Does “The West Without Water” Portend our Future?

Sources: Excerpts from UC Berkeley; Steve Hockensmith, UC Berkeley NewsCenter; University of California Press; The Commonwealth Club of California.

As 2013 came to a close, the drought was reported to have been the driest year in California since records began to be kept in the 1840s. That was, academically speaking, not quite the truth.

“This could potentially be the driest water year in 500 years,” says B. Lynn Ingram, a UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist professor of earth and planetary science and geography.

B. Lynn Ingram
B. Lynn Ingram

As a paleoclimatologist, Ingram analyzes sediments and archaeological deposits to determine how climates change over the course of millennia. And according to the width of old tree rings (which can record the coming and going of wet or waterless stretches), California hasn’t been so parched since 1580.

“These extremely dry years are very rare,” she says.

But soon, perhaps, they won’t be as rare as they used to be. The state is facing its third drought year in a row, and Ingram wouldn’t be surprised if that dry stretch continues.

If you go back thousands of years, you see that droughts can go on for years if not decades, and there were some dry periods that lasted over a century,” Ingram said in a recent interview with Steve Hockensmith, UC Berkeley NewsCenter. “The 20th century was unusually mild here, in the sense that the droughts weren’t as severe as in the past. It was a wetter century, and a lot of our development has been based on that.”

Ingram continued, “The late 1930s to the early 1950s were when a lot of our dams and aqueducts were built, and those were wetter decades. I think there’s an assumption that we’ll go back to that, and that’s not necessarily the case. We might be heading into a drier period now. It’s hard for us to predict, but that’s a possibility, especially with global warming.”

“When the climate’s warmer,” she said, “it tends to be drier in the West. The storms tend to hit further into the Pacific Northwest, like they are this year, and we don’t experience as many storms in the winter season. We get only about seven a year, and it can take the deficit of just a few to create a drought.”

“Yet, if you look at the past, you realize that our climate is anything but reliable. We’ve seen these big fluctuations. Extreme droughts and extreme floods.”

The co-authors want the public to know that if you’re going to buy a house in the Central Valley, you should know about these floods. “And we have to start assuming that we could go into one of these longer droughts and maybe start doing some serious conservation and rethinking of agriculture here,” Ingram commented.

West Without Water

Together, B. Lynn Ingram, Professor of Earth & Planetary Science and Geography, UC Berkeley; and Frances Malamud-Roam, Associate Environmental Planner and Biologist, Caltrans; Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley; co-authored The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrowwhich was released by the University of California Press last year.

The West without Water documents the tumultuous climate of the American West over twenty millennia, including past droughts and deluges and predictions about future climate change and water resources. Looking at the region’s current water crisis from the perspective of its climate history, the authors ask the central question of what is “normal” climate for the West, and whether the relatively benign climate of the past century will continue into the future. 

The authors show that, while the West may have temporarily buffered itself from such harsh climatic swings by creating artificial environments and human landscapes, our modern civilization may be ill-prepared for the predicted climate changes and  warn that we must face the realities of the past and prepare for a future in which fresh water may be less reliable.

The co-authors will present their ideas and research at The Commonwealth Club’s “In conversation” with Lisa Krieger, Science and Medical Research Reporter, San Jose Mercury News on Tuesday, Mar 11, 2014 at 6:30pm at the Lafayette Library, 3491 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette.

Join Ingram and co-author Frances Malamud-Roam for a discussion on California’s current water crisis, the region’s climatic past and predictions about the future of climate change and its effect on water resources.