Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated, California?

Drought looks and is felt differently
across California. (photos mine)
Last year, on one of the hottest days of southern California's fall (it was about 108 in Palm Springs), I bought a rain jacket because, well, it was on sale and I needed one. Shortly afterward, I spent a couple weeks without a kitchen as my landlord replaced the roof on part of my apartment because it had started to leak. In both cases, lots of jokes were made about the need to protect myself from the rain -- I mean, what rain? Then, it rained. Quite a lot. And I was happy to have a rain coat and a solid roof, and felt slightly less crazy.

But, then the rain pretty much stopped. In fact, it really only rained a lot in December, and since then much of the rainy season, which ends around April, has been kind of a bust, save for a few storms here and there. But today, lo and behold, we woke up to a pretty hard rain. In June. In the Bay Area. Where it doesn't rain in June.

For many reasons, I've started to appreciate more and more the idea that drought is no one thing. While there are different ways of looking at it, one thing I've found helpful is that the National Drought Mitigation Center (summarizing a paper by Wilhitz and Glantz) identifies four kinds of drought: meteorological, hydrological, agricultural, and socioeconomic. It's possible to have one or a couple types in absence of the others, which is part of why drought looks so different in California than it does in say Arizona or New Mexico or Texas. In California, we really are experiencing all four types of drought at the moment: low precipitation, low stream flows, cut backs in irrigation water, people without running water.

At the same time, I'm really noticing that even within the California drought, there are so many subtleties. For example, drought doesn't necessarily mean no precipitation. It might mean a lot of precipitation in only some places and only sometimes, like say May snowfall in the Sierra and coastal storms in June after a relatively dry rainy season.

One thing is for sure: as hard as some may try, drought doesn't lend itself to simple narratives.

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