Drought or No Drought ?


Apocalyptic Schadenfreude

What the New York Times — and everybody else — gets wrong about California’s water crisis.

By Steven Johnson


But then I started spending more time in California and realized that the water situation there is far more complex than it had seemed from the Atlantic states. Which is why it has been particularly interesting to read the extensive coverage of California’s water crisis in the New York Times for the past few days, in the wake of Governor Brown’s executive order last week limiting water usage across the state. There has been some great reporting and data analysis in this sequence of stories. (This, for instance, is one of the most useful infographics I’ve seen all year.) Yet I think some of the complexity of the situation has been sacrificed in order to adhere to the familiar moral that the state’s residents are finally getting their environmental just deserts. Consider the opening paragraph of Sunday’s story:


But isn’t water a deal breaker? If you live in a region that doesn’t have water, you’re going to hit a wall eventually, and that lifestyle is going to come back to haunt you. Yet California is so big and so ecologically diverse that it’s impossible to condense it into a simple story of living-beyond-our-limits. Arizona is a desert; Nevada is a desert. But large parts of California are temperate rain forests; the mediterranean climate of Sonoma gets almost as much rain in an average year as New York. In the middle of an historic drought, the reservoirs in the Bay Area are close to capacity. Measured by the mile, and not state boundaries, lumping northern California in with the abuses of Palm Springs is like blaming Maine in August for the surge in air conditioning in steamy Washington, D.C.


The single most important statistic in understanding the current crisis is this: 80% of California’s surface water supports the farms of the Central Valley. Compared to that massive flow, the residential abuses are almost an afterthought. If every single human being living south of Los Angeles packed up and moved to rainy Oregon, it wouldn’t improve California’s water situation as much as a mere 10% decrease in the water used by the Central Valley farmers.

Read the full story: Medium

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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