The 6-percenters


An animated map of the progression of the historic 2012–2014 California drought, spanning from December 31, 2013, to July 29, 2014. The map highlights the rapid spread of Extreme and Exceptional Drought conditions across over 75% of California during 2014. This drought is officially the worst drought California has experienced in 1,200 years.
(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

Hearing yesterday morning that the snowpack in the Sierras is six percent of average nearly drew a gasp. Records have been shattered:

The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which typically supplies nearly a third of California’s water, is showing the lowest water content on record: 6 percent of the long-term average for April 1. That doesn’t just set a new record, it shatters the old low-water mark of 25 percent, which happens to have been last year’s reading (tied with 1977).

Things are so bad that Governor Jerry Brown decided to slog into the field for the manual snow survey on Wednesday morning. He didn’t need snowshoes but he did bring along a first-ever executive order mandating statewide water reductions.

“We’re in a historic drought and that demands unprecedented action,” he told reporters who made it to the Sierra survey site off of Highway 50.

In the Central Valley, farmers would drill wells if they could stand the two-year wait, the half-million dollar cost, and if there was any point. California celebrates its gold rush history in the appellation, the 49ers. I’m wondering if the 6-Percenters might have a future in California lore.

We don’t have experience with drought at this scale in the east, but it’s not unheard of. In 2007, things got so bad in the Southeast that one small town, Orme, Tennessee, restricted residents to water use a few hours a day. Each night, the mayor himself opened the valve that fed water to the small community.

Water-hungry Atlanta’s thirst drove Georgia lawmakers to uncover what they call a 200 year-old surveying discrepancy that if “corrected” would move a piece of the border a few hundred yards north, giving Georgia (and particularly Atlanta) access to the waters of the Tennessee River.

Atlanta keeps growing like a weed, apparently heedless of nature’s limits.

In 1998, I put in a wastewater neutralization system for a client in an office park in Alfaretta, north of Atlanta. I asked what the small, metal out-building was at the edge of the parking lot. The Culligan Water rep told me it was a well house (in an upscale office park).

He knew clients (including hospitals) drilling wells all over Atlanta because the Metropolitan Sewer District wouldn’t let people use all the water they wanted (both because of the MSD infrastructure capacity and water source limits, I think). So they were drilling their own wells to get unmetered water, as if the supply was limitless.

The Flint River Aquifer has been under strain for decades as Atlanta keeps growing, the developers keep developing, and the water table keeps dropping.

For far too long, we have treated water as a birthright. The American West has fought over water for years, but the complex infrastructure relies on having supplies to manage. Now that water is becoming more scarce, the vultures circling overhead are wearing business suits. Scarcity means profit potential. Whether it is Nestle or the fracking industry, water has become the new gold rush for whomever succeeds in controling it. At least until it runs out.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)


  1. Migraine Mike says:

    It seems to me (this is an unprofessional opinion, I follow climate science as a hobby) that the only thing that could possibly return CA back to “life as normal” is significant El Niño events, probably for several years in a row. The problem with that is that South America will simultaneously be demolished, the pacific will be filled with cyclones, and the energy, previously stored in the pacific, released will crush all previous global temperature records……….such is the world we’ve created for ourselves. There will be very few “winners” from climate change.