(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
I try not to laugh at the people back east who’ve been buried under snow for the past few months simply because someday they’ll be able to laugh at the fact that the ground is still under their feet. Barring one week of pretty bitter cold right around Christmas — and I wasn’t even here for that — it’s been a startlingly warm and winter in Los Angeles this year. While Boston was breaking record after record for snowfall to the point where friends of mine who live there were talking about getting out for good, the temperature here was the usual 75 and sunny (and sometimes warmer). If you live here, that’s probably one of the reasons why, and most people don’t complain about that kind of weather. But while Southern California is basking in its relatively lovely winter, there’s a very dark cloud on the horizon. There’s going to be a steep price to pay for what many would consider perfection.
Traditionally, December through March represents the rainy season in California. It’s what we count on to keep a good part of this state from completely drying out, given that outside of those months Central and Southern California can often go entirely without precipitation. This year was, compared to last, a genuinely rain-soaked one, meaning that we at least had several days of hard rain, quite a few more days of cloudy weather, and times when it drizzled for a workweek or longer. But none of that even begins to compare to the kinds of winters I remember from when I lived here in the mid-90s, when there was so much water that it would bring with it floods and mudslides regularly. Nobody liked those, but they served an important purpose — a purpose that hasn’t been served for so long that California is looking down the barrel of a historic four-year-long drought.
Just how bad is it out here? Well, pictures tell the story incredibly well but in this case it might take the power of words to truly knock people out of their complacency. Last week, the Los Angeles Timespublished an op-ed written by the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech and what he had to say was jarring, which is good because it was meant to be. Jay Famiglietti’s proclamation was simple: California has one year of water left. “January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895,” he writes. “Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.”
Famiglietti goes on to say that California has lost more than 12 million acre-feet of water every year since 2011, with a lot of that coming from farmers in the Central Valley who have to pump more groundwater for irrigation because it isn’t coming from the sky. The problem is that groundwater was decreasing even before this epic drought began and the state has only a year’s supply of water left in its backup reservoirs. So the point here is that California is screwed. We’ve likely got another eight or nine months until we see any real rain again, so — you do the math.
Meanwhile, an article written for public radio station KCRW’s “Which Way, LA?” blog takes the fear a step further and directly throws our enviable weather — and appreciation of it — right back in our faces. Joe Matthews reminds us that there’s something malevolent lurking behind 80-degree Februaries. It may feel great to show off that it’s so warm here during what’s supposed to be winter, but the fact is that despite what some who don’t live here might say, we actually do have seasons. And if we suddenly don’t, that’s a frightening omen for what may be to come. Because we have so few genuine swings in our microclimates, that’s what makes the day-to-day and year-to-year weather here so important. We need the winter rain and snow in the higher elevations just like we need the heat in the summer. Everything in this state depends on this cycle working the way it’s supposed to.
Thanks to global climate change, the forecasts for California are harrowing, with more and higher extremes and less predictability. What this means is that while we’re constantly reminded that we need rain here, the rain we could get would be devastating. In some ways it’s already happening. While Southern California didn’t have the days of slow and steady rain that actually would’ve helped to replenish the groundwater or reservoirs this past winter, what we did get were a couple of massive storms that wreaked havoc then vanished quickly without much lasting impact. Put it this way: I remember one huge rainstorm in L.A. that was like nothing I’d ever seen before during my time here; it happened at an unusual time, in April of 2012, and beyond that it rarely rained until late 2014. There were days of drizzle and light rain where I live, but nothing like that 2012 storm.
California has always been the kind of place where, if you’re driving more than 20 minutes or so, you need to check what the weather will be like where you’re going. It can be 90 degrees and sunny in the Valley, 80 and overcast in Hollywood, and 65 and cloudy in Santa Monica. It takes some getting used to. But it’s in these differentiations that you can most easily judge whether something’s gone wrong with our overall climate here. The balance is delicate and when something is upsetting it — or changing it completely — it’s time to worry. The problem is that while we’re all very well aware that something is terribly wrong, we’re being lulled into a state of blissful satisfaction by winters that are burying the rest of the country and leaving us pretty much untouched. I know we need rain, but when you wake up and realize you have to drive through it here, you suddenly turn into a spoiled child and throw a temper tantrum over it.
Jay Famiglietti, the water scientist, says that both the people of California and its government have no choice but to act now, not later, to try desperately to stave off the inevitable here. Water rationing needs to begin immediately at the state level; the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 needs to be accelerated; thought leaders need to convene to begin brainstorming long-term solutions; and every single resident of California needs to get off his or her ass and own this crisis. And that’s exactly what it is — a crisis.
Tough new drought restrictions were just approved for the entire state. It’s a good thing, because here in Los Angeles especially, it may be sunny outside — now more than ever. But make no mistake: these are dark times.