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Northern SJ Valley & Central Sierra in moderate drought
folsom lake boat ramp

Even with an extra day thanks to Leap Year it looks like Mother Nature is not going to deliver.

When the calendar turns to March there will be a new record for the first time since weather has been tracked in this part of California for the past 150 years or so. February will have passed without a drop of precipitation.

Given how fickle weather in the West has been regardless of where you weigh in on the climate debate the fact February has been dry as the proverbial bone you should be paying attention.

San Joaquin County as well as much of Stanislaus and Merced counties along with the Central Sierra watershed that the three counties rely on is now in moderate drought as of Thursday based on the United States Department of Agriculture drought monitor map. Altogether 24 percent of California is in moderate drought. Another 43 percent of the state is designated as abnormally dry.
Barring a March miracle that is not in the cards based on National Weather Service long-range forecasts the odds are good we are heading into a drought year.

And while reservoir storage is above normal and should be enough combined with the meager snowpack that is less than 47 percent of normal, the problems start in earnest if there are two or more dry years strung together.

In the last drought we spent a lot of energy trying to blame the dry conditions on greenhouse gas emissions and such and not coming to grips with reality.

Tree rings carbon dating long before anyone ever put the words “climate” and “change” together in a sentence makes it abundantly clear that the past tens of thousands of years the area that we now refer to as the western United States experienced prolonged dry periods. That includes so-called “mega-droughts” of 50 plus years that were punctuated by occasional one to three year periods of “normal” rain. Experts in dendrochronology — the dating of tree rings — point to bore samples taken from ancient bristlecone pines in the high Sierra and trees submerged for dozens of centuries under the surface of Lake Tahoe that give a clear read that the 200-year period ending in the 1960s was abnormally wet in California and the rest of the western United States.

Tree rings are reliable recordings of precipitation given trees create a new ring every year and the thickness of that ring is driven by how much water it gets.

That means California was settled during an abnormally wet period.

Back in 1850 the census placed the state’s population at 92,597 although that did not include all Native Americans. Today — 170 years later — we are on the cusp of 40 million people.

We can debate climate change all we want but the basic issue in California is our continued denial of where we live. The Golden State left to its own devices would indeed be golden most of the year instead of sporting lush gardens along with fields and orchards teeming with crops.

Our ingenuity at moving massive amounts of water from snow melt great distances to naturally arid water basins has blinded us to the fact most Californians live in areas that would be classified as borderline deserts most of the year including the Great Central Valley if it weren’t for massive water engineering schemes.

Our fertile soil, Mediterranean climate, and ability to store and move mass amounts of water have allowed us to grow practically anything.

Instead of native California grasses that tend to clump and get by with minimal water consumption such as that found planted along Moffat Boulevard in front of the Manteca Transit Center’s bus loading zone, we plant non-native grasses that flourish in rainier climates in the Midwest, South and East Coast but wouldn’t survive in California without benefit of the state’s great water works.

Our disconnect to what nature intended or, more precisely, what type of vegetation survives and thrives without the importation of water from one water basin to another, has created the growing water crisis we are in today and not climate change per se.

Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego all lack sufficient natural water resources with their respective water basins to support even a 10th of their modern population. Yet all three metro areas keep ballooning in size thanks to massive straws that are hundreds of miles long that suck up snow melt and move the water uphill to turn coastal deserts into unsustainable cities.

Our underground water tables also cannot sustain what we have done and continue to do even with solid recharge during abundant snow years.

To understand why that is the case all you need to do is visit Bakersfield, Fresno, Hanford or Visalia. Parts of where those cities stand today were under up to 185 feet of water 170 years ago.

That was before urbanization and agriculture parlayed a fledging state of 92,597 souls into a Top 10 global economic juggernaut with almost 40 million people.

That drive was started by using the closest source of water.

In the case of the Southern San Joaquin Valley that virtually overnight became one of the most fertile farm regions in the world, it led to the demise of Tulare Lake.

What happened to Tulare Lake makes the decimation of Owens Lake by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power seem as if it were sound environmental stewardship instead.

Tulare Lake with 690 square miles of surface area and a length of 81 miles was the largest lake west of the Mississippi River. It was also the second largest lake within the United States after one of the Great Lakes that have shared ownership in Canada.

Tulare Lake was tapped into for irrigation in the mid-19th century. By 1899 all traces of the lake had vanished. When the lake disappeared so did the single biggest recharge source of underground aquifers in the southern valley as well as the San Joaquin River. 

Manteca — and every other California city — should not wait until we are in the throes of another drought to take action.

The first step is making it illegal for all new commercial construction as well as new residential front yards to have grass as part of landscaping.

Non-native lawns are by far the biggest use of urban water in California.

Blame climate change all you want but the reality is the best way to protect against the savages of drought on rivers, lakes and farms as well as avoiding the requirement of draconian water saving measures such as not flushing toilets every time is if we own up to the fact we are our own worst enemy.


To contact Dennis Wyatt,