This is what happened during the drought of '76-'77, as outlined in the scratchy YouTube video: the high-pressure ridge, the ranchers culling their herds, the farmers anxiously scanning the skies for rain. The difference then was that severe water shortages hadn't been seen in the state since the 1930s, "beyond the memory of most consumers," the video's narrator somberly intones.

Droughts are as inevitable as earthquakes in California — they're the price paid for settling a semi-arid region. The 20th century was punctuated by dry periods, but only two lasted more than four consecutive years. One was the six-year drought in the 1930s that caused the Dust Bowl in the southern plains. California escaped the Midwesterners' fate because it had a small population, not as much established agriculture, and plenty of groundwater.

Normal conditions returned in the late '30s, and as the rains fell, the state and federal governments looked to how they could harness the water from the Sierra to irrigate the rest of the state.

Alan Thompson of G&F Agri Service LLC and his crew of heavy equipment operators removed an almond orchard at Baker Farming Company in Firebaugh in February 2014.
AP Photo/Scott Smith
Alan Thompson of G&F Agri Service LLC and his crew of heavy equipment operators removed an almond orchard at Baker Farming Company in Firebaugh in February 2014.
Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm in Dixon had to start paying for water to irrigate his fields in January, four months earlier than usual.
Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm in Dixon had to start paying for water to irrigate his fields in January, four months earlier than usual.

The 20th century saw the construction of massive engineering projects that set up the labyrinthine water infrastructure that exists today. It was an age of men gleefully manipulating the natural world, moving water from places that had it to places that didn't. The state was girdled with impressive public works: dams, aqueducts, hydraulic pumps, all the systems that we still use, including the California Aqueduct that brings water from the Sierra down through the Central Valley and over the Tehachapi Mountains to Los Angeles.

The drought of '76-'77 and another in '87-'92 ushered in a new age: environmental conservation instead of manipulation. Part of it was geographic reality: California didn't have many choice river sites left to dam up. Part of it was a growing population: The state had 7 million residents in the 1930s, 31 million in the 1980s, and the need for much more water. And policymakers started seeing that even with all the infrastructure they'd developed, shortages still occurred. "We'll never drought-proof California," says Jay Lund, head of the Center of Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. "It's the nature of our climate. Just like the East Coast will always have hurricanes and the Midwest will always have tornadoes."

After the droughts of the latter half of the 20th century, policymakers realized that in some cases it was cheaper to conserve the water that we already had than to go out and try to find more. Lund compares it to another issue in urban life: transportation. "We all get caught in traffic from time to time, but we never think we should build the freeways so big we never have more traffic jams," he says. Instead we put in HOV lanes and encourage carpooling, we take Caltrain and BART, we try not to tax the already taxed infrastructure any more than we need to.

The '70s drought video ends with a call for continued vigilance from the head of the agency, pleading with the public to not let the lessons of the drought fade from memory. "If we have learned our lessons well, the effects of future droughts need not be so traumatic," says the then-head of the Department of Water Resources from behind his desk, '70s brown suit and shaggy hair and all. "It is likely that there will be more dry years in the future."

They didn't know quite how likely. Since that video was made, paleoclimatologists — looking at thousands of years of climate history through tree rings and sediment samples — have uncovered evidence that the 20th century was perhaps an abnormally wet century in California. If that's true, it means that more dry years in the future aren't just a likelihood, they're an inevitability.

A Thousand Years Says a Lot About a Place

When we say California has a half-dozen big storms in a "normal" year, we're using a definition of "normal" that's been developed since the state started keeping records in 1850. A century and a half is four or five generations in human time, practically an eternity. But it's barely a ripple in global time. And evidence has been uncovered that suggests that California's "normal" is much drier than the 20th century led everyone to believe.

Paleoclimatologist and author B. Lynn Ingram was a geology Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley in the '80s studying core samples of San Francisco Bay. She was looking for big shifts in glacial and interglacial cycles — weather mood swings in the region that lasted thousands of years — when she and her colleagues found a curious thing. Instead of these large-scale shifts in climate, they found that the region's weather was much more variable. It swung between wet and dry in 10- and hundred-year cycles instead of thousands.

The bay acts as a drain for about 40 percent of the state's water; it's saltier in drought years and fresher in flood years. When the phytoplankton and mussels that live in the bay die, they sink to the bottom, where they become fossils. By pulling out long cylinders of sediment and analyzing the chemical content of the fossils, Ingram has a pretty good picture of which years were dry and which years weren't. And she and her team discovered that severe droughts, ones that lasted way beyond the six-year record of the 20th century, were far more common than previously thought.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
mblaircheney topcommenter

One of SF Weekly's best article is some time. Down to Earth writing on a pressing problem, one that effects us all. Hesitant to call it a 'cautionary tale', to real for that to describe it.

'Cadillac Desert' by Marc Reisner (pub. 1986) would more fit that bill. His predictions have come through in spades, based on the same premise put forward by your author Anna Roth… essentially much of California is, or has been, desert… green and lush where we have tinkered with it… a short respite… now nature it wants it back.

If this story has 'wet your whistle' for more… get a copy of Mr. Reisner's work, his writing is a cross between Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair Jr. .You will be better for having read it.

(...Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr. (September 20, 1878 – November 25, 1968), was an American author who wrote close to one hundred books in many genres. He achieved popularity in the first half of the twentieth century, acquiring particular fame for his classic muckraking novel, The Jungle (1906). It exposed conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry, causing a public uproar that contributed in part to the passage a few months later of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.[1] In 1919, he published The Brass Check, a muckraking exposé of American journalism that publicized the issue of yellow journalism and the limitations of the “free press” in the United States. Four years after the initial publication of The Brass Check, the first code of ethics for journalists was created.[2] Time magazine called him "a man with every gift except humor and silence."[3] In 1943, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction…)

Above from Wikipedia


The number one thing you can do to save water is rake a big pile of leaves together in a secluded spot in your yard and pee in it.  Repeatedly, as often as you can.  Add a few more leaves from time to time, it will never stink and it will become rich fertilizer for your non edilbes.


"And everyone will look back with amazement to the years they flushed their toilets with some of the most pristine water in the world."  Smug San Francisco is awash with water.  So much it is actively shunting its underground streams down the sewer.  Where are the purple pipes?  Even Wreck and Park is wasting water.

The State infrastructure needs tweaking.  We don't need peripheral pipes or the super train.

We need to cover the aqueduct with floating solar sheets to prevent eight to ten feet of water evaporating on its way to LA with 10% of the States power going to pumping costs.

Also, we don't need to water cotton (a subsidy crop) with pristine water.  Reconfigure the San Luis Reservoir to receive recycled water from the Bay Area over Pacheco Pass to an initial power station at the pass before dropping into the reservoir.  Turn the O'Neal Forbay into a wetland, and sell the finished recycled water to whoever will buy it until it reaches the cotton fields at the base of the Tehachapi Mts.  

Pumping water up from the Central Valley to the San Luis Reservoir makes no sense from a water balance perspective.  Rerouting the aqueduct is small change compared to the projects on the drawing board.  The more net water to the valley the better.


Delores is horrible. Only the worst people.bad example. Global warming.duh

San Francisco Concert Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.