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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Climate Expert Warns California Drought May Last Decades

A dry canal is filled with weeds on February 6, 2014, near Bakersfield, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

A dry canal is filled with weeds on February 6, 2014, near Bakersfield, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

President Obama is heading to Fresno, California, tomorrow, in the midst of the state’s historic drought and a political fight over how to handle it.

Berkeley professor B. Lynn Ingram says the drought may be the most severe since the 1500s, based on research on tree rings. She says we may be entering a drier period that may last decades.

Ingram, who is also author of the 2013 book “The West without Water,” joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the drought.




It's HERE AND NOW. President Obama heads to Fresno, California, tomorrow in the midst of the state's historic drought, a drought that our next guest says may be a new reality that lasts for decades. Lynn Ingram is co-author of "The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow." She's a professor of geography at U.C. Berkeley. Professor, welcome, and you've looking at research into tree rings dating back as far as the 1500s. What does that tell you about today's drought?

LYNN INGRAM: Well, so the tree ring research looked at the thickness of tree growth, you know, in these tree rings and correlate that with precipitation. So they could see that there are certain years where rings are extremely narrow, or rings are absent, meaning the tree failed to grow that year, it was so dry. And what we've seen in that research is this drought could be one of the worst three single-year droughts over the past 500 years.

HOBSON: So you don't see any encouragement in the rain that has been coming at least in recent days?

INGRAM: Well I am, I actually am encouraged. You know, in terms of the short term, it's a good thing. But I think what we really need to do is start planning for a longer-term, perhaps drier century now.

HOBSON: Well, what does it mean to prepare for a drier century? What should the state of California be doing?

INGRAM: Well, for one thing we can learn from the Australian drought. They had a 10-year drought, and they had to employ more water-efficient appliances, use more water recycling of treated waste water, planting more drought-tolerant plants and things like that but maybe even linking our growth to water scarcity and pricing our water to reflect water scarcity, and the environmental costs of diverting water for agriculture and for human use is impacting the aquatic ecosystems.

HOBSON: Do you think that people in California should be able to have yards that they water at their house? Because I know a lot of people look at that, especially in Southern California, and say this is crazy to have a yard and flowers that you have to water in a place that doesn't have any water.

INGRAM: I agree with that. I think it's crazy, and I really think if water prices go up, and there's more water restrictions, then people will finally get it, and they'll, you know, just let that lawn go and just, you know, like they do in the Southwest. You see crushed granite or drought-tolerant native plants. But we really need a larger effort by the government to really put regulations in place, maybe building desalination plants and also banking water underground in underground aquifers, you know, and just really trying to prepare and think ahead for years that might be drier.

HOBSON: What about this idea that has been released this week from the two Democratic senators in California, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, to give more flexibility to the state and federal agencies to move water around without lifting the Endangered Species Act? And what, of course for listeners who don't know, this is all about diverting water to people and to farmers as opposed to using it to help restore populations of salmon, for example.

INGRAM: You know, I'm sort of divided on that because I really think that the Endangered Species Act is there to protect these ecosystems, and so it just shows that we really have to learn how to manage our water better and really price water and value water more than we do now.

HOBSON: What do you make of what some Republicans have said, which is that this is a manmade drought, that these efforts to divert water to restore salmon populations are one of the reasons there's a drought in the first place?

INGRAM: I think if we look in the paleo-climate records, we see that, you know, there were droughts that lasted over decades or even over a century in the past. And this is clearly just a meteorological drought. And, you know, we have to kind of acknowledge, have people understand that our climate history includes period of long drought.

HOBSON: We were speaking recently with a group of farmers from California, one of whom said that the state is going to have to decide what it wants to be. Does it want to be the breadbasket and fruit basket of the country, or does it want to be a place that is growing rapidly when it comes to human population? Do you think that that choice is the choice that faces the state of California?

INGRAM: I do think there have to be some hard decision to be made, and maybe we could rethink the kinds of things we could grow so we're not growing cotton and rice, you know, in a desert. And, you know, also consider if it makes it sense to continue to grow in a region that's dry.

HOBSON: We're speaking with Berkeley Professor Lynn Ingram, and you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Do you think people would be coming to California in these numbers if water weren't so cheap right now?

INGRAM: Well, I certainly think that during the 20th century, when we had one of the wettest centuries over the past few thousand years, you know, that's when a lot of water development took place, the building of dams and canals. The population grew, and I think there is this close connection between making water cheap and available between, you know, the population size and the growth of agriculture.

And unfortunately right now, we're depleting not only our surface waters, but this water that takes centuries to millennia to accumulate underground in the aquifers is being used, and the water table is dropping every year. So, you know, our population is not really looking at a long-term, sustainable situation here unless things get corrected and rethought.

HOBSON: Well, is it about water use, or is it just about the amount of water that's available in the first place?

INGRAM: Well, it's really both. I mean, that's - when you look at drought, there's two ends of it. There's the supply side, so what is the climate doing, and how does that affect our water resources, and then there's also, you know, how much do we need, and how much are we taking or using.

And so what we see from this long-term history of climate and water is that climate is extremely variable. And you have, you know, variability from single years that are extremely dry to over decades long, where it's dry, but, you know, it's not bone dry, but it's maybe 60 percent of average: to these longer cycles of wet and dry that can last a century or longer.

So it's a concern because it looks like we might be heading into a drier sort of natural cycle. And then of course there's global warming on top of that that is predicted to make the region drier, and we've already seen, you know, earlier spring snow melt and declining snowpack and increased wildfires in this region.

And then we have this growing population that, you know, needs water, and so it is both sides of, you know, the supply and the demand that's a problem.

HOBSON: If a skeptic were to come visit you and say oh, it's not that bad, what would you show them?

INGRAM: I would describe to them the long-term history of drought. I'd show them some of the physical evidence in the field. You know, there's trees that are now submerged in lakes, tree stumps that date from that medieval period, meaning those lakes were completely dry or much drier for over a century. So you can see that in the past, things have been drier, and there's no reason that that can't repeat itself.

HOBSON: Lynn Ingram is professor of earth and planetary science and geography at the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Ingram, thanks so much for joining us.

INGRAM: Thank you.

HOBSON: And Robin, as they're dealing with the drought in California, of course we've got all this precipitation on the East Coast today, it is also the wettest January in the U.K. since 1776.


The pictures are quite something, of people kayaking through their streets.

HOBSON: Yeah, really, so a lot of strange weather all across the globe. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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