ElNino-Gary-Lai

As we watch the LA  river expel water at freeway speeds, we Californians will proclaim the end to a long drought.  Unfortunately, this is not the truth. “Epic” drought is a literal truth in our case.

The last 5 years was the worst drought in a millennia (I heard the worst Californian drought in 1,200 years!).  It’s going to take a bit more than even a record-breaking single wet season to get us back to where we were.  So, buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, we are up for a rough ride of mud slides, mosquitoes, fires, La Niña, and possibly more drought. But that’s why we all live in sunny SoCal, right?  For the theme parks…

That’s the funny thing about climate change. When you hear the talking heads in cable news, they talk about climate change like it is a John Cusack movie: we’ll wake up one morning and all of sudden Santa is putting presents under our tree in June.  No, it will be more like bad cosmetic surgery – whatever you had going on might have been bad, but whatever you did to try and fix it made it worse, and it will only get worse as you become older.

California has always been the land of drought and storms.  In a Civileats.com article, they quote UCLA historian Norris Hundley:

“It is a mistake…to think of California in terms of averages and regular cycles of precipitation.”

The article goes on to describe early California settlers’ descriptions of our weather conditions,  conclusions that the Sonoma Valley was “unsuitable for agriculture” in 1841 and that the Sacramento Valley was a “barren wasteland” (political haters add snide comment here).  Two decades later, Sacramento could only be transversed by canoe, and then was overcome with drought just two years after that.

Floodwaters in Los Angeles River destroy Southern Pacific railroad bridge. The photo was taken from North Figueroa Street bridge. Photo via Vintage Everyday.

Floodwaters in Los Angeles River destroy Southern Pacific railroad bridge. The photo was taken from North Figueroa Street bridge. Photo via Vintage Everyday.

Locally, depression era Angelenos had “dust bowl” droughts from 1929-1935 only to have the great Los Angeles flood in 1938 that caused great loss of life and spurned the channelization of the river which we are trying to desperately undo today. So, we’ve always had periods of highs and lows.  What climate change is doing is making those highs and lows more extreme, hence the worst drought in a millennia, and the worst El Nino ever recorded back-to-back.

As a water conservation and sustainability guy, I was recently researching the history of drought in California when I realized that drought has always been a part of my life. Big events in my life seem to coincide with big droughts. I thought it might be interesting to do a blog series on my experiences growing up in California during drought and put it in a historical perspective.

The first “big” drought that I remember was from 1976-1977 (ironically, the same time a little movie called Star Wars opened on the big screen… wonder if anybody remembered that movie?). During that childhood drought, homeowners were encouraged to put bricks into their toilets to take up space in the tank and reduce the amount of water per flush. Watching my dad slide a brick into the toilet tank was a surreal experience. My 10 year old brain told me, bricks and toilets don’t go together. That reassuring flush that I could always depend on just wasn’t the same after that heavy, bulky thing was dropped in the tank.  In fact, horrors of all horrors, sometimes the contents didn’t even make it down in the first flush! Gross!

But my dad – a child of the Great Depression and a thrifty-to-a-fault civil engineer – decreed that there would not be any water wasting in his household. California was in a drought and we were not to act like those wasteful, Dodger-loving, car-washing Southern Californians. Showers were to be strictly timed. “Number 2” would be the only reason to flush our brick-modified toilet.  Plants in the yard would only be watered by the San Francisco fog. And the car would only be washed when the caked up dirt caused a drop in it’s resale value. To me, this was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. I wanted my toilet to flush correctly. I wanted to take my 30 minute showers. Who ever heard of saving water? You turned on the tap and it always comes out.

Despite my vigorous objections, my dad was resolute in his orders. All that was left for me was to grumble and sulk. The year was 1976 and my dad was right about a couple of things: 1. Southern Californians love the Dodgers (well, at least until the Angels beat our beloved Giants in the 2002 World Series), and 2. the state was in trouble…water trouble.

Photo from July 6, 1976 Los Angeles Times: "California’s drought — now regarded as the worst in half a century — has begun to produce critical shortage that will leave some communities without drinking water, force some farmers to abandon irrigated fields, and, in a few cases, leave firemen without water reserves to fight wildland fires." Sound familiar?

Photo from July 6, 1976 Los Angeles Times: “California’s drought — now regarded as the worst in half a century — has begun to produce critical shortage that will leave some communities without drinking water, force some farmers to abandon irrigated fields, and, in a few cases, leave firemen without water reserves to fight wildland fires.” Sound familiar? Photo by: Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times

The question I always had was: why was that drought so bad (at least until this last one)? For one thing, 1976 was the first drought during what I would call the “modern” era of California. Prior to that drought, California was a boom state in population growth. Our population roughly quadrupled between 1928 and 1976.  California had a population of 15 million souls during the previous drought in 1959-1960. By 1976, the population had grown 143% to 21.5 million (we currently stand at 38.8 million). Quite simply, we had outstripped our infrastructure and had forgotten – or just didn’t anticipate – what drought would do to the state that had six and a half million more people living in it.

1960 to 1976 was worlds apart socially, culturally, and in every way possible for the American people, so our mothers, fathers, grandfathers, and grandmothers can be excused, I suppose. But this drought did hit like – ahem – a ton of bricks. It caused extreme local regional water shortages (an emergency pipeline had to built across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge as Bay Area reservoirs began to run dry) and in some parts of the Central Valley had to shut down all farming activities. It was a scary time for my parents who had seen tremendous social upheaval in San Francisco and in the country: from the Summer of Love, to a long foreign war, to the resignation of a president.

The good news is that after we finally got rain and snow during the 1977-1978 season, municipalities and water districts finally woke up and started to fund capacity and infrastructure improvements to try and take care of the next drought. The bad news was that this opened up a whole new set of problems…

Next Month:  “Love, Life, Per diem, and the Peripheral Canal”

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