From Megadroughts to Megafloods
SACRAMENTO — California’s weather patterns certainly have been unusual this winter, with the Sierra snowpack hitting record levels, massive flooding throughout the valleys, and slight smatterings of snow landing in such snow-averse places as Orange County. OK, some of my Southern California friends who have been joyfully posting “snow” pictures on Facebook perhaps don’t know the difference between snow and hail (or graupel) — but it’s been a particularly wet and cold season.
The latest data from the federal drought monitor reports the good water news. As of last December, extreme, severe, or exceptional drought plagued almost all of California, but most of the state is now merely abnormally dry. The reservoirs are filling up and — if weather forecasts are accurate — another series of rains will bring the state out of official drought conditions. The main water problem these days is what to do with all of the excess (and the leftover sandbags).
So, of course, environmentalists are alarmed. They’re always alarmed. The climate likely is changing, but weather patterns never are constant. We have unusually wet years and unusually dry ones, as any research into California’s history shows. “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,” John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden. “It was always that way.”
And so goes the hysteria. “The Golden State has a long history of cataclysmic floods, which have occurred about every 200 to 400 years — most recently in the Great Flood of 1861-62,” according to Yale Climate Connections in late January. “[A] 2022 study found that, relative to a century ago, climate change has already doubled the risk of a present-day mega-storm, and more than tripled the risk of a trillion-dollar mega-flood of the type that could swamp the Central Valley.”
Well, it could happen. Of course, one of the reasons California doesn’t face such extraordinary floods as the one that saw Gov. Leland Stanford rowing a boat to his inauguration, is that the state and feds in the 20th century built two large-scale water systems (the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project) that enable dams to control the water flows. Those projects also provide water for nearly 40 million people as well as hydroelectric power.
Aside from renewing my flood insurance, I’m not about to lose much sleep over fears of a megaflood — even if environmental groups are using the latest rains as evidence of the perils of climate change. Again, I don’t doubt the climate is changing, but I do look askance at efforts to use whatever happens to be going on with the weather as prima facie evidence of an arriving climate catastrophe.
In my view, policymakers should focus on the matters they can change rather than on the ones that are beyond their normal scope. There’s no evidence that California’s all-in approach to climate change — from banning internal-combustion vehicles to driving the oil industry out of state to imposing a system of climate credits on industry — is doing much to change the warming (or cooling) cycle. A University of Chicago study about California’s 2020 wildfire season found that a “single year of wildfire emissions is close to double emissions reductions achieved over 16 years.”
Policymakers’ goal should be climate resilience — i.e., developing policies that help the state endure whatever weather happens. For instance, engaging in forest thinning and other productive policies that reduce raging wildfires would not only protect Californians, their property, and the state’s struggling insurance industry, but it would help meet emissions-reduction targets (although the state exempts wildfires from their calculations).
Likewise, rather than prodding other states and nations to follow California’s climate-change agenda, the state ought to build the water infrastructure it needs (reservoirs, dams, canals, desalination, water recycling facilities, etc.) to assure that there’s plenty of water for our economy and people, whether we’re facing a flood situation or a prolonged drought. Greater affluence provides the resources needed to deal with any climate issues. Developing countries pose the largest emission challenges.
After the latest snowstorms in the mountains, local and state officials struggled to provide even the most basic snow-clearing services. “Officials knew the San Bernardino County mountains were going to be hit by a bad storm days before an unprecedented blizzard rolled in,” the Los Angeles Times reported this week. “But they found themselves unprepared for the historic amount of snow and the disruptions it would bring.”
That touches on my hobbyhorse: California officials frequently blather about the Earth’s climate, but fail to handle their nuts-and-bolts responsibilities such as providing sufficient water resources, electricity, an adequate transportation system, and competent snow removal. They focus on the big issues that largely are out of their control — and then blame the climate for their infrastructure failures.
Speaking of drought, it was only recently that environmentalists surveyed the landscape and predicted a coming megadrought. “The research, which suggests that the past two decades in the American Southwest have been the driest period in 1,200 years, pointed to human-caused climate change as a major reason for the current drought’s severity,” according to NBC News last February.
Instead of worrying about megadroughts or megafloods (the “mega” makes it all that much more pressing, of course), California and other Western states need to invest in our water infrastructure so that we can store more water in wet years and thus have it in dry years. Most of the recent rains simply flowed to the Pacific Ocean. This seems fairly basic.
We can also make changes around the margins. Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, has introduced new legislation (sponsored by my employer, the R Street Institute) that seeks to make it easier for farms, cities, and environmentalists to trade water so that it is used in the most efficient manner. Senate Bill 550 addresses a real problem. California allows water trading, but it’s such a long and convoluted bureaucratic process that water isn’t traded as often as needed.
This bill directs the Legislative Analyst’s Office to conduct a study that provides a blueprint for reforming the process. It’s one small step, but if California lawmakers are serious about dealing with the water situation, they should take many small, medium, and large steps toward the end goal of bolstering our water supplies. It’s time to store more water and prepare for the future — not follow Steinbeck’s words and lose our memory of drought years during floods.