The Governance of Drought

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Governance of Drought: California, the Illusion of Plenitude, and the Presidential Election

The University of California, Davis maintains a website on which one can track the levels of water in California’s reservoir system. You can reach the most pertinent graph by scrolling down and noticing a rectangle on the right hand side marked “Reservoir Conditions.”

To say the portion of each reservoir’s rectangle that was filled in with blue was on the low side, back in February, 2016, is to understate the emergency that California faced after five years of harrowing drought. February itself had not brought predicted rains; instead, record heat had punished Southern California, and it appeared as if further rationing might be in store. For the record, here are reservoir levels on February 18: Shasta was only at 57% of capacity; Lake Oroville at 49 percent of capacity; Folsom at 64 percent of capacity, and Trinity at 33% of capacity. These levels, as a whole, were a full 25 percent below the historical average.

Fortunately, March brought enough substantial rainfall that the reservoirs returned to adequate levels to draw upon during this summer. The aquifers of the Central Valley, however, remain seriously depleted, and complete recovery is unlikely at any time in the foreseeable future. As is well known, the reservoirs depend to a great extent not upon direct rainfall, but upon the flow of water from snowmelt in the mountains. It wasn’t until the first couple days of May, therefore, that the largest reservoirs topped off at the highest levels in quite some time:
Shasta Reservoir was at 93 percent of capacity;
Lake Oroville was at 96 percent of capacity;
Folsom Lake was at 86 percent of capacity;
Trinity Lake was at only 58 percent of capacity, however.

In the three and a half months since that high water mark, these four reservoirs have been drained at a fairly steady rate. As of midnight, August 15, here are the capacity levels of the above quartet:
Shasta: 73%
Lake Oroville – 58%
Folsom Lake – 39%
Trinity – 45%

As one can see, Lake Oroville has had its contents put to work at a rate that bespeaks an unwarranted confidence in the winter to come; or should I say, the winters to come. It is unlikely that the storms we will have this coming winter will be even half as generous as the past winter. How is it then that Lake Oroville can plummet with so little concern about replenishment?

(I would insert an “update” note into this post, at 2:41 p.m. The Los Angeles Times, about a half-hour after I posted this blog entry, published an article by Matt Stevens about the lifting of water restrictions:

I would note that a trio of much smaller reservoirs further south along the Sierra Nevada, and more directly in line with the Central Valley’s pipelines, remains at more or less the same levels as they achieved in late spring, so obviously they are being held in reserve, should the ferocity of the drought prove to be planning a counter-attack on this illusion of plenitude during the coming winter.

In devouring the water at Lake Oroville this summer, one wonders if the people in charge realize that we still have at least two and a half months to go before we get the first storms of the 2016-2017 rainy season. That is, of course, if such storms actually show up. The past five years might be simply a foretaste of a challenging century in this nation’s most populous state.

One question relevant to the current presidential campaign involves these reservoirs, in fact. Hillary Clinton has spoken of an unprecedented investment in the nation’s infrastructure. Water is the crucial component of the Western half of the United States, and if Clinton wants to increase confidence in her ability to manage the coming water crisis, then it would behoove her to post some specific agenda plans on her website. I understand why it is unlikely that she (or VP nominee Kaine) will campaign much in person in California. That does not excuse not having already met with Governor Brown and other governors of the Western states and not having that dialogue’s outcome posted for public comment.

This leads me to today’s suggestion. What is needed at this point is not more debates between the presidential candidates, but a public meeting, at least three hours in length, at which each presidential candidate is in charge of a group of governors (no less than three, no more than five) discussing a major environmental issue and the direction that regulations should move in. It is time for the water levels of the reservoirs that are on display at the UC Davis website to stop being treated like polls of candidate preferences. First up, and then down, and let’s hope they rise again. Let the reality of ground level conditions be addressed in a thoughtful manner by those who aspire to determine the quality of our lives and of the environments we leave to our progeny. No more vague proposals about infrastructure, in other words!

Though I doubt that my suggestion will be enacted, I would suggest that if such a publicly broadcast meeting did take place, people would see that Hillary Clinton is the most qualified presidential candidate to be at a conference table in a meeting with oil company executives who want to increase fracking, alongside environmental representatives who are sitting to the other side of Governor Brown’s elbow. This is a dialogue, based on a grasp of ecological imperatives and acquisitive economics, that the American people deserve to hear. Please, we don’t need more rallies and fund raisers, but instead deserve the chance to see actual portrayals of governance. Yes, it would be make-believe, but no more make-believe than the promises we are asked to endorse with our votes.