Can Californians Adapt to Their Catastrophic Drought?

Four years into a crisis of unknown duration, residents of the Golden State have the chance to change their habits, and find new ways to thrive.

A dock in Santa Barbara collapsed when the water receded during California's drought. (Lucy Nicholson/AP)

If you ask an environmental historian, the mandatory cuts in water use that Governor Jerry Brown is now imposing on Californians—the first in the state's history—were just a matter of time. Many of the earliest visitors to California never believed the Western climate could handle the grand plans for growth and development promoted by local boosters. For decades, scientists have predicted a moment of reckoning.

It has now arrived in the form of a four-year drought, leaving the typically snow-capped meadows of the Sierra Nevada completely dry. On Tuesday, standing on a brown field devoid of its usual five feet of snow, Brown ordered a reduction of 25 percent in the state's water use. The governor, a Democrat, initially sought a voluntary reduction of 20 percent, but when that didn't work, he announced plans to subject local agencies to as much as $10,000 in fines if they don't follow through.

On Wednesday, I spoke with Patty Limerick, director of the University of Colorado's Center of the American West, and the author of a 2012 book on the history of water in Denver about the California drought and the state's response.

Here's a transcript of my interview with Limerick, edited for clarity and length.

Russell Berman: How bad is the California drought in the context of state history and U.S. history?

Center for the American West

Patty Limerick: I would not use the word bad. I would just say "severe, and severe at a new scale, and a new intensity, and a new urgency. I guess I’m not using the word bad because it is a call to action. It is, sorry to use the cliché, but it is a wakeup call, and that might be good. Though I also don’t want to call it good, because there are people who are in a pickle now. So I guess I wouldn’t use the term good or bad, but this certainly puts us in a new framework for thinking about who we are and how we live and what are necessities and what are luxuries. And that has virtues and values to it.

Berman: What makes it so severe? Is it the length that it has gone on, or the level of the drought, or both?

Limerick: Both. Well, three or four years—as people have said, in the interior west there is evidence of 30- or 40-year droughts from the tree ring, so two or three years, you might say you’re just getting started. But that’s of course part of the uncertainty: You can’t say, "Oh, we can stand this for two or three years, and then we’ll have some abundant rainfall again." Nobody knows whether that prediction is worth anything. So it’s not yet the duration, but it’s the inability of human beings to say how long this goes on.

Everybody yearns for the answer to be, "well this will be only two or three years." But we don’t know that. So it’s standing on the edge of the future and pointing, and not being able to see with clarity what’s coming up. Best to assume a long haul.

Intellectuals and commentators have been saying for decades that there is going to be a reckoning with the water supply in the West, and there’s a little bit of the “chicken little” problem. Some of those predictions and prophecies were way ahead of time and easily discredited. Some of the very first explorers in this region, Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long of the 19th century, said this is too dry for a conventional American settlement.

If you’re thinking in geological times, making a prediction that’s a couple centuries off is not much of a margin of error. I mean, that’s what you would assume.

The California drought, at least at this stage, is not purely a matter of duration, because we don’t know what its duration is going to be. But those meadows in the mountains that usually would have five or six feet of snow—just exposed surface. That is really significant, because the whole system of the interior West and on the coast goes on snow pack, on the melting of snow pack. That’s what Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long didn’t get in the early 1800s, which is that you could capture that run-off.

That’s the game-changer, if some of the predictions of climate change head in that direction.

Berman: But it’s not as simple as saying this is the result of climate change?

Limerick: It is certainly not simple. Climate change is certainly in there, and I would say that one of the things the drought invites us to do is to get out of our unproductive tug of war over whether we can even talk about climate change. One of the great aspects of the drought—and I’m not calling it good or bad—but one of the great aspects is that it does say to the America people, do you want to move on from what has been a really unfruitful, unproductive, stalemated conversation about climate change?

I think the drought does say: Sober up. Have a mature conversation in which climate change is one of the things discussed, but population growth is discussed, and the extreme emotional commitment to green lawns, and ornamental gardens with plants that you cannot eat and probably even goats cannot eat—let’s put all of those factors into the conversation, and let’s not lose our bearings by picking only one topic and throwing out all the others … If we were a people devoted to croquet and badminton, and we couldn’t live without lawns on which to perform our sacred ceremonies of croquet and badminton, and golf and so on, that would be one framework. But it’s not actually sacred to us. We don’t really have to have those great green expanses, and it’s very discussable what a good landscape should look like.

Berman: Is California as it stands now, with the lifestyle that people want—is that sustainable?

Limerick: This situation demands more thought than we have put into these questions. What do we require? What is our absolute need when we say water is a matter of life and death? We’re saying that now when we’re not there yet. I’ve never heard of anyone collapsing in despair and perishing because a golf course was dry. That just is not life or death. There are all sorts of ways in which, in the phrase I used in my book on Denver water, we have been living in the era of improbable comfort made possible by a truly astonishing, but taken for granted, infrastructure. That was great for a century or so, and everybody who could took part in that. They had that enjoyable time of thinking, ‘There is a faucet when you turn it on, there’s all the water you could want." That was an amazing phase, but it was a historical oddity. It was not in any way a pattern by which people have lived on the planet.

So as a historian, I can say that human beings change. They think something is absolutely normal and this is what we all must do and this is how we live. And then things change, and they live in a different way. This seems like one of those opportunities to say, well, we had some habits, we had some customs, we thought we couldn’t live another way. We were wrong about that. We can live another way.

Berman: Is Governor Brown’s mandatory water reduction order the right move, or action for the sake of action?

Limerick: I see Governor Brown’s [policy] as a very interesting experiment. It may be a successful experiment, or it may be a halfway successful experiment, or it may be that we look back at that and say this was the first step, but now there are more steps that we need to take. So I see it as really a testing of the waters, although I hate that phrase.

People do rally in a crisis. Whether it’s the Depression, or World War II, people are able to say, "Ok, now we’re going to behave differently, because we’re in a serious situation." It’s also possible for people in a crisis to go crabby and defensive and refuse to give up much. We don’t know which way it’s going to go.

[Governor Brown] is a political figure, and he’s subject to opinion polls and focus groups and all of that, but for this moment, for this reckoning that people like Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long said would come for the West, at this moment it matters not whether Governor Brown is popular or unpopular, to use John Wesley Powell’s phrasing. It matters how this experiment runs, and how the people of California respond to it, and if they do notice that some of their habits and customs are not sacred and are subject to change.

Berman: How do you practically enforce it? Can you go door-to-door and know if somebody is watering their lawn too much or taking too long showers?

Limerick: You can enforce it. It’s my impression that it’s going to be difficult on a state-wide level, first because it’s a much larger unit of geographical matter to enforce, but it’s also so many different utilities and irrigation districts, and so on. It’s a very fragmented water delivery system. Denver, Colorado, and Boulder did it ... So we could do that.