by midcentury," which is trying to predict the same future, albeit more optimistically?

"We came up with that by looking at climate models that were out there," Andrew explained, "and applying historic hydrologic data in the state. We looked at every snowpack study out there, and they shoot the range of projections. Some are as high as over 90 percent reduction by 2100. But if you look at the linear trend, then you wind up with a smaller reduciton. It's not good science to look at one study; what we really wanted to do was take a responsible look at all the data."

But a responsible look at the historical data, which has been mostly linear for a few hundred years, is inherently unreliable, given the exponential nature of global warming. Everything from glacial melt rates to the occurrence of so-called freak firestorms has been thrown into nonlinear chaos in the last few decades.

Carbon emissions have exceeded projections of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while ocean and land sinks, which suck up and store CO2, have decreased in efficiency. A study completed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Columbia University has argued that the southwestern United States could be headed for permanent drought by 2050. Given that the IPCC has been historically conservative, even out-of-date in its nevertheless sobering projections, playing it safe on climatological modeling is beyond conservative. It's reckless.

"The modeling we used is uncertain," Andrew admitted, when pressed further on DWR's predictions. "I guess you could call it modeling. Historic data is going to be an inadequate indicator, but we still have to look at it."

True that; you have to look at everything. But when it comes time to offer a prediction, it's best to, like Chu, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

In fact, if you shave 10 conservative percentage points off DWR's predictions, you arrive around where Chu explained you would. And that is when things come into finer focus. Instead of fighting over Pacific salmon and Central Valley cows, or junior and senior water rights, you are now fighting for survival.

As Chu explained, cities like Los Angeles will not have to think about why it can't hose off its driveways or take long showers; it will have to think about whether it is going to run out of water altogether.

"What are you going to say?" Metropolous asked rhetorically. " 'All you people have to move out and go elsewhere?' That's not going to fly. We're trying to promote things that are cost effective and pretty easy, like water conservation. It doesn't mean a radical change to the people's lifestyle, if we manage water better."

Well, that depends on the lifestyle. It was barely a decade ago that the governor of water-challenged California was giving a thumbs-up to Hummer in a photo-op. Now he's had an environmental deathbed conversion? Please.

The way California is currently wasting water -- on elaborate lawns in Beverly Hills, on cow death-camps in the San Joaquin Valley, on whatever -- it either doesn't know where its water comes from or simply doesn't care.

So any significant conservation initiative is going to be a challenge to the status quo, to say nothing of lifestyle. And when the water vapor truly hits the fan in 2100 or 2050, or even sooner, given the cross-your-fingers modeling of not just the DWR but also the IPCC, what alternatives will there be other than to pack up and leave?

Metropolous and Andrew and other well-intentioned enviros might balk, but I'll stick with the apocalyptic rants of a truth-telling Ph.D. nominated by Barack Obama to become the nation's chief brainiac on all things energy, thanks. And you should, too.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.