State’s Water Woes Could Be Just Beginning

By Steve Hockensmith, UC Berkeley News

As 2013 came to a close, the media dutifully reported that the year had been the driest in California since records began to be kept in the 1840s. But UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram didn’t think the news stories captured the seriousness of the situation.

“This could potentially be the driest water year in 500 years,” says Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary science and geography.

Ingram has an especially long-term perspective. As a paleoclimatologist — a scientist who studies changes in climate by teasing data out of rocks, sediments, shells, microfossils, trees and other sources — she’s accustomed to looking back over eons. And according to the width of old tree rings (which can record the coming and going of wet or waterless stretches), California hasn’t been so parched since 1580.

Ingram stands in front of an Arizona sinkhole known as the Montezuma Well. It served as a water source for the Sinagua people until they disappeared from the area around AD 1300.

Ingram stands in front of an Arizona sinkhole known as the Montezuma Well. It served as a water source for the Sinagua people until they disappeared from the area around AD 1300.

“These extremely dry years are very rare,” she says.

But soon, perhaps, they won’t be as rare as they used to be. The state is facing its third drought year in a row, and Ingram wouldn’t be surprised if that dry stretch continues.

Given that possibility, the title of a recent book by Ingram seems grimly apropos. “The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow,” co-written with geographer and environmental biologist (and UC Berkeley visiting scholar) Frances Malamud-Roam, was released by the University of California Press last year.

Ingram spoke recently about the lessons to be drawn from her research as California heads into what could be its worst drought in half a millennium.

“If you go back thousands of years, you see that droughts can go on for years if not decades, and there were some dry periods that lasted over a century, like during the Medieval period and the

UC Berkeley professor B. Lynn Ingram analyzes sediments and archaeological deposits to determine how climates change over the course of millennia.

UC Berkeley professor B. Lynn Ingram analyzes sediments and archaeological deposits to determine how climates change over the course of millennia.

middle Holocene, she said. “The 20th century was unusually mild here, in the sense that the droughts weren’t as severe as in the past. It was a wetter century, and a lot of our development has been based on that.”

In addition, she said, “The late 1930s to the early 1950s were when a lot of our dams and aqueducts were built, and those were wetter decades. I think there’s an assumption that we’ll go back to that, and that’s not necessarily the case. We might be heading into a drier period now. It’s hard for us to predict, but that’s a possibility, especially with global warming. When the climate’s warmer, it tends to be drier in the West. The storms tend to hit further into the Pacific Northwest, like they are this year, and we don’t experience as many storms in the winter season. We get only about seven a year, and it can take the deficit of just a few to create a drought.

For the complete interview go to http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/01/21/states-water-woes/

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2 Comments

  1. When I turn on the tap to fill a glass of water, take a bath, wash clothes, garden or flush the toilet, I know that some day I could come up dry. As a safe guard, we are busy preparing our properties to retain precious storm water on site for reuse. We are replacing asphalt and concrete driveways with pavers; adding bio-swales near our fruit trees; removing lawn that we replace with drought tolerant plants or rocks. Jeanette Vosburg, Los Angeles, CA

  2. Nancy Sidebotham

    If this is a fact then we all need to start talking about population control and stop all new developments…as well as the continuation of allowing more people to relocate to the USA until we can figure out how we are going to support those who already populate this country….We cannot save the world but we do have millions of people living here that deserve a well run country with all the basics that seem to be dwindling while we keep our heads in the sand and send millions overseas.

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