MODESTO BEE: "Blue skies and an arid future loom for state" - 'Did the computer wizards play us for chumps...?' : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

[Starts with some good advice on keeping Y2k preps, then takes us on a nice little nature ramble through the thickets of Californian water politics...:)]

Blue skies and an arid future loom for state



Sunday, January 09, 2000

So the coming of the new year -- and decade and century and, at least by popular counting methodology, millennium -- failed to produce its anticipated load of doom. The rational response to this, of course, should be one of relief, but the uneventful flip of the calendar seems to have left some folks feeling a bit let down, even cranky. Normalcy can be such a bore.

In the aftermath, hard questions are being asked. Did the computer wizards play us for chumps, drumming up business through hyperbolic fear-mongering about the Y2K bug? Where were the falling airplanes, the terrorist attacks, the panicky mobs at ATM machines? What do we do now with all these jugs of water and cans of Spam?

In regards to the last question, the answer, for Californians anyway, should be obvious: Save them -- for the next earthquake. Meanwhile, those in the state who have discovered that life seems richer, more vital, with a disaster to anticipate might want to look for consolation in the cloud-free skies and in the mountains strangely barren of snow.

Public officials, of course, being responsible sorts, say it is too early to talk about what they coyly call the d-word. That most of California has received only a fraction of its normal rainfall this year is not yet cause for concern. The state in the past has been known to receive a winter's worth of rain in a single month, and the season lasts through June.

Moreover, one dry year does not a drought make. In the drought of the late 1970s, it often was said there was enough water storage in the state's plumbing system to endure three dry years.

The last dry siege ran from 1987 to 1992, and while it led to some much-publicized painting of lawns in Southern California, the state survived to see the drought end, as they always seem to do, in a flurry of blizzards, floods and mudslides.

Those disclaimers aside, it does, well, feel like there's a drought a-coming. It's always a subtle process. Droughts are a different kind of disaster. They don't startle like earthquakes, rush in with the Santa Anas like firestorms, or come surging over the riverbanks like floods. Rather, they reveal themselves slowly, in little ways.

The skin dries up. Winter days seem too warm, too bright. As awareness grows, the weather folks on the evening news begin to replace their giddy chatter about gorgeous golden sunshine with more somber talk of monthly rainfall figures and storm doors staying shut offshore, shunting the fronts north to Oregon or south to Mexico.

Newspaper stories about water conflicts start floating up from the agate depths and toward the front pages. Politicians start to pay attention to water policy, a subject they would prefer to leave to those hydrologically fixated types known as the water warriors.

And over time, once again, the state regains its collective memory and rediscovers the fundamental fact of its aridity.

Politics can change in a drought, allegiances shift. It's interesting to ponder how a long dry spell in this time might play out. Since the last drought, the state population has grown, and also has grown more urban. The use of significant amounts of project water to restore river systems has become a matter of federal law. The loss of farmland to sprawling suburbs has begun to pop up on local, if not statewide, political radar screens.

In this environment, would the rugged isolationists of agriculture find themselves too isolated, politically, to protect needed amounts of irrigation water? To politicians joy-riding along in the red hot economy, would the Silicon Valley seem a better candidate for tight water than the San Joaquin?

Would environmentalists hold onto their hard-won place at the water bargaining table, or instead find themselves shoved aside, victims of the inevitable dry-year argument that farms, and farm families, are more important than fish? Would a drought energize the balky movements toward water markets and better conservation practices, or would the canal and dam builders win the day?

"In an arid environment," the late, great Carey McWilliams wrote a half century ago, "men will fight for water with a truly implacable bitterness, a bitterness beyond reason and entreaty. For if there is not enough water to meet all needs, there is really no basis for compromise: there is nothing to negotiate. ...

"On the other hand, nothing will weld disparate elements into a more cohesive force than a common concern over water. If men will fight over water, they will also cooperate to conserve it and the history of water controversies is that, in the long run, the rule of cooperation prevails. In an arid environment, water is the ultimate sovereign."

A fact Californians tend to ignore, until we can't.

This is Peter H. King's final column for The Bee. After two years of writing about valley issues, he is leaving to join the Los Angeles Times as a senior correspondent.


-- John Whitley (, January 09, 2000


By now, our area should have received over 36" of snow here in WY since Oct. Yet have received less than an inch. 1999 precipitation levels were less than half of the usual total. Not good!

All y'all down home in Texas, y'all still having that drought? Last I heard, was 5 years well below average rainfall and most of the Rio was dry and the resevoirs were empty. Still the case?

-- hiding in plain (sight@edge of.nowhere), January 09, 2000.


-- A (A.@A.A), January 09, 2000.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ