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Drought in California Part 15: Summary and Discussion

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This is the last post in my series on Drought in California. I’ve been writing the series for just over 3 months – I can’t believe it has been that long! I’ve looked at California’s climate, projections for how California’s climate might change through mid-century, California’s water infrastructure, California’s water supply, and patterns of water consumption in California. I’ve calculated the size of the water deficit that California might experience by mid-century, and I’ve looked at various ways California might attempt to cover the deficit: enacting policies to stop population growth, stealing water from the environment, diverting additional water from rivers, desalinating water, reducing agricultural water consumption, and reducing urban water consumption.

I’m not aware of anything like my analysis. If you are, I would love to read it, and I think other readers of this blog might like to, also. Please comment and let us know where to find it.

It looks to me like California faces some really difficult challenges. By mid-century, they are going to face a decline in water supply due to climate change. Put the decline in supply together with the fact that the population is predicted to grow, and the fact that they already overdraft their water, and they face a very large future water deficit. California has built an amazing water infrastructure, but there are problems associated with every possible alternative for covering the water deficit. Only a few seemed realistically possible to me: desalination, urban conservation, and agricultural conservation.

I constructed three scenarios for policies California might follow, but again, only one of them seemed realistic to me: conserving water in both the urban and agricultural sectors, desalinating enough water to cover the resulting urban demand, and diverting the remaining water resources to agriculture. This scenario would provide sufficient water to urban areas, but California would lose slightly more than half of its agricultural sector. I calculated the impacts such a scenario might have on California’s economy, and found that it would probably cause the economy to start shrinking. The result would be a recession, and eventually a depression. The impact would be worst in the agricultural sector, but it would be felt statewide.

The bulk of the projected water deficit comes from a decline in the snowpack that is projected to occur due to climate change. Obviously, if that projection turns out to be wrong, the entire analysis would have to change. Even if it holds true, it is likely to be a slow-motion train wreck. As I have been writing this series, an El Niño has formed, and El Niños are typically associated with lots of rain in California. It hasn’t happened yet, but many are hoping for a wet winter.

For my analysis, it doesn’t matter a bit. The projected 40% decline in the snowpack is a 30-year average. There will be wetter years, not every year will be as bad as this year. Thus, the problems I foresee are likely have a slow onset, except for economic effects. The economy depends on psychology, and asset prices do so especially. Psychology can (and usually does) change very quickly – ask anybody who invests in the stock market! At some point, I expect people to lose confidence in California. When? Before mid-century, but precisely when I don’t know. Until then, the economy will be okay. After that, it won’t. Everybody thinks they will be able to get out in time, but they never do. It is like being caught in an avalanche: there is no avalanche until the rocks are already sliding down the mountain. But then it is too late, and the avalanche slides down the mountain very fast!

As I said, I don’t know of any other analysis like mine, thus it has been a really worthwhile exercise. But it has been a lot of territory for one person to cover, especially someone who is neither an engineer, a water expert, nor a climate expert. Along the way I have had to rely on publicly available data sources. Some of them have been of the highest quality available, but others have been less reliable. There have been instances when data was not available, and I have had to make assumptions or “guesstimates.” Further, the analysis has sometimes had to predict how people will respond to the problems they will face. Predicting human behavior is notoriously hard to do. Yet if people respond differently than anticipated, the whole analysis will have to be redone.

All of these issues affect the quality of my analysis, and the reliability of my conclusions. The two areas most seriously affected are the calculation of the future water deficit and the calculation of economic effects. Take what I have written as an interesting exercise, but only the future will reveal what will actually happen.

Thanks for reading this long excursion away from what this blog usually focuses on. I’m going on vacation now for a couple of weeks. When I return in late October, I plan to get back to reporting on large-scale studies about Missouri’s environment.

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1 Comment

  1. Judy Pass says:

    Congratulations! Well done!

    Judy Judyhpass@gmail.com Sent from my iPad

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