Could the California Drought Be a Collapse Catalyst?

It could, but probably won’t (this year).

But the California drought will have national implications this year.  It’s being felt right now by farmers and cattle ranchers, and it will affect most Americans later this spring and summer.

Ag supply/demand.

I was in California earlier this year and had the opportunity to speak with ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley.  One of the first things they told me was that feed supply was down and feed demand was up.  Normally, ranchers can turn out their cattle to the range and let them forage.  The problem is that with so little rainfall, the forage isn’t there for much of California, so the ranchers have had to rely on alfalfa and grass hay to supplement the forage feed.  That leads to the next problem, which is that alfalfa and grass hay growers haven’t had the water to grow their crops, and crop yields have suffered.  That’s lead to entire crop failures, including fields of alfalfa failing to establish due to the lack of rain over the past six months.  These ranchers and growers depend on heavy precipitation during the wet months and then use irrigation during the dry months.  And that presents yet another problem: even the wet months (typically OCT-APR) have been really dry so there’s going to be a lack of irrigation this spring and summer.  The State of California even told farmers in February that there would be no state water coming to them.

How bad is it?

The California drought isn’t new.  The state’s been experiencing drought conditions for the past few years, however, what is new is the level of exceptional drought.  California experienced their driest year on record in 2013.  We established above that the rainy season for California is typically October to April.  My concern (and not just mine!) is that the level (as a percentage of area) of exceptional drought has climbed from 0.00% to 23.49% during the rainy season.  I’ve outlined in red the levels of exceptional drought (D4) now compared to three months ago and start of the water year.  The drought has grown progressively worse over the past three months.


Not only did those storms and ‘days of rain’ that came through California last month do nothing to ease drought conditions, over that period of time the levels of exceptional drought actually grew – even with the rain.  Comparison of 11 Mar to 08 April below.


Here’s another look at how the drought got worse during the rainy season.


And we’re coming to a head here.  The above was what happened during the rainy season and this is what precipitation typically looks like during the summer months.  (Growing up, I spent a few summers in California at my uncle’s ranch – the Delta breeze in the evening makes made central California once of the best places in America.)


Outlined in red is the average rainfall (since 1990, I believe) for central and southern California.  These are obviously the driest months of the year, so if the drought worsened during the rainy season, what can we expect the drought to do during the dry season?  Short of more ‘days of rain’ it will get worse.

Snowpack and residual resources.

And then we get to snowpack, which usually melts and fills up the rivers which empty into reservoirs.  Problem is, California snowpack is somewhere on the order of 32% of the average.  So there’s going to be roughly 70% less water filling up irrigation canals and reservoirs this spring and summer.  January 2014 showed 12% of the average, which is the lowest snowpack on California record.  Here are the satellite images from JAN 2014 compared to JAN 2013, respectively.


Here’s a neat little visualization of various reservoirs from around California that shows current and historical water levels. (Here.)  (And what about water fowl and other creatures that depend on filled up watersheds, lakes and marshes?)

One thing ranchers and growers are doing now to ensure continued water supply is drilling new wells.  According to a survey from the Fresno County Department of Environmental Health, the wait time for a new ag well is 10-12 months.  Well permits have risen two to three times those in past years because of the drought.  And California doesn’t regulate how much water is pumped out of the aquifer.  (Here’s an interesting article about the San Joaquin Valley sinking in due to overpumping from the aquifer.  From 1925 to 1977, one spot sunk 28 feet.)


Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).

Then if things weren’t already bad enough, California might be in the third year of a decades-long drought according the the PDO cycle, which is the opposite of El Nino.  The PDO usually lasts 20-30 years, although it has lasted up to 200 years before.  I’m not an expert on PDO; just know enough about it to know that it applies here.  The PDO is an observable weather pattern, so let’s just imagine the drought occurring now and extrapolate it out another five or ten years, at a minimum.


Californians are in quite a pickle!  And since roughly 50% of all fruits and vegetables grown in American come from California, so are the rest of us!  (Unless you have a Victory Garden.  Kudos to you!)

So what will happen to California?  Well, the first of a handful of desalination plants are coming online in 2016.  That’s still a year and a half away.  Hundreds of wells aren’t drilled overnight, but when they do get drilled, I really expect growers to pump out every last drop they’re able.  And we know that Los Angeles and the Southern California behemoth, which numbers into 20MM, won’t survive without water. So I’d say that if these conditions last, and they’ll probably get worse, people are going to start looking for greener pastures.

Food and water security.

There are so many food and water security implications that I shudder to think what LA could turn into should they run out of water.  And they don’t even have to run out of water – they just have to know that they’re running out of water.

This summer, a lot of people (I think; I hope) are going to wake up to the dire circumstances we’re facing as a nation, especially when it comes to clean water and the availability of cheap food.  The chances that the California bread basket collapses are low, obviously.  But how much produce has to disappear from the trees and fields before we start to see and feel it at the grocery store?  And when it does, how many cable news segments are going to be running this story non-stop?  How many growers will Geraldo Rivera interview about how farms and ranches have or are running out of potable water?


So could the California drought be enough to trigger a national collapse?  Probably not, at least not this year.  If the drought lasts for 20-30 years, and California can’t produce drinking water for 35+MM people, where are those people going to go?  How will a poor economy afford higher priced and less produce?  What happens when the dollar shakes and banks stop handing out credit to farmers, most of whom can’t afford to operate without it?  Hey, I don’t know exactly but I know the answers aren’t good.

Tell me if you think I’m wrong.


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