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California declared drought free for first time in seven years (reuters.com)
390 points by MilnerRoute 8 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 232 comments





John Steinbeck, "East of Eden", 1952.

"There would be five or six wet and wonderful years when there might be nineteen to twenty-five inches of rain, and the land would shout with grass. Then would come six or seven pretty good years of twelve to sixteen inches of rain. And then the dry years would come, and sometimes there would be only seven or eight inches of rain. The land dried up and the grasses headed out miserably a few inches high and great bare scabby places appeared in the valley."

...

"And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way."


I always think about this passage when I read about California droughts. I wonder if this is actually true and what causes it.

"California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say" https://www.mercurynews.com/2014/01/25/california-drought-pa...

Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs goes into depth on why this happens. We are living in pretty favorable conditions at the moment.

The experience here in Orange County over the last few months has been nuts.

Being able to hang out down near the ocean and see the San Gabriel mountains just decked out in snow is surreal: https://i.redd.it/kueaye5p6si21.jpg

Another photo: https://i.redd.it/vy7dlavrh0f21.jpg

Anaheim hills, an area that rarely gets snowed on: https://i.redd.it/trbf198kb6i21.jpg

Then we roll right into the poppy/wildflower superbloom which has been bonkers: https://weather.com/travel/news/2019-03-13-super-bloom-flowe...

The blackstar canyon waterfall is LIT! https://i.redd.it/4bq8v71ff7j21.jpg

Last but not least we are smack dab in the middle of an epic butterfly migration, https://www.pasadenastarnews.com/2019/03/08/why-are-there-so...

Driving down the 73 toll road yesterday I think I drove through about 300 butterflies, at least. They just kinda flop over the car, none of them hit me. It was like driving through a butterfly hail storm.

This place sucks a lot of the time with all of the congestion and traffic, heat, smog, high cost of living etc... but times like this really make you stop and appreciate how beautiful it is.


> This place sucks a lot of the time with all of the congestion and traffic, heat, smog, high cost of living etc... but times like this really make you stop and appreciate how beautiful it is.

That's how I feel every day here


I felt so sad that the butterfly's habit was destroyed by so many people here.

I'm in Foothill Ranch. My last two runs, since the Painted Lady butterflies have shown up, have been so fascinating. They're like leaves on the wind. I sat out back this evening and just watched them fly by. Thousands of them. It's such an incredible sight, it's like something out of a movie and it's very hard to put in to words the exact experience.

Any info on the camera(s) used for those first two reddit photos?


so beautiful. thanks for sharing

I thought California. Has the best climate in the country?

California is a big state. It has almost all the subtropical climates in it somewhere. https://www.touristmaker.com/climate/california-climate-zone...

No, that's just my home, Redwood City. We don't have A/C or a house fan, and the need for heat is fairly minimal, relatively speaking. (It's been a cold winter, though, I think it was 36f this morning!)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redwood_City,_California#Sloga...


Hello fellow RWC dweller!

Can confirm, don't need much AC or Heat year round.


It does. Given that everyone has their own idea of 'best', California has climates that span desert to rain forest and pretty much everything in between.

As long as you locate to the area that most closely approximates your personal definition of 'best' you win.


I didn't realize that temperate rainforest go all the way down to the NW of California. Coming from Seattle, WA that's pretty cool. (the more you know). :-)

I've half-joked in the past that the Pacific Northwest starts on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It really is true that by the time you're a couple hours north on the coast, though, it's a pretty profound difference: foggier, rainier, cooler but moderate (i.e., lower highs but higher lows).

Right along the coast is great. For example, Venice is very nice. Los Angeles itself is mostly too hot.

If you think cool temperatures are more comfortable, then San Francisco is great.


It does and it doesn't. It's a huge state... parts of it are lush redwood forests, other parts are literally some of the lowest/hottest/dryest places on earth (death valley). Depends on where you are and what time of the year it is.

Along the coast and in some mountain areas it's perfect. Otherwise it's a f...ing desert.

I dig the desert. It’s nice to escape to e.g. Joshua Tree.

Later this summer I’ll be hiking Mt. Whitney, and will swing through Death Valley on the way home. 15k altitude change in a few hours.


Try the cactus to clouds hike.

Well, it's not all just desert; that's more in the south. In the middle it's mostly farmland (in fact, rather excellent farmland, thanks to the combination of good soil, plenty of sunshine, temperate weather, and - the recent droughts notwithstanding - decent water availability; there's a reason why California is the primary source of quite a few fruits and vegetables for the world, let alone the US), and in the north it's mostly forest.

Not even close.

It does but most of california has been destroyed by pollution, toxic waste and trash.

"Most"

They need to completely change the way water in California is billed. Right now rates keep going up as we get better at conservation, which disincentives conservation.

At the same time, in areas with a flat rate, people use way too much water. When Sacramento had a flat rate, you'd see people turn on their hose as they left for work and let it flood their lawn all day, running into the street, to keep their lush green lawns in 105F weather. As soon as they introduced water meters, the lawns went brown and the bills went up.

I think the billing needs to be a flat rate for everyone that is high enough to cover all water delivery costs, based on size of property, and then you get a credit if your usage is below median for similar families/farms/industries and you get an equal surcharge if you're above that. Then you'd be encouraged to use less water than your neighbors, but all the costs would even out since 1/2 the people by definition would pay extra, so they wouldn't have to raise the flat rate part so quickly, only slowly as the overall cost of the water system increases. It would put the consumer in much more control of their water costs.

My family for example gets hit with a huge surcharge because we added two people to our family since they started tracking, so we aren't "conserving" anymore. We're conserving more than before, we just have double the people!


It’s agriculture. Personal conservation should be incentivized, but unless we make radical changes the price will have to go up as water trends towards scarcity. For people who conserve, their rates should increase more slowly.

But we have to address agriculture and stop externalizing the true cost to the environment. What agriculture has accomplished is astonishing, but it’s just not sustainable in any number of dimensions.


Mandatory aquifer recharging would be a good first step. One of the big problems is that California can't adequately take advantage of these wet winters because the reservoirs can only hold so much and the ground can only absorb water so fast, so a lot of water ends up getting into the rivers and escaping back into the Pacific (or sits in ephemeral lakes/ponds/wetlands until it evaporates). If we helped along the process of getting water back underground (which should be readily doable, e.g. by pumping water back down into wells), that'd significantly lessen the strain we've put on our aquifer systems.

Step two is to significantly beef up our reservoir system. We should be able to capture way more of our winter rainfall than we currently do. That'll be a pretty big help to farms and cities further south (i.e. in the more arid half of California).

Step three is to stop pussyfooting around building desalination plants. If Israel can go from being constantly on the verge of drought to having a giant water surplus, then there's no reason we can't do the same with California (especially since we have way more room to build 'em :) ). California's adjacent to the single largest body of water in the world; it's ridiculous that we ain't taking advantage of that.


I think the main reason we don't have desalination plants is because they have to be on or near the ocean, which is the most expensive property in the state. No one wants to ruin their view or have a big industrial machine near their home. Basically, I think NIMBYism keeps us from having Desal.

Not really. Desalination plant built & proposed locations have largely been adjacent to power plants or wastewater facilities.

The main reason we don't have desalination plants is that the water is more expensive than other sources, they're expensive to run, consume a lot of power, and you have to deal with the brine effluent.

Imported water and even purified recycled wastewater(potable reuse) are cheaper. In the case of the desalination plant in Carlsbad, desalinated water is about $2.1-2.4k per acre-foot whereas imported water is ~$1k and potable reuse had an estimate of $1.7-1.9k per acre-foot for the San Diego region(OC's potable reuse is cheaper at ~$800 per acre-foot, but trying to keep similar comparisons).

Power comprises most of the cost of desalination for the high pressures required for the membranes to work. I think it's 5 megawatt hours per acre-foot, but those were somewhat dated figures. While one could deal with blending the brine with wastewater treatment plant effluent or power plant cooling water, the greater reclamation of wastewater and the California Coastal Commission cracking down harder on the discharge of power plant cooling water is complicating things.

Desalination is an expensive commitment that produces at a slower rate than other sources. If you have a wet year, you're still stuck with the production commitment. It's great for water security though.


There's plenty of empty government land on the California Coast.

The main reason there aren't more desal plants is because ejecting the leftover brine into the ocean is an environmental concern.


And it’s expensive. You pump a ton of energy into a system to get water. Water is so cheap you can pour it on the ground.

Water's a lot less cheap in actual deserts (like in Nevada and Arizona). Places with massive water surpluses (like what California could have) tend to end up selling their surpluses to places with water deficits, raking in cash that can go into all sorts of things that California wants to buy (like, say, high-speed rail connections between all the major cities).

"Basically, I think NIMBYism keeps us from having Desal."

That's exactly the problem.

There might be ways around it, though:

* Build 'em adjacent to (or as part of) existing "ugly" structures, like coastal power plants (which already use seawater for cooling/steam; I'd assume it should be possible to clean/desalinate the used water instead of letting it flow back into the ocean)

* Pipe the water further inland; the pipes should be easier to conceal and should require a smaller land purchase (at least in terms of meters of coastline), and could run to a desalination plant in cheaper, more-inland real estate

* Extend a well-deserved middle finger to those NIMBYs in the form of eminent domain. Of course, given that those same NIMBYs are the ones who have the means to bribe California's government every which way, that'll probably never happen... unless we the people make it a Proposition, of course, and force their hands by literally rewriting California's constitution to prioritize water for millions of people over ocean views for dozens.


That’s not really it at all. Santa Barbara built a desalination plant in the throes of the last drought (1991). Right about the time they finished it, it started raining, and they mothballed it almost immediately. The plant was only recently recommissioned, at the end of the most recent drought.

The issue is that 99 percent of the time, you can get water a lot cheaper from another source. Due to the mechanics of reverse osmosis, desalination plants have to run all the time to keep the membranes from being damaged, so you end up paying for expensive water in the midst of the rainy season.


Except that the coast is already covered by all kinds of of industrial blight. From the oil platforms in Huntington Beach and Seal Beach, the three oil refineries in Long Beach and the South Bay to the five drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel. And Santa Barbara is among the prettiest and wealthiest areas in Southern California.

So no, nimbyism has nothing to do with it.


actually there is one Desal plant in Carlsbad, San Diego county https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_"Bud"_Lewis_Carlsbad_De...

My system addresses agricultural use. They pay a flat rate and then get credits/surcharges based on their usage compared to other farms.

California's water problems would mostly be solved if there was just a normal universal water price system based on supply and demand.

This will never happen.

Instead we have the most arcane and bizarre un-system imaginable, with enormous amounts of water given for free to people who don't need it, and other water being very expensive for people in dire need. And everything you can and can't imagine in between.

To be fair, there were a few desperately needed reforms during the drought years, but my perhaps overly cranky estimate is that 80% of the madness remain.

Happy to be proven wrong :)


How is the proposed system different from computing the cost per gallon by taking the flat rate and dividing it by the typical usage, and using that amount under a conventional billing model?

Either way, it has the same basic properties of "cost is flat over time if you continue to conserve" and "you'll pay more than your neighbours if you use more than them."


It's more obvious to the consumer why they are being charged more, and it gives them more control.

Also, just conserving wouldn't be enough to keep your bill down -- you'd have to conserve better than your neighbors. If you keep doing the same thing your bill will slowly go up as you get "out-conserved".


Rates could adjust month to month and they can be given the new rates with their bill.

I'm really confused by what you're suggesting (probably because water availability isn't really an issue here in Iowa).

Are you suggesting there should be some sort of sliding scale rate per gallon of water? Kind of like how income tax has tax brackets?

So the first bit of water you use is cheap and after that it gets expensive?

Or do you literally mean that you paid one flat fee per month for water?

My water bill is something along the lines of: Flat fee + X $/gallon * gallons used.

Usually my water bill (includes water delivery and waste treatment) runs about $100/month.

Edit: We use roughly 5500 gallons / month btw


There are different rate tiers in many (if not most) water districts in CA.

> I think the billing needs to be a flat rate for everyone that is high enough to cover all water delivery costs, based on size of property, and then you get a credit if your usage is below median for similar families/farms/industries and you get an equal surcharge if you're above that.

Based on your anecdote, it sounds like it also ought to factor in (i.e. raise/lower the threshold based on) the number of residents at the property. Of course, that would introduce extra complexity in calculating the median, but I’m sure the formula’s derivation is straightforward given property, residence, and usage data.

Great ideas!


The system would have to account for both property size and number of people. Maybe only count non-built land plus people, so folks who have townhouses with no yards pay less than a SFH with a huge lawn.

What's the logic of giving a discount for a big lawn?

Other way around. You pay more in the flat rate if you have a big lawn.

Property size should be irrelevant. It should just be based off usage.

So you’re saying you want to give discounts to people who choose small houses with no years just because they have no yard? I can get behind that. That would encourage people to buy small properties which solves both the water and real estate problems.

Property type is irrelevant too, no reason to over complicated it. Just pay for his much water you're using, doesn't matter the purpose, use, location, property code, etc.

> Right now rates keep going up as we get better at conservation, which disincentives conservation.

Can someone help explain this? How would higher costs disincentivize conservation?


And yet we won't be building any more water storage. As a result, we have about the same water capacity to survice the next drought as we had in the 1970s. There were half as many residents then, and climate change wasn't a concern...

The best water storage solution would be to repair damaged agricultural soil, which propagates further erosion and runoff. On top of that, conventional farming drains fields of water, diverting rainfall off the fields in ditches. Then, in the drier months they tap reservoirs (to irrigate). It’s a totally bonkers way of doing things.

> repair damaged agricultural soil

I'm curious about what this entails or means.

Retaining walls? (re)Injecting soil life like worms and microbes and related nutrients? Tossing around compost for likewise?


Repair damaged soil by ensuring there is no bare soil, make sure its covered with natural (carbon-based / organic material) mulch or better yet, packed with a diverse set of plants at ALL times. Bare soil becomes compacted, and will resist water infiltration.

Some of the plants will have very good root depth, but all plants together will foster macro and microbiology, especially fungi, which will hold the soil together and at the same time spongify the soil, so that much more water will be absorbed than bare soil.

See the slake and water infiltration test, for a demonstration of bad vs good soil.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cx_hmse9Se8

If your soil falls apart in the presence of water AND doesn't allow fast infiltration, you've got landslide and flood conditions. If your soil holds together and absorbs OR drains water, you've got prime agricultural conditions instead.


Yes, compost, no-till, etc. You can't put the worms & microbes there, but if you build it they will come. Soil with a higher organic matter content & microbe population absorbs & retains moisture better than "dead" soil with low organic matter & no microbes, and plants can develop deeper roots which lets you water long, deep, & infrequently which reduces evaporation & runoff.

I read somewhere recently that fixing the deficit of carbon in agricultural land world-wide would actually require more carbon than has been added to the atmosphere through fossil fuel use. Getting all those farmers to do it, however, would be difficult.

Residential water use is minimal. Most water is used for irrigation.

Further, cheap water storage results in increased evaporation, it’s a net loss over time.


Even lossy storage allows saving during times of excess for use during times of drought.

And what happens to that lost evaporated water?


Falls somewhere else down the wind. It's not completely gone, but it's gone for you.

Seems like less net loss than letting it run off into the sea.

Just have to deal with the extra salt from letting those reservoirs slowly evaporate.


Choosing to have rivers exist is a separate choice. In a drought California could stop that flow to preserve reserves.

Instead they choose to spend some water having a river.


Los Angeles has a system of cement washways that move large amounts of rainwater to the ocean to prevent flooding that used to happen semi-regularly.

If they stored that water in reservoirs, they wouldn’t need to get so much of their water from the various aqueduct systems used today.

Such a system could effectively buffer the negative impact of droughts, while still serving the purpose of flood prevention during wet years.


You probably wouldn't want to drink the stormwater that's washed off of LA pavement.

But after minimal treatment you probably could use that water as "industrial", which is most of the water use anyways (since industrial water is ok for agriculture).

Would that exacerbate the problem of nasty runoff from agriculture? A large part of why the Salton Sea is the cesspool that it is is due to salt and chemical runoff from farms in the area.

Modern water plants can clean it.

Possibly, but it seems like the setup to a bunch of news stories about heavy metals in our almonds.

They could literally just dam up the spillways for the washways, let the washways fill up with water, and then pump the water out of them into treatment plants during summer. Make the washways deeper to handle more water. It would cost money, but a lot of the infrastructure is already there.

Building more water storage doesn't address the fundamental problem that California uses more water than is actually provided by nature (on average).

I came here to just say 'drought' implies abnormal lack of rainfall. For California the issue is there is nothing abnormal about years of little rainfall.

There is a comment from Charles Bowden the rings to true to me. Talking about the Civilization in the Arizona Desert; the desert will win eventually because you can't take what it doesn't have. With California the real question is how much damage will we do while losing the battle.


Seems California has a 'people problem' and the population is past the carrying capacity.

Just to emphasize this: the southern San Joaquin valley drains to the ocean only during extreme El Niño events. So basically there is no water left to be captured there. The only water left is north of Sacramento, and is needed to keep the SF Bay alive. Sure, the Bay could survive if a little more water was taken, but that wouldn't be enough to solve the problem.

As dams probably not, as aquifier recharge projects there's a lot underway as far as I understand.

For those interested in seeing drought data, here's a CA map:

https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/CurrentMap/StateDroughtMonito...

And here's a time series:

https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Data/Timeseries.aspx


Worth noting that despite the epic rain this season, San Diego county is still "abnormally dry".

Time series is for the whole country or continental only.

You can narrow it down to just California

To first order, California's water problem is agricultural. And that's because there's no market in that water that would curtail what is a very low value use of it.

Fix that, or resort to fractional measures that just paper over the underlying dysfunction.


I always cringe when I hear markers and water in the same sentence. I’m not sure what exactly you mean by “markets” but the history of water rights in CA is a great lesson highlighting how spectacularly “markets” can fail to handle water.

As I understand it, the history of water rights in CA, and indeed in the US west generally, is a history of lack of markets; it's all been political maneuvering by various factions to make sure they aren't the ones who go short when the water gets divided up. There has never been an actual market to allocate the limited supply of water to the highest value uses. If there were, agriculture in much of CA wouldn't exist, since much of CA is a desert and it makes no sense to do agriculture in a desert when you can ship in food from elsewhere at lower cost.

How do you determine who owns water in the first place.

A real & important question, but by no means an impossible problem. E.g. suppose "the public" (e.g. gov't, as with public lands) owns all of it in the first place, sells it, and uses the proceeds to fund water projects.

A less radical option would be to keep the system of water rights we have today and simply allow the water to be bought and sold. Currently if you sell it, someone can take you to court & say "well you didn't use it, so you should lose your water rights" (because California follows the doctrine of first use). Would run the risk of creating wealthy water czars overnight, but less radical.


Who sets the price and what stops the very wealthy from buying it all and selling it for a giant profit. The further we go down this train of thought the less market-like it becomes very quickly.

It's a market. The first owner sets the price at whatever point they like, balancing their interests of revenue, protecting the resource, and so forth. If people are arbitraging & selling the water for increased prices, the first owner increases their price and eliminates the arbitrage opportunity.

How do you get a first owner for water?

Are you being intentionally obtuse? I just described two ways. There's Right of first use, Riparian rights, and my pet illustrative example of treating it as a publicly held asset to be sold... There's other ways beyond those three, but the first two are how ownership is assigned in the US today.

riparian rights is what led to the CA water wars where the wealthy from LA bought land up stream of the farmers in the owen's valley. It didn't solve the problem we're talking about regarding rich people buying up the water.

I have no idea how first use could work for water, would be happy to read more if you link me to something about it. A quick googling returned nothing.

The last one requires a lot more specifics to talk about meaningfully, but I'll bet that most of the free marketers wouldn't consider it a free market.


You're arguing with extreme left about markets.

In a world in which transaction costs are sufficiently low, Coase's Theorem says it doesn't matter: you make the best initial choice you can, and then people execute free market trades to get to the overall most efficient allocation.

So one way of looking at the whole problem is to ask why transaction costs are too high to make this feasible. And the obvious answer is politics.


efficiency and humanity are sometimes at odds. Slavery was very efficient.

What are you talking about? The Western water rights system (prior appropriation) is the opposite of markets. It basically lets the first person to tap the public resource use unlimited amounts of it for free. That’s not a market.

I think you might have replied to the wrong person. I agree with you.

You're wildly contradicting yourself.

California is both an example of how markets can't handle water, and has also never had markets in water.


I never said they had markets in water.

You implied this when claiming the rich are buying all the water rights.

I didn’t say that. I said they would IF we had an open “market” for water.

I mean that if resources were reallocated by a market, literally EVERYONE would be better off. The current situation is not Pareto-optimal.

To put it another way: if the users being asked to conserve water could just pay farmers to use their water, both would come out ahead. The farmers would get more value than from using it for farming, and the other consumers would get more water for a lower price than from alternatives.

In any case, it's bizarre you cringe at the word "markets". Societies that try to avoid markets are horror shows. Markets are an utterly essential social technology for the modern world.


I love market based economies, but not the idea that markets solve all problems. You said something about “their water”, and that’s the problem. Going back to the history of CA water rights, there is no clear concept to determine who owns water. If I buy the house on the river upstream from your house on the river, who owns the river water? I went to college in CA and had to take a bunch of CA history classes. I highly recommend reading up on CA water rights and it’s history. It’s a fascinating and enlightening topic.

Are you saying there are no water rights in the current system? If there are, what's wrong with being able to trade them?

The very wealthy buying all the water and selling it at a huge markup with poor people dying of thirst.

If we generously assume someone needs 2 liters of water/day to survive, then only 3% of California's water production is needed for its population to not die of thirst. A market system could easily be set up where this tiny sliver of water is reserved for this purpose, avoiding the scenario where those dastardly rich twirl their mustaches and cackle while the poor wither.

Wow, that's some serious imagination you have there. It wouldn't work anything like that, of course.

This is what happened in CA to a lesser degree.

California never had a market for water / water rights, so your extreme left imagination is left without data to back it up.

At all.


In the late 19th century rich people in LA bought many properties upstream of Owens valley, on the Owen’s river, and diverted the water to LA leaving farmers in Owens valley without the water they historically had and needed for their farms.

Diverting water from farmers != causing the poor to die of thirst. That latter scenario of yours was just ridiculous.

the idea that "leave it to the market" will solve all problems is ridiculous as is shown by the historical example I gave.

The idea that the only market is a robber-baron friendly totally unregulated one is an absurd strawman.

The water issues in California could be addressed by trading (say) half the water currently going to agriculture. Everyone would be better off, including those poor you pretend to care about.


It’s not a straw man, that’s exactly what a whole lot of people on here believe is the one true way.

So your idea is that the government will decide and enforce that roughly half the water is not allowed for agriculture?


> And that's because there's no market in that water that would curtail what is a very low value use of it.

IDK, I actually enjoy consuming agricultural products...


You'd still be able to, and the overall productivity of the economy would be higher. You might buy more products from outside CA than from within it. If you live in CA, you'd likely come out ahead because your water would be cheaper.

Does this account for the massively depleted aquifers thoughout the state?

My understanding of aquifers is that many of them take many years to fully replenish depending on their size and the makeup of the substrate. I remember a few years ago during the severe droughts there was much worry over aquifer depletion and land subsidence[1]. The primary concern was that certain soil types would compact permanently then no longer be able to hold water ever again. I doubt one season of heavy rainfall and snow melts solves that issue.

[1]: https://ca.water.usgs.gov/land_subsidence/


Many years being on the scale of tens to thousands of years. Cody did a great video on his channel showing confined aquifers, how they work, and why they recharge so slowly:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tF4iCgxsZX4


> Does this account for the massively depleted aquifers thoughout the state?

By definition, no. Though being drought free is enabling some parts of the state to actively pump water into aquifers beyond natural recovery, so they aren't unrelated.


Thank you for voicing this question. I think there's an excess of celebration for one wet year, when the long-term damages of drought are far from healed.

> “The reservoirs are full, lakes are full, the streams are flowing, there’s tons of snow,” said Jessica Blunden, a climate scientist with the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “All the drought is officially gone.”

https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-rain-california...

EDIT: Sorry, you're referring to aquifers, not reservoirs.


Yep. I personally know folks with a small ranch outside of Sacramento who had to dig down 90 feet to find water for their well. Hard to imagine that being replenished by a few rainy seasons.

Even in places where water is more plentiful that's not a particularly deep well.

Hmm maybe it was deeper. I remember being shocked at the time, but my memory of the scale may be significantly off. It was discussed in the context of "there is barely any water in this aquifer these days."

Maybe it was 900 feet? That would be more in the range of "shockingly deep, but quite possibly necessary in California".

This quote gets me thinking about how snow is treated in this system.

It isn't like water in a stream because it stays where it is. It isn't like a reservoir or aquifer because the water isn't trivially dispatchable.

I suppose it depends where the snow is, some could be 'permanent', some seasonal melt, some gone by next week.

So really we should be differentiating the different types of snow?


Snow is really important. It is quantified as “SWE” or snow water equivalent, the amount of water that would be released when the snow melts.

SWE is monitored by satellites, aircraft, and by in situ measurements like from snow pillows. In California, the state DWR tracks SWE to estimate reservoir influx.

More: https://aso.jpl.nasa.gov


Thanks, didn't realise snow pillows were a thing.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_pillow


It all melts.

I trust that the experts know the difference between permanent snow and annual melting. They use satellite pictures to determine how much water will be available after it melts.

Edit: If someone knows more about the planning process than I do, please chime in.


To be pedantic:

You say "It all melts", and then "I trust that the experts know the difference between permanent snow....".

I hypothesised satellite photos, I'm not sure if depth of snow is relevant for more than just volume, and whether you could get good estimates of depth (and density???) from a satellite.


A few years ago I read an article on Hacker news about the drought. It discussed the experts looking at satellite photos and then climbing to mountain tops to perform more detailed measurements.

Don't forget that modern satellites are topographical with a high degree of accuracy. We can use satellites to learn snowpack depth.

This is how we know that the aquifers are depleted because the satellites measure elevation above the aquifer.


Aquifers are not manmade reservoirs, lakes, or streams

Having recently visited a few, I’m thinking no.

You are a Dwarf Fortress player? I don't think anyone else "visits" aquifiers.

How does one visit an aquifer? A shaft?

To be fair I would happily call a cistern an aquifer, so it may be a British thing???

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cistern


Spelunking

Tell that to my water bill, the drought surcharge is still over 50% of the bill...

The reason for the surcharge is Orwellian.

The water company asked us to reduce, reuse and recycle. We complied.

We did such a great job, that they increased rates because we weren't using enough water and they weren't making enough money.

It's insane.


I'm not sure Orwellian fits. Really the price should be a flat rate because its not about the marginal cost of providing water.

...but then that leads to the idea that you can use any amount of water and it's fine so they have a punitive use charge to change user behavior.

But because of the extra revenue, they can lower the flat rate. ...but that gets you in trouble if the punitive charges decrease.

So you have to adjust to a relative usage surcharge which is basically where we're at but it just looks like "why lower if they raise the rates?". ...well because it's relative to everyone else's usage.


I think the word the GP was looking for is "Kafkaesque".

Did you expect the utility to eat the costs of lower consumption despite their costs going up?

I doubt the dip in water use was enough to offset the wear on infra that needs to be dealt with. Or the labor costs to do that maintenance which go up each year.

Oh sure some of the revenue may be useless but you can’t expect something like a water utility to behave like a social media company. Facebook could go tits up and people are out of jobs.

What happens when a water utility folds?


Don't worry, they won't give you any of that back, unfortunately. We moved out of California last year, but during the drought we cut back like everyone. How did the water company reward us? Oh, they didn't make enough money anymore because everyone was conserving water so they raised everyone's rates. Sheer madness.

The changes in behavior those surcharges are intended to cause remain important, especially as future droughts are quite likely.

We got a price increase this year on our water bill (on top of drought surcharges from prior years) because the district used less water than expected, so that the district "needed to increase prices to remain profitable." Use less water, so that you can pay more for less.

I'm very skeptical that "drought" prices are more related to encouraging environmentally friendly behavior than they are about disguising greed.


Oh the quality of life behaviors of residents that use a very small percentage of the water? Residents use 10% of the water, 50% of the water is "environmental" and is dumped into the ocean for the smelt, etc.[0]

[0] https://www.ppic.org/publication/water-use-in-california/


> 50% of the water is "environmental" and is dumped into the ocean for the smelt

That's a funny way of saying "we didn't want to dry up the rivers", isn't it?


It is sort of a trope in CA, oh and it's the deltas, are you saying that stinking up their bathrooms with un-flushed urine and being charged a surcharge to save 10% of 10% of the available water is logical?

Isn't it really just a "feel good" thing?


Residents weren't being asked to save 10% of 10% because taking that water from the environment would destroy it. They were being asked to save 10% of 10% so agriculture couldn't point to residents and say "see, they're doing it, we should be able to take whatever we need to from the delta too".

No one is arguing about wet years either. Look at the dry year example. 36% environmental. 62% agriculture. 13% urban.

Edit: also notice the chart - the delta is only about half of those environmental percentages (on average, unfortunately they don't split it out for dry years). The other half comes from "North Coast" which seems likely to be more difficult to take advantage of - at least I haven't heard any controversy over trying to use that water. We don't know what the exact percentage would be in a dry year, but it would still be below 36%.


Australian toilets frequently have two buttons, one for a small flush (for urine) and another for a larger flush. "No flushing" is hardly the only option.

California needs to tackle water usage. There are reasonable changes that can be made in homes and towns - swapping to drought-resistant gardens instead of lawns, rain barrels to catch run-off, absorbent parking lots that don't drain out to the sewers, etc.

Agriculture also needs to be tackled, sure. That doesn't mean saving a percent here and there is of no use.


This style of toilet is already very common in California, as is drought resistant landscaping. There could be more, but California could already be past 50% towards best case on those approaches.

I don't think it makes sense to look at the total supply of water and use that as a starting point of the savings. The total supply of water is only useful in the context of a discussion of multi-billion dollar infrastructure improvements to expand the ability to transport water from one place to the other.

What really matters is the amount of water that can be channeled to your place of living today.

And then having small changes like non-flushed toilets help increase awareness about water shortage. If that ultimately makes people replace their lawn with desert plants, I think it's a win.


Bingo. Asking the citizens to 'cut back' has always rubbed me the wrong way. We (citizens washing our cars or watering our lawns) are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the actors in the state.

Don't forget to account for all the water that California exports in the form of water-hungry crops.

Residential water use is a tiny fraction of the states water use.

The drought surcharges are complete and utter bullshit.


is it legal to get rain barrels and other types of rain collection systems?

Of course it is generally legal to collect rain from your roof, assuming local HOA rules allow it. But you won’t likely get much quality water from that. Better would be greywater collection and recycling.

He's asking because in some states it's illegal to collect rain water, it belongs to someone else. Colorado, for example, only recently legalized rain barrels - but limits it to only 2: https://source.colostate.edu/extension-offers-fact-sheet-on-...

I was reluctant to state it completely because California's constitution itself limits water rights. It would be unconstitutional to cover your entire property with a giant roof and capture all the water, thereby eliminating the creek downstream of your property and denying the downstream users of their riparian rights. However this is not the use I believe the OP was looking at.

in some states rain water belongs to someone else -- the most surprising thing I've learned this whole month...

Yes. They are not as useful as you might hope since California's dry season lasts six months, so they will go empty when you need them the most.

I guess it depends on how much water you collect....

I believe it's illegal in the Bay Area, I seem to recall someone getting in trouble for doing so.

That's just how it goes.

Revenue streams never go away. Government becomes dependent on that revenue and continuing to collect is it easier than re-shuffling other revenue around or choosing what to de-fund so the revenue gets kept.

Get used to your drought surcharge. It's not going anywhere.

Edit: Based on the popularity of this comment one would think government revenue streams go poof all the time. If anybody has evidence of this I would like to know more about is to I can advocate for replicating those circumstance in my state.


Remember those "fuel surcharges" from when gas was over $4/gallon? Me too. I'm still paying them.

You've ridden in a taxi lately too huh? Gas was $1.99/gallon and the cab adds a $2 "fuel surcharge" for a 10 minute ride.


Reading the article it sounds like the federal government never actually repealed the tax (Clinton vetoed the most recent attempt) but collection was ultimately halted in 2006 as a result of a federal court ruling. I guess the tax did actually go away but it was not voluntary on the part of the government.

Edit: Is this interpretation incorrect or just inconvenient?


>Revenue streams

I see what you did there.


Same for us in Israel, it's been a fantastic year. I'm clocking 900mm! It's been 15 years since we've last seen such wonderfully rainy year. Praise the Lord, El-Niño, and any other involved entity.

Santa Barbara county still reports "stage 3 drought condition": https://www.santabarbaraca.gov/gov/depts/pw/resources/system...

https://www.drought.gov/drought/states/california which was updated 3 days ago. No drought, simply 6.6% "D0-Abnormally dry".

This one is pretty good too. Essentially the same info: https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/CurrentMap/StateDroughtMonito...

Yeah that's basically the same thing. The National Drought Mitigation Center is at U Nebraska Lincoln :)

Being a bit cynical here, but could we just call it the California rain cycle, instead of being amazed every 7-10 years when droughts come and go.

> instead of being amazed every 7-10 years when droughts come and go.

Was there a drought 10 years ago though? I don't recall.


Yes. When I first moved to the Bay Area I could not turn on NPR without hearing about the poor delta smelt suffering from the drought for what seemed like every 5 minutes.

It's been raining every couple of days in sunny San Diego for like 3 months

There really hasn't been such a significant amount of rainfall here in years, I just worry about the fire danger coming in the fall because of all of the new growth.

There can be no water without fire, it is known.

It rained a good amount last month in Los Angeles which was great. All the rain however uncovered a ton of potholes on the roads which is dangerous particularly for motorcycles. Hope the city gets this patched.

As someone who has lived in the Bay Area for over 20 years, I knew this would happen. I was never worried for a second that the drought was the "new normal". I believe the climate will continue to change and cycle. Yes, we are experiencing global warming, and yes our environment is heading for disaster, everyone was too easy to believe that this particular drought was the "new normal" with little proof.

> yes our environment is heading for disaster

now I'd like to see which model predicted the end of the drought and see when those predicts its return.


Unfortunately California still thinks that one of the wettest centuries in thousands of years is "normal rainfall."

People are complaining about the rain in the Bay Area but I say bring it on!! I remember the drought and how I feel sad with mountains of dead grass year round.

Glad to see we are heading out of a drought (this year) - enjoy it!


This rain season has get like the La Nina winter of 1996. Glad we have it.

Well, enjoy it, this will last about 4 months

Just until the next dry year and everyone will be crying about the drought and how the sky is falling.

Talked to an uber driver, he said this was 'climate change'.

Drought = desert

rain = climate change?

What is California


California has cyclical droughts and this last one was not that abnormal from the natural variability: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Droughts_in_California#Weather...

My uber driver today said the extra memory in phones is making us all sick, but computer screens were safe, so why would you even mention it was your uber driver?


Looks like we'll have plenty of fuel for another bad fire season.

Give it a few months

Grew up in CA. Yes this is true. CA is state that has permanent drought, temporary relief. This is temporary relief.

I heard we have 12 years.

David Bowie said 5 years in 1972

It’s all about that delicious Hetch Hetchy

Stand by for record bushfires next season

[flagged]


There have been many, many dams built since Hetch Hetchy. The region of Hetch Hetchy alone has been expanded threefold with two newer dams that feed into the same bay-area penstocks.

Almonds are exceptionally water intensive, which is why the almond king has been spending so much on Sacramento lobbyists to tilt water rights. California is on it’s way to Arizona so maybe depending on water intensive crops is not the way to go. I don’t care much for baitfish but there should be room for ecology in the overall water plan. Otherwise there won’t be a drop left downstream. Heck maybe we should just let the tree farmers have all the water, after all they’re closer to the main sources!


You carefully left out the delta tunnels.

Everyone agrees* that the gov't should at its root fundamental level handle infrastructure. Water, the most essential element to human life, should have been prioritized over over every other foolish pet project. Let's hope it gets done; looks like it's going nowhere: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-droug...

*I don't agree, but let's go with it


In general your response is stylized as over-the-top and bombastic, which generally leads me to dismiss your argument as yet another rant from the angry and incomprehensible internet denizen. In any case, the magnitude of the problem makes solutions politically quite difficult and expensive, not only from vested water interests, but in the need for grand construction projects that will necessarily involve winners and losers from stakeholders, and by those who abhor exorbitant state spending. That is, this is more than a problem of legislative and/or executive incompetence.

That said, the problem you outline is very much real. My mother runs a small rural water district in the central valley. The drought crisis was very real to the water district as their wells began to fail due to lowering of the water tables. Getting someone to dig a new and deeper well cost money the district did not have, and moreover, well diggers were in such demand that you couldn't get a new well dug for months. That said, they applied and acquired a water grant from California to improve the districts infrastructure, so new wells are being dug thanks to California grants.

The California aquifers, irrespective of current drought status, should be considered a valuable and scarce resource for many years now, as it will take a long time to restore the water table after decades of abuse. New sources of water and water storage absolutely need to be developed, and should be a top priority.


>though nowhere near as bad as giving gov't workers collective bargaining "rights" in the 70s, fleecing taxpayers till the end of time)

Bargaining rights are... Bad?


Words are cheap. How are you taking action? Are you taking action?

I’d settle for a lot more people saying what OP is saying. California has one of the most incompetent governments in the world but this is masked because it is home to tech and we’re in boom times.

Jerry Brown’s one big accomplishment was restraining the more idiotic impulses of his own caucus yet the political and media classes hail him as some sort of superlative political leader. His budget surplus is due to reneging on the “temporary” top marginal tax increase in boom times. Nothing more.


The problem is America as a whole. Democracy is governing through collective intelligence, reliant on strong public discourse. Our public discourse is utterly ineffective, and as a result we execute as well as a brain with a severed corpus callosum.

We don't need more people spouting the same shit. Central valley farmers know the situation is bad too - it's just that their dialogue and that of suburban/urban voters are completely decoupled. There is no conversation. Any proposals from one group are wholly ignorant of and rejected by the other.

Jerry Brown's accomplishment is holding us steady, because even that is a challenge in the face of California's collective incompetence at being a society.

It's a big problem, but we can't blame our representatives for it. Like a marriage, everyone has to put in a little work. I try to do my part by supporting smaller grass-roots organizations, and canvassing for what I see as pragmatic bridge-builders...


> the political and media classes hail him as some sort of superlative political leader

Look around and see what we have to compare him to. The bar is pretty low in general nowadays.


Can't wait for all the climate change deniers to have a field day with this.

Please don't post this kind of flamebait here.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Maybe people should stop claiming normal patterns of precipitation variability are unstoppable catastrophic results of climate change then?

Also, climate change might have catastropthic results on some parts of the world, and positive effect on other. I wouldn't mind for instance if Central Europe got warm climate similar to Mediterranean. Now, why would I fight a change that clearly benefits me? :)

In principle you have a point but if millions of people have to leave their home area and are looking for a place to live things may be less golden.

the same thing happened in Syria. The war there didn't really impact Europe directly but the refugees certainly did.


I have relatives in Texas who a few years back were being told by climate experts that drought (where local reservoirs and other bodies of water had sunk to dangerously low levels) was the new normal. Many folks who had built homes near such bodies of water were being told that their properties were now permanently devalued, being not so much lakefront properties any longer.

Of course, not quite more than a year later those reservoirs and such were once again full to overflowing, and too much water was the new problem. So yeah, whenever a "climate expert" tells you that something is the "new normal", or that you are now in a "permanent state of drought", or whatever, then you can pretty much just safely assume that they're full of it!

In my late teens my normally wet-and-green area got hit hard by a drought. Rivers and reservoirs started drying up, wildfires (small ones, at least) became common occurrences, and temperatures peaked so high at times that roads started buckling and the interiors of cars started melting and so on.

Any of that sound familiar? Well, this all happened in my area circa 1980, but before long conditions returned to normal, where occasional flooding was a far more recurrent issue than anything like a drought was. Nobody was trying to blame climate change at the time, either; it was just "drought".


Climate change is real, and humans are evolved...but so far the hysteria has been just that, hysteria. Climate models have been historically inaccurate, and it's actually really difficult to even know what the "ideal" global temperature is.

Gonna go wash my car three times :D

its funny how no matter what happens climate wise "its terrible and wrong" when it's reported.

What drought.gov calls abnormally-dry is not actually abnormal. What they really mean is "its non-ideal", as if the climate was always ideal pre-2011.

Anything that is lower than D2 ("severe drought") is normal, and of course its better to thrive toward ideal and maintaining better conditions. But it doesn't mean that somehow weather was ideal all the time before 2011 and now its never good enough.

Let the downvotes flow...

https://www.drought.gov/drought/states/california


I actually agree with the core sentiment of your post, but find you playing a victim without yet being victimized in any way with "Let the downvotes flow..." to be really counter productive.

Could you rephrase the core sentiment of the post that you agree with? I can't understand what it's saying at all, other than expressing anger at the reporting of climate issues.

There is a trend where all climate events are said by news sources to be indicative of climate change. Abnormally warm winters => climate change. Abnormally cold winters => climate change. Drought => climate change. Hurricanes => climate change. As is typical on many topics, some news organizations are apt to over-state the certainty of scientific evidence. For example, the link between climate change and hurricanes is commonly cited in news sources (see https://duckduckgo.com/?q=hurricane+climate+change+huff+post...). While the link has a reasonable theoretical mechanism (warm air seems to make hurricanes stronger, global warming => more warm air), it hasn't actually been observed in practice - we had an average number of hurricanes last decade and an abnormally small number the decade prior. Nevertheless, some news sources publish articles along the lines of "most damaging hurricane ever, is it because of global warming?"

Depending on where you sit, this is either evidence that global warming is a massive hoax and not happening at all OR evidence that news sources sometimes get a little carried away trying to publish the most alarmist and exotic things that they can find, but that the underlying science of global warming is valid and with uncertain impacts.


What exactly is it you’re trying to say?

California has been trending hotter, and drier. The link you point to has a scale of different levels of dryness.

Where exactly is the sinister doublespeak in this?


He's seemingly either a climate denialist or some sort of troll; just look through his post history.

> Abnormally Dry:

  * Short-term dryness slowing planting, growth of crops
  * Some lingering water deficits
  * Pastures or crops not fully recovered
Maybe it's a confusing use of the word. I think they might just mean that the area is still experiencing residual effects of the drought.

Thanks for the clinical discussion around environmental droughts.

As usual such technical views ignore the on-the-ground experience for people to provide context for the language you’re criticizing.

Yes, to the ecosystem itself, in a vacuum, it’s not bad.

To human existence there it’s been problematic. Emotions are up over it. Perhaps that’s an alternative argument you’re not considering?

This is like telling people dealing with cancer “We all die some day.”

Damn those humans and their generalizing to maintain social connection. We should all just stick to highly technical interpretations (even though not all of us want to!)


The problem is that California has the flu and people think its cancer. Getting the flu sucks but you're probably not gonna die. I remember forest fires as well as mudslides in CA back in the 1970s. Perhaps the last few years were an extreme, but note that going to that extreme and back took about a decade. Most people haven't been there long enough to know what normal is and just buy in to all the media hype.

Sorry, but this is just flat out wrong. Yes, drought and fire have always been a fact of life for California. But if you map the frequency and severity of fires alone, it’s on a remarkably upward trajectory over the past two decades. It’s climate change.

If go back a bit further you'll find that (for example) one of the big, deadly wildfires from a couple of years ago was almost identical to a wildfire that happened in that same area back in the 1960s (IIRC). And during that earlier fire a few structures burned too (there weren't that many around at the time), so thinking ahead they banned any further construction in the most dangerous part of that area. Only to conveniently forget about that ban during the 1980s and later, so in the second fire you now had a much higher human toll. So two almost identical fires but with very different outcomes, at least in human terms.

Also, most people apparently don't understand the distinction between "wildfire" and "firestorm". Since upwards of 97% of wildfires are actually human-caused these days, of course a human has to be present for that to happen. No humans means far fewer wildfires.

But a lot of what we've been seeing lately are actually firestorms, where a single structure catches fire and then that spreads uncontrollably to the next structure and so on until everything flammable is basically burned out. Firestorms happen because there are few if any resources available to put the fire out while it's still small. So while the original source of ignition may very well have come from a wildfire, the firestorm can keep burning and spreading long after the wildfire itself has basically played out, at least in that immediate area.

And no, climate change has little or nothing to do with this.


The Native Americans used to set fire to the landscape every year - at least in Oregon, and I’m pretty sure California to a degree as well. I think California was literally on fire the first time missionaries sailed up the coast.

I agree - controlled burns are effective at keeping brush at manageable levels, and fire is a natural part of the forest ecosystem. And part of California’s climate. Developing too close to the wilderness edge is putting more human lives at risk. (I own farm and forest land, and am involved in conservation and restoration; I’m familiar with the challenges.)

But Climate Change is rapidly becoming the dominate factor for one simple reason: hot, dry, things burn. And Climate Change is making things hotter and drier.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/11/clima...


Funny you should mention "hot, dry, things burn". I once did a little digging into the matter, and it turns out that once ignition temperature is reached, the difference between a fresh green leaf igniting vs. a dry brown one is on the order of just a few seconds, maybe just one or two. Which is surprisingly fast, but not so surprising when you realize that advancing flame fronts may be in the high hundreds to low thousands of degrees - plenty hot enough to quickly desiccate even the freshest leaf. It turns out that bigger factors are the size and shape of the leaf in question, what type of plant it is, and of course what the winds are doing.

Physical wetness, though, may make quite a bit of difference, especially when it comes to a fire actually igniting to begin with. But even that may not matter so much when it comes to things like lightning strikes, which may be in the tens of thousands of degrees.

So, for example, if the temperature might normally be 70F but instead is closer to 100F, that small difference is minimal compared to the temperature of any flames. But it might make a huge difference to someone fighting those flames, unless maybe they are right in the thick of them.


Over the past two decades, yes. But humans have been in California for a lot longer than two decades. Over all the time humans have been in California (which is basically since the last Ice Age at least, possibly longer since we don't know exactly when it was first settled by Native Americans), what we're seeing now is probably well within the range of variation. We can't know for sure because we don't have 12,000 years worth of records to tell us.

Which means we don't have the basis for saying that what's been happening in California over the past couple of decades is an emergency. It might just be part of the long term cost of choosing to live in California.


Yes, but this is the same argument people make about how you can’t attribute a given hurricane to Climate Change (although science has becoming more capable of those kinds of attributions in recent years).

Yes, climate fluctuates. Yes, there have plausibly been years of drought and fire in centuries past that would rival recent years. But absent the specific data you say is lacking, if you believe that climate science is generally correct, then more drought, more warming, more fire is the obvious trend. Not just California, but the entire world.

Regardless of whether similar events have happened in the past, there’s an obvious reason for the dramatic uptick between the 1970s and today: CO2 in the atmosphere, put there by humans.


> there’s an obvious reason for the dramatic uptick between the 1970s and today: CO2 in the atmosphere, put there by humans

The fact that this reason is "obvious" doesn't mean it's correct. Climate models based on the assumption that human CO2 emissions are the primary cause of warming have been significantly over-predicting warming. So I don't think we can say human CO2 emissions are the primary cause. We are still too uncertain about how the climate works for that.


> But if you map the frequency and severity of fires alone, it’s on a remarkably upward trajectory over the past two decades. It’s climate change.

...or it could be because the forests are so out of balance because they need fire to thrive that smaller events have oversized effects.

Before people started blaming severe forest fires on climate change they blamed the fires on the policy of systematically putting out all fires which allowed fuel to pile up on the forest floor allowing them to burn much hotter resulting in the trees dying. Before this policy the fires would just burn through the underbrush and the trees would survive as this is how they evolved.


1984 vibes in a way if you think about it.



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