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Mega drought: As goes Anasazi civilization, so goes California?
Dennis Wyatt RGB
Dennis Wyatt

The Anasazi civilization, or the Ancient Ones, by all accounts was incredibly advanced.

It prospered for 11 centuries in what are now large swaths of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado as well as a portion of Northern Mexico.

They had food year round thanks to irrigation advancements unmatched at the time by any civilization in the Americas.

They also were credited with a number of technological and/or science advances. They were the first to make baskets woven with straw and employing pinyon pitch that could hold water. They built structures with technology extremely advanced for their times. Many were built into the sides of cliffs. They also had failure advanced astronomy.

So what happened to the Anasazi? Some researches contend political divisiveness and a growing rift between the rich and poor contributed to its downfall. But the biggest factor was what was considered one of the last mega droughts to ravish what is now the Southwestern United States.

The civilization’s demise is traced back to 1300.

Keep in mind almost all of California, climate wise, is part of the Southwest.

Mega droughts have been verified by science. Carbon dating combined with dendrochronology – the study of tree rings – has determined the Southwest suffered from 14 mega droughts punctured sometimes with a couple years of normal precipitation spanning from 50 to 100 years stretching from 800 to 1600 AD.

Columbia University’s Nathan Steiger – the lead author of Science Advances – points that preventing climate change could reduce the potential for future mega droughts but that is probably not likely. Mega droughts are the result of natural climate viability.

This is not splitting hairs. It is a critical differential if we are to get solutions in place to help us weather not just another mega drought but the simple fact there are 56 million people living in the five state area that comprises the arid Southwest. That’s at least 55.8 million more people than likely lived in the region in the year 1500.

It is also essential to elevate the science of natural climate viability above the kitchen sink approach that the words “climate change” conjure up in discussions today.

This is not denying climate change. It is simply zeroing in on a primary cause that has a lot of historic data behind it in terms of what a mega drought does as opposed to much of the nuances of today’s climate change science tainted heavily by politics. By doing so it might just wake up more Californians to the serious challenge we are facing.

The prospect of a mega drought poses a greater threat in the long haul to the welfare and health of Californians than the current pandemic.

That is not to dismiss the lives lost or those struggling to recover from COVID-19. But in terms of long lasting devastation impacting everyone including future generations to come mega droughts carry a much bigger punch

By all reasonable measures, Gov. Gavin Newsom should be declaring a drought emergency now instead of later.

We have just completed our second abnormally dry rainy season. The critical Sierra snowpack that supplies a third of the water California uses on an annual basis was at 40 percent as of April 1.

The Bureau of Reclamation will not be delivering water to farmers this year. The State Water Project has indicated those farm interests with contracts will likely not get more than 5 to 10 percent of what they normally need, if that.

The level of groundwater hasn’t recovered in most parts of the state after taking a severe hit from the last drought that ran from 2012 to 2016. Subsidence – where land sinks and compacts when aquifers collapse after being drained – continues to grow as a problem in many parts of the San Joaquin Valley.

And while Southern California cities and even most of the Bay Area urban centers have enough water squirreled away in storage for this year to cover a repeat of their 2020 consumption, a third dry year is another story.

There are already places where stepped up water conservation is being urged including Marin County. Marin is kind of like the canary in the coal mine for California droughts. When they issue the directive for residents to refrain from flushing toilets whenever possible – and rest assured that edict is on the way – you know the Golden State is in trouble.

There are areas in rural Tulare County where poor families, unable to sink deeper wells, have been relying on trucked in water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and flushing their toilets since the middle of the last drought.

There is a chance that high schools in the region will soon do what they did in the last drought which is open their locker rooms before school so students could shower.

At the same time dry conditions are forcing automatic cutbacks on “minimum” fish flows including during the critical spring migration.

Yet Newsom has not declared a drought emergency.

In somewhat fairness to the besieged governor, doing so would be akin to politically slitting his own throat given recall politics.

If you don’t think this is the case consider how many people responded to COVID-19 restrictions. Add to the fact that whenever you talk about sensible measures such as banning non-native ornamental front yard lawns for new homes given they take on more water than the Titanic in California’s Mediterranean-style climate many people get angry and take the stance “how dare you tell me what to do with my yard”, and you’d have to be on a kamikaze mission as governor to declare a drought emergency concurrent with a COVID-19 health emergency.

It is clear we don’t need more rivers dammed as much as we need more off-stream storage such as San Luis Reservoir and the proposed Sites Reservoir. We need to accelerate ground water recharging when nature provides the water and using treated wastewater.

We need to reuse treated wastewater we don’t use to recharge aquifers. We need more desalinization plants.

We need to come to grips with the inconvenient truth urban water use per capita in the Central Valley is significantly higher than along the arid coastal areas primarily due to larger residential  lots with expansive, non-native landscaping that sucks up water like Hoover vacuum cleaners.

We need to understand we need food to eat. We also need to press Sacramento to change bureaucratic rules that stymie water transfers and discourage agencies such as the South San Joaquin Irrigation District to pursue stepped up conservation to make such transfers possible so they can finance extremely expensive closed water system to enable further significant inroads into agricultural water use.

Yes, residents and farmers alike have all reduced water use since the mid-1970s but that is not enough.

We also must realize that we need to protect fish and river environments by striking a balance and not imposing absolutes. It is clear left to its own devices nature during droughts devastates fish and other aquatic life. Our elaborate system of dams, canals, and to transfer water  from one water basin to another not only fueled growth to a point where it can’t be supported by naturally occurring local water supplies but it also makes it possible for sport fishing year-round.

Keep in mind that the last drought killed millions of trees. Not only did they die from lack of water but the dead trees became havens for pest infestations that killed even more trees.

That set the stage for mega wildfires. Last year those wildfires killed 31 Californians and burned 10,000 homes.

As of April 1, the United States Department of Agriculture Drought Monitor indicated 64.02 percent of California is in severe drought as we head into the long hot summer and equally dry fall. Dial the intensity back a bit and the number jumps to 90.6 percent of the state being in moderate drought or worst. If simply being abnormally dry is the criteria, then 99.23 percent of California is on the verge of serious issues.

By all standards any reasonable person would say we’re in a drought emergency.

But thanks to recall politics the state is unlikely to take any significant steps — and certainly not in a timely manner — until the snow season hopefully returns to the Sierra sometime in November.

Unfortunately by then the odds we will have dug ourselves a bigger hole than we need to if action was taken now to address what is clearly a drought.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or 209 Multimedia Corporation.