California: Drought and Floods – Al Ittihad Newspaper

California: Drought and Floods – Al Ittihad Newspaper
California: Drought and Floods – Al Ittihad Newspaper

California: drought and floods


California was built on the great adventure of irrigation. Much of the land in the western United States, left to its own devices, would not be able to accommodate vibrant cities. But we are Americans, and we cannot let the desert stand in our way. More than a century ago, the US Bureau of Land Reclamation began taming the waters of the West. It was a really successful project. In California, where the project was established, irrigation transformed arid areas into agricultural lands that became the most fertile in the country and cities the most prosperous. We built “the most ambitious desert civilization the world has ever seen,” as Mark Reisner put it in his 1986 book Desert Cadillac about irrigation in the West.
And I’ve been thinking a lot about Desert Cadillac these past few weeks, with rain falling, falling, and continuing to fall over California. It appears that much of it, despite the water pouring down from the sky, will likely remain in the grip of a severe drought. Reisner had anticipated this moment. He worried that the success of the American West in irrigation might be a mirage, if it took water for granted and did not appreciate how important it is for us to control it. “Everything depends on exploiting the water, on holding it behind dams, storing it and redirecting it into concrete rivers hundreds of miles long,” he wrote. Without a century and a half of tireless effort to this end, the American West as we know it would not exist.
But what happens to this century of irrigation when the climate changes as it does now? Experts say climate change is exacerbating California’s “climate crisis” and that we will increasingly suffer years of prolonged, severe drought followed by relentless rainfall. Can a society adapt to a climate of conflicting disasters; Severe droughts and heavy rainfall? Psychologically, this balance is difficult to maintain. It is difficult to take care of a drought when there is a flood, and vice versa. Adjusting infrastructure and water use in an extreme climate will require some significant, potentially painful changes for large segments of the state’s electorate. Farmers will have to give up some farmland and grow different crops. Homeowners and developers may have to leave some flood-prone areas unoccupied. We will have to change our cities to have more water and change our lifestyles to use less.
According to Peter Glick, co-founder and senior fellow at the Pacific Institute, California’s water system “was designed, built, and operated for different weather conditions — for the climate of the 20th century, not the 21st.” But he sees reason for optimism that we will be able to address this problem because the California government understands the problem of climate change and intends to address it.

Precipitation patterns in California are already fickle. We have always had very dry years and very rainy years. But climate change exacerbates this phenomenon. A recent climate report for the state found that year-to-year climate variability has worsened sharply since the 1980s. Anyone who has lived in California over the past decade has seen this firsthand.
Not only do rainy years bring more water, but also the way the water falls. Due to the increasing temperatures, the snow has decreased a lot in California during the past few years, which is a problem for several reasons. The snow acts as a kind of “frozen reservoir” that stores water from one season to the next. Snow falls in the winter, and then turns into California’s water supply as it melts. But when it rains heavily and storms come in quick succession, as they have recently, the water is not easily stored and instead becomes destructive. A study published in the Journal of Water Resources Research in 2019 found that the risk of flooding increases as snowfall turns into rain, and that floods caused by rain can be much larger than floods caused by melting snow. When rain falls on snow, the snow melts faster. When the rain falls on the cities, little of it is captured and much of it goes into the sea.
But stormwater trapping is a huge opportunity. For years, Los Angeles County has gone to great lengths to store more rainwater for their use. The plan includes creating areas of land where rainwater is allowed to collect, installing barrels to store rainwater and other ways to collect water in residential buildings and businesses, and establishing infrastructure to absorb water in roads and sidewalks, such as drainage channels and sidewalks made of water-repellent materials. Officials reported that they collected 33 billion gallons of water during the recent storms, enough for more than 800,000 people for a year. Expanding such efforts to the state level could yield a lot of new water.
It is also clear that California’s agricultural sector should use less water. Agriculture currently accounts for 80 percent of California’s water use. In dry years, much of the groundwater is drawn on, a practice experts say is unsustainable. Farmers can reduce this amount by growing crops that use less water. Currently, much of our land is cultivated with water-intensive crops such as alfalfa and almonds. But the agricultural sector must be curtailed. And farmland will need a rest, according to researchers at the California Public Policy Institute.

Published by special arrangement with The New York Times Service.

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