How drought shaped Southern California

From the Orange County (Calif.) Weekly, a story about how drought shaped Southern California:

Orange County as we know it exists because of the Great Drought of 1864. It wrecked Southern California’s cattle industry, then one of the largest in the world and the heart of the area’s economy, and forced ranchers to unload their land at fire-sale rates. Developers swooped in and divided their newly acquired properties into lots that evolved into the cities of today. Those settlements, in turn, drew in Americans who pushed out the state’s original Californio families. Enough people came to make Orange County’s secession from Los Angeles County in 1889 a natural. And those residents transformed pastoral OC into a suburban paradise that brought us national acclaim–and also sowed the seeds for our current water crisis.


Plan for a bad news future on the Colorado, or embrace uncertainty?

In Colorado River Basin planning, there is a common mistake growing out the the Bureau of Reclamation’s Basin Study. It is made by seizing on the study’s finding regarding the impact of climate change (as exemplified by the results of General Circulation Models, or GCM’s) on the river, quoted here from the executive summary (pdf), and then arguing for a portfolio of policy options to make basin water use sustainable given that new reality:

Under the Downscaled GCM Projected scenario, the median of the mean natural flow at Lees Ferry over the next 50 years is projected to decrease by approximately nine percent, along with a projected increase in both drought frequency and duration as compared to the observed historical and paleo-based scenarios.

This is a helpful prod, but it’s not quite right to interpolate that into “Basin Study predicts 9 percent reduction in flow”, as I frequently see done. That 9 percent number is better thought of as the midpoint in a very uncertain future, as the Basin Study goes on to explain:

The range of this result varies amongst the individual GCM projections that comprise this scenario with some of the GCM projections showing a larger decrease in mean natural flow than nine percent while others showing an increase over the observed historical mean.

The problem is nicely explained in this work from a team at RAND, which worked with the Bureau on the Basin Study:

Reclamation and the water agencies must deal not with a future that is uncertain but well understood; instead, they must plan for a future that is deeply uncertain and one that cannot be described statistically because of a lack of knowledge about how changes will unfold. Under these conditions, developing an optimal management strategy designed to perform well for a single deterministic or probabilistic forecast of future conditions is not very useful; rather, planners need a robust and adaptive strategy—robust in that it performs well over a wide range of possible futures and adaptive in that it can adjust over time in response to evolving conditions.

This recent Ensia piece by Melinda Harm Benson and Robin Craig seems to be heading off in the right conceptual direction:

The concept of resilience holds promise as a new way of addressing the challenges ahead. While not inherently incompatible concepts, resilience and sustainability are not the same. The pursuit of sustainability assumes that we a) know what can be sustained and b) have the capacity to maintain stationarity (i.e., keep the system operating within an unchanging envelope of variability). In contrast, resilience thinking acknowledges disequilibrium and nonlinear, continual change — often as a result of crossing a “tipping point” or threshold — and offers a tool for assessing the dynamic relationships between systems.

Chinook in the upper Elwha

The National Park Service reported three Chinook salmon have already found there way into the upper Elwha, upstream of Glines Canyon Dam. The last of the dam, on the Olympic Peninsula salmon river, came down last month:

Following an observation by a fisheries biologist and member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of a possible Chinook salmon in the former Lake Mills, two Olympic National Park fisheries staff conducted a snorkel survey of the Elwha River above the old Glines Canyon dam site.

They found three adult Chinook salmon, all between 30 and 36 inches long, in the former Lake Mills, between Windy Arm and Glines Canyon.  Two fish were seen resting near submerged stumps of ancient trees;the third was found in a deep pool in the former Lake Mills.


Driving the seam of the North American continent

One of my treasured memories of college thirty-plus years ago is the mornings spent in Bob Carson’s geology classes learning the physiographic provinces of the North American continent. It was a beautiful slide show combined with a deeply meaningful (to me) new set of organizing principles for looking at the landscape around me. I wasn’t becoming a scientist, but instead was learning an incredibly rich new way of looking at the world.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, September 2014

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, September 2014

The text we used, which remains on my shelf today, captures the premise: “Natural Regions of the United States”. Here was a way of organizing the landscape that made sense on the landscape’s own terms, not in terms of things we humans had come along and done later. And so it was that I ended up over the last few days driving to Colorado and back along I-25 on the boundary of two of those great “natural regions” – the Colorado Piedmont and Raton Section of the Great Plains Province and the Southern Rocky Mountains. I carry with me now my own conceptual labels instead, and driving up to Colorado Springs Sunday I kept casting my eyes back and forth between the Great Flat Part to my right and the Great Sticky Up Bits to my left.

The interstate is never far from the seam between the two, and often runs right on top of it. But the funnest expression was when my host Eric Perramond at Colorado College (thanks, Eric!) took me for an afternoon drive up to Garden of the Gods, a delightful Colorado Springs city park in the foothills where you can literally walk through the seam’s stitching. To the west, the Great Sticky Up Bits, pushed up by the Laramide Orogeny, shoved overlying sedimentary rocks out of the way as they rose. Garden of the Gods is the resulting debris, an impossibly beautiful collection of sandstone slabs tipped up on end with lovely walking trails among them and a big parking lot for all the humans such as Eric and me to ogle the nice continental stitching.

To the north, Eric pointed me to the long way ’round Denver up 470 toward Boulder, where highways and neighborhoods and river channels zig and zag through the stitching, until you get to Boulder’s Flatirons. This is all complicated by the hydrologic system draped atop things which is what usually distracts me. But the entire way, from Las Vegas, NM, all the way to Denver and Boulder, you’re never far from the fundamental boundary between Great Flat Part and Great Sticky Up Bits, the two great Natural Regions in physical display.

Boxall on the modesty of California’s approach to groundwater regulation

Bettina Boxall:

California is finally about to join the rest of the West in regulating groundwater supplies. But the package of bills awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature is not an instant fix for the state’s shrinking, over-pumped aquifers.

It could be decades, experts say, before the most depleted groundwater basins recover under the legislation, which is a historic step in a state that long resisted managing a key water source.

The bills, which Brown is expected to sign, will take years to implement. And they create a weaker regulatory framework than is found elsewhere in the West.

“This is a much more laissez-faire approach and a much more light-hand-of-government approach than just about any other state,” said UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff.

Compromise on the Colorado

Assistant Secretary of the Interior Anne Castle, speaking late last month in Las Vegas:

With the crucial Lake Mead reservoir at 38 percent capacity and the Southwest in the grip of the driest 15-year period in more than a century, Castle said it will take multiple, incremental agreements to balance the water rights of cities, farmers, Indian tribes and states.

“Compromise is the only way we’re going to get ourselves out of this drought,” she said. “This is difficult state politics.”

Somebody should write a book about that or something. :-)

More California groundwater discussion

Interesting comments from water people Scott Slater and Brian Jordan about the pitfalls ahead for California groundwater regulation:

Tim Quinn on California groundwater regulation

Tim Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies (“big water” in Calif.) frames the state’s groundwater regulation legislation thus:

We recognize there are many serious concerns about the groundwater legislation in the Central Valley, where many drought-weary water managers feel hammered by surface water cutbacks and worry that the door is now open to a state takeover of groundwater. But this is not a state takeover. The fact is the legislation provides a significant and effective shield against state intervention, provided that local agencies develop and implement groundwater sustainability plans as provided in the legislation. That is a reasonable ask in our view, and the legislation provides tools and authorities some agencies have previously lacked to manage for sustainability.

For regulating California groundwater, this is only the beginning

California’s newly passed groundwater management legislation has rightly been called “the most significant set of water reforms to pass the Legislature since at least the Burns-Porter Act in 1960 that authorized the State Water Project”. In a state where overpumping is epidemic, regulation is incredibly important, as Jay Lund and Thomas Harter recently explained:

Sustaining a prosperous civilization in California’s dry climate requires firm accounting of all major water resources, including groundwater. When management of a resource as valuable as groundwater is lacking, overdraft and litigation fill the void. Investments that depend on groundwater then become riskier, leading water users to pursue more secure, but more expensive and environmentally damaging water supply sources such as deeper wells and new reservoirs. The added risk of unreliable groundwater also can increase the cost of credit for agriculture and rural development.

But it is important to remember that the notion that California groundwater is completely unregulated is a myth that misleads in important ways. California communities of interest in a water basin have long had the opportunity to come together to self-regulate their excessive pumping. Elinor Ostrom’s “Governing the Commons” explains how it was done in places like my old home, the San Gabriel Valley. Doing it, as Ostrom so helpfully documented, requires painstaking assembly of social and institutional capital in the form of shared understandings of the resources, institutions to measure and manage it, and agreements that in a basin that is being overpumped inevitably require some pumpers to pump less. This has proven both enormously successful in some places and enormously difficult in others.

As explained in this helpful overview by the folks at the Downey Brand law firm, the new legislation offers up some expanded and clarified legal authorities, and a carrot and stick approach (if y’all don’t get together and come up with your own community-driven groundwater management plan, the state will come in and impose one). But it still requires communities of interest to do the hard work described by Ostrom, work that they have up to now been unable or unwilling to do:

In many groundwater basins, it has been difficult to develop the political consensus needed to make hard choices about groundwater.  After all, the members of local governing boards are often landowners or residents of their respective districts; the last thing that they want to do is to impose hardships on their friends and neighbors.

So yes, this is enormously important legislation. But it’s just the start of groundwater regulation in California, and success is not assured.

(h/t to Mavensnotebook, an invaluable piece of social capital/public good if ever there was one, for pointing me to the Downey Brand overview of the legislation)

Stuff I wrote elsewhere: RIP Yoda, the tree

When Henri Grissino-Mayer first told me about the tough little old Douglas fir named Yoda, it struck me as the perfect bit of anthropomorphic business for a book about tree rings for kids. When Henri emailed me last month to tell me that Yoda had died over the summer, I knew I couldn’t let the milestone pass without a memorial:

An icon for scientists studying the history of New Mexico’s climate, Yoda survived many a drought. But the tree couldn’t get through the latest one, said University of Tennessee professor Henri Grissino-Mayer.

Yoda was alive in March, according to Grant Harley of the University of Mississippi, one of a posse of researchers who have been tracking the tree. But when Harley brought a group of students to the remote site in August, the tree was dead.

“Bummer,” Harley wrote in an email sharing the news. “We had a moment of silence to pay our respects.”