The Cali Drought, Part 2: Interview with Brock Dolman | by MG

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Surprise, surprise. Since we posted The Cali Drought Part 1 last week, we still have yet to feel a drop of rain here in Northern California.  Well, MG can’t bring you rain, but we can bring you the much anticipated Part 2 of our drought info sequel:

brockBrock Dolman is the director of the WATER Institute at Occidental Arts & Ecology Center.  In addition to being a long-time friend and comrade of MG, Brock is a world-reknowned biologist, permaculturist, and specialist in all things H2O.  He’s traveled the world to study and design water systems, and has been doing much critical work right here in Northern Cali to protect water ways and the human and nonhuman life that depend on them.  In the midst of this intense Cali drought, we asked Brock for a few minutes of his time to talk about what the drought is actually looking like from his point of view, and to get some insights into what this could mean for us.

For your viewing and listening convenience, the 20 minute interview is split up into 5 short parts – each preceded with a different question.  Read the transcript, or listen to the clips.  All of it is filled with important and, yes, daunting facts and stories about the current drought.

Many thanks to Brock for his time and his wisdom.
To contact Brock, or to get more information, visit the WATER Institute‘s website.


The Cali Drought Interview with Brock Dolman

January 22, 2014
Interviewed by Movement Generation

The full interview is below. Click on any question to jump to that question on the page.
(Note: word styling (bold, italic, underlined) and links added by MG)

  • QUESTION 1: Yo, so how serious really is the drought?
  • QUESTION 2: Are we facing long-term impacts because of this drought?
  • QUESTION 3: What stories are you hearing or seeing about how this is affecting people, farmers, ranchers right now?
  • QUESTION 4: What are your thoughts on the governor’s response?
  • QUESTION 5: Can you explain how this is connected to massive climate disruption on the planet?

QUESTION 1: Yo, so how serious really is the drought? The modern drought that is oftened referenced in California is the drought in 76’/77’ – how does this compare?

Brock Dolman, Cali Drought, Part 1 of 5 [3:54]

The last fact/figure I saw on snow pack in the Sierras is that it’s 17% of normal – and when we understand that 80% of California’s water supply comes from the mountain water from the Sierras, that’s significant. And then the reservoirs that that snowmelt would be filling and expected to fill up are already sitting really low, and aren’t gonna get filled up, unless some dramatic storms occur, which it does not appear like we’re gonna get those based on the long term forecast.  The NOAA forecasters – they have this 3 month model that they project out –  in the last 20 years they’ve been about 60% accurate on what the forecast is – and that 3 month model is basically saying we’re in for more of the same through April. Which is the end of winter as we know it. And statistically we don’t tend to get much after that. Although, with global weirding, like last year we got 2 of the 6 inches we got at OAEC in 2013, came in June, which was totally weird.

So I think relative to that, in ’77, the records that I’ve seen for Occidental, Occidental got 22 inches that year (in ’77). And what it looks like right now at OAEC: we’ve got 6. So, to have some sense of comparison between 22 and 6 or 7, is two orders of magnitude less in that year. And 2013 was the driest on record since we’ve been keeping records (since 1849), so it appears that proportionate to that record keeping, this is a real deal. This isn’t somebody’s scare tactic. [laughs] It appears to be real. And the fact that 2014 is starting with this January, which will be competing with January 2013 for the driest Januarys on record back-to-back. And if it doesn’t rain through April, then 2 years in a row of driest years looks really severe, considering when you look down the state at reservoirs.

I know more about up here in the north coast, because I’m paying attention to the water supply in the Eel River and the Russian River. Lake Pillsbury, which is the first big reservoir in the system that takes water from the Eel, and, some would say, steals it into the Russian through the Potter Valley Project – that reservoir is at about 12% full [than what it would usually be]. And then it flows in Lake Mendocino, outside of Ukiah, and that reservoir is somewhere like 10 or 15% – it’s just a big mud hole.  The upper Russian is nearly dry, and it’s only because we have Lake Sonoma, which is a bigger reservoir, that they expect that maybe there’s a year’s worth of water at normal consumption – but obviously with conservation calls, it’s not going to be normal demand. The City of Willits out on the Eel, apparently as of like 10 days ago, they said they had 100 days of supply left before they dry up. So they’ve got 3 months of supply in what looks like 3 months where there won’t be much rain.

For the Bay Area, when you look at San Francisco getting its water through Hetch Hetchy, Tuolumne, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District getting its water through the Mokelumne – both of those are Sierra-fed reservoir systems. If you’re talking snow pack, you know, you’ve got some water in storage, but another dry year on top of that. The year we’re concerned about I think is gonna be 2015, 2014 already looks pretty tough, but we should be really worried about 2015.

QUESTION 2: It’s too dry, it’s too warm, and it just feels weird. But, what should we be really worried about?  Are we facing long-term impacts because of this drought?

Brock Dolman, Cali Drought, Part 2 of 5 [2:57]

That’s the thing about drought, is it’s a progressive, chronic disaster. A wild fire comes through and you clean up, or a tornado, or a big flood. They’re episodic and acute. But a drought is long, slow, chronic, it just goes on and on, assuming it’s an intense, multi-year drought.  In the history books, if you really look at it.. I just pulled my copy off the shelf of a book called The Great Mayan Droughts: Water, Life and Death. And you get into the folks in Tiahuanacu, or Peru, or Easter Island, and culture after culture.. the Anastazi.. the ones when we look at cultures that either went away or moved into settlements so dispersed that they stopped building big temples. It’s not like Mayan people went extinct, but they got smaller and in little villages and moved back out into the hills. Drought is the one. Long-term, persistent drought pushes civilizations over time harder than anything else we know of. So, it’s kind of the big sleeper issue.

And you look at that study that is now being re-quoted that was written back in 1994, about the tree ring records, looking at long-term droughts in California and the Sierras and the Mono Lake Area. And how we’ve had in the last several thousand years droughts that have lasted 150 years, 200 years, and that the last 100+ years actually, in tree ring records, have appeared to be much wetter than the average. So, we’ve had a settlement pattern in the last 100-150 years of mass increase in people settling landscapes and moving in, during a period that was wetter, which gave a false sense of the hydrologic capacity to support that settlement – urban, rural, agricultural, on and on. And yet, even within natural variability of the regimes of the planet, a 150 year drought is not actually, not common, but is a known event.  So it sets up a conundrum as far as the question of how does this compare. We won’t know until it’s all over, that’s the challenging thing.  But at the current rate of behavior of it, looks like our grandkids will be talking about this event.

QUESTION 3: What stories are you hearing or seeing about how this is affecting people, farmers, ranchers right now?  How about how its affecting wildlife and the non-human biodiversity in the state?

Brock Dolman, Cali Drought, Part 3 of 5 [2:59]

In the context of the Occidental area in ’77 having 22 inches, and in 2013 having 6 inches – the supply being down 2 orders of magnitude – in comparison, the demand since the 70s is obviously there’s way more people wanting water, way more straws in the creek, way more wells. So we get a supply-demand crisis.

I’ve been hearing from the ranchers that because there’s no rain, there’s no grass, so the cows and the sheep have no food. So the sheep ranchers I just heard about, are either going to kill most of the lambs early, underweight, and sell them off for meat, and in many cases they’re selling off their breeding stock as much as possible because there’s no food and the animals are starving. And they can’t afford to buy hay because it’s too expensive.  The dairies are doing the same thing right now. They’re talking about having to sell off their milking herd, and sell prime Jersey milkers off to slaughter because they can’t afford to keep buying them food, and they don’t have the water to supply them either. And it takes 3 or 4 years to build a herd back up. So that’s happening in the North Coast dairy land right now, as we speak. That’s reality, it’s not future.

And on the fish side of things – I work at the Coho Salmon Recovery a lot – the Russian River hasn’t had enough rain to open it up to the ocean. So the salmon that are out in the ocean that expect the rains to open the mouth up, so they can swim in and get in to breed, have basically not been able to get in. So, only a few have made it in, of Coho Salmon (that are almost endangered anyway). And all of them that are in are what we call “2-year-old jacks,” which are male fish that come in early. But the adult females and the adult males that are 3-year-old fish, basically none have made it into the Russian and they’re all waiting outside the Russian River mouth, being highly vulnerable to being predated by sea lions and things. So it looks like we’re going to miss an entire year class of Coho from being able to breed. And that just puts them one step closer to extinction. Because any fish in the Russian can’t get into a tributary because all of the tributaries where they breed, their mouths are dry and closed off to the main river because there’s no flow coming from the creeks. So we only had 12 steelhead make their way up the river to Warm Springs Dam, where the hatchery is, when in a normal year there should have been 12,000.

So, it’s really serious for the fish, for the ranchers, for us at OAEC – rural residential, and I think increasingly we’ll see for the urban folks who have big pipes connected to big dams and big reservoirs. Everybody’s going to be feeling this in their own way.

QUESTION 4: What are your thoughts on the governor’s response? Calling this an “official” drought, but not calling for mandatory rationing?

Brock Dolman, Cali Drought, Part 4 of 5 [4:02]

As risk-averse as politicians and people are, they’ll take one step at a time as much as they can. And so, the first announcement is that it’s voluntary. And that’s sort of “Hey yall, wake up, this game is on.” And the thing about calling it a drought, and using the big “D” word, is that there are all of these associated laws and regulations and contracts and drought contingency plans.  Different things kick in for different water suppliers and agencies and laws when certain levels of drought restrictions are called for. So I think they’re easing in first with saying “Okay, a drought is on, and let’s all save, it’s voluntary.” And to the degree that it doesn’t rain for the rest of the winter and spring, then at some point,  it’ll be interesting what really triggers it. If there’s a snow pack trigger, or a certain percentage of reservoirs don’t have enough water in them, what are those formal, data-driven triggers that say now we have to go into mandatory drought?

For instance, I was listening to KQED the other day, when they were interviewing after the voluntary drought declaration by the governor. And the folks in the Westland Water District – which is the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, which is the largest water district in the US – their spokesperson was basically saying: “this was great, we’re happy to hear that this declaration has finally come.” Because then it kicks in a series of contractual regulatory pieces for them, where in a drought they’re able to, apparently, get more water or not. Certain environmental limitations and in-stream flow regulations, or fish protections, according to them, will get less strategic and that they’re going to have to back off. Because it’s a false dichotomy that it’s fish vs. farmers. But that’s how they’re framing it. And they’re basically saying, “we’re going to have to – on behalf of farmers and food – we’re going to have to cut water off and forsake the fish.” And yet, you’re hearing the environmentalist next being interviewed saying, “we need to fight to keep the flow, and therefore the fish.” So lawsuits are gonna fly. And the lawyers are gonna make a lot of money on this one, is typically what happens in times of scarcity.

I think the question of the politics of this, in respect to the governor, is who decides who gets what, when there’s not enough for everybody’s wants.  And how those decisions get made? What’s the legal framework for water rights, and allocations, and flow? And the classic phrase.. there’s a couple classic ones for California.. “Whisky’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over,” is the Mark Twain phrase when he looked at water politics in California in the 1870s/80s. And then also the classic phrase in the West of: “Water flows uphill to money.” So, as city councils and water boards, and water wholesalers, and water retailers, are making decisions about how to apportion their decreasing supplies after conservation kicks in – who’s gonna get the water, and who isn’t, with respect to within an urban community? Which part of the neighborhoods get it? Do the hills get it? Do the flats get it? Or not? Is it distributed equitably or not? Are the farms gonna get it? Are the fish gonna get it? It’s just a lot of fighting over that that’s going to ensue.

QUESTION 5: So, we get that this is climate change. Kind of. Can you explain how this is connected to massive climate disruption on the planet?

Brock Dolman, Cali Drought, Part 5 of 5 [4:36]

Most of the models, I think all of the models, basically suggest that extremes are likely to get more extreme. So areas that are prone to getting wetter are going to have periods in which they are much much wetter, and then when they’re prone to getting drier they’re going to get much much drier. So the normalcy – which doesn’t exist in California anyway, we don’t have “normal” with respect to precipitation – is going to just get even more intense, and prolonged. And there will times of flood, and there will be times of drought. And those will be bigger than our “averages”… and “average” is an idea that people shouldn’t get hung up on.

So, the fact that we had this, what they’re calling, this “high pressure ridge” that’s been sitting off the Pacific here in the West, and that high pressure ridge, this blocking ridge, relates to the jet stream – this big atmospheric river of air and moisture that moves counter clockwise.  And as that air mass of cold air in the arctic is trying to equilibrate with the warm air of the Tropics, it appears to be slowing down as a function of Arctic warming, and the loss of sea ice, and the retention of more heat in the water (liquid water vs solid water). When rivers slow down, they begin to bobble, or meander, and wiggle, and what’s been referred to these days as the “weather whiplash.” So the Polar Vortex that happened a couple of weeks ago – and, in fact, the Midwest and back east just got a big snow storm yesterday and today and now they’re getting cold again – is directly related to the jet stream bouncing off, if you will, like a river, this rock of high pressure over the Pacific. And forcing that river to go North, and then it meanders back down and it’s slamming them with cold and moisture, because we’re not getting it here in California.

So the global phenomenon of weather and pressure and temperature and moisture, as related to changing differences in temperatures between the Tropics and the Poles, is all consistent with the kind of projections that climate modelers are suggesting how Planet Water will behave as it tries to balance the increasing temperature, and therefore tries to break this fever.  And so, it’s all consistent. The fact that the high pressure ridge has been stuck for now 14 months is unprecedented in our modern observation of it.  But it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

And the devil’s in the details of whether this is climate change or not, but the angel’s in the pattern of the fact that it looks like this is the new normal, and the sense that this is just a dress rehearsal for the future. It seems to be game on.

So, it’s a stay tuned. The other big thing just to invoke is that what we are witnessing in California, is that as the drought increases, so does the fire risk. So, put that on everybody’s radar as well. Fire will increasingly become a much bigger deal as we have less water.  That’s what we witnessed – the San Francisco folks learned about the value of Hetch Hetchy this last year when they had that big fire above the reservoir there.

I’ve been talking about this idea of the synergistic effects of the cumulative impacts, and positive feedback loops. And that’s what we’re going to experience: as one part of the system begins to experience challenges, it sets a chain reaction. So, this is why Resilience-Based Organizing and community organizing, and community-based conservation, community-based resiliency for water harvesting when you got it. But, most importantly, communities have to participate in the water democracy of decision making at your city council, at your water board, in your local area, sooner than later, because decisions will be made about who’s gonna have water in your tap, and who ain’t. And that’s the politics of water. If Tip O’Neill’s saying “all politics are local,” all water politics are more local.