California On Track For Driest Year On Record

Nov 14, 2013
Originally published on November 11, 2013 3:22 pm

According to data from the National Weather Service, which has been keeping records for 164 years, California is on track to see its driest year.

How much of it has to do with climate change? And what are the implications?

Here & Nows Jeremy Hobson discusses these questions and more with William Patzert, who has been called “the prophet of California climate,” of the California Institute of Technology.


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Well, while the people in the Philippines deal with the horror that too much water can bring, California is grappling with the opposite problem. It's on track to experience its driest year in more than 160 years of recordkeeping. Bill Patzert is a climate scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech in Pasadena, and he's with us now. Bill Patzert, how dry is it?

WILLIAM PATZERT: Well, we've had a very dry decade here, and for dry, what counts is the long run. Since January here in Southern California, we've had less than three inches of rainfall, and so in terms of water, we're definitely on our knees here in the West.

HOBSON: And just to put that in perspective, I see that if Southern California gets 15 inches of rainfall in a year, that's enough to supply about five million people with the water that they need. Of course the region has some 22 million people in it.

PATZERT: Well, here in the West many years ago, we made a decision to import our water from all over the West, from the Colorado River, from Northern California, and so here in the West we have some of the greatest water infrastructure in the world but some of the driest conditions.

HOBSON: Yeah, well, and that's the question. Is that water infrastructure that you have and the water that you import going to do it, especially if there is a drought in, as there is right now, in other parts of the West where you get your water from?

PATZERT: Well of course we all share the water. The Colorado serves seven states and six Indian nations. And right now it's fully allocated, and everybody wants more. Water is tight, and it'll probably get tighter with another dry year.

HOBSON: If there is a wet winter, if there's a lot of snow, and of course in the mountains in California there has not been, over the last couple of years. But if there is a very snowy winter, how much would that help the situation?

PATZERT: Well, you know, of course any snowpack and any rainfall is welcome here in the West, but in the long term you have to remember that the population center of the United States has switched from the Northeast and the Midwest to the Southwest and the West. And so here in Southern California, the population in the last 50 years has quadrupled, and so in the long run, we're really going to have to be thinking how we allocate our water all over the West.

Who gets it? The urban areas, the agricultural areas? And of course another problem is is that we've tapped out our great aquifer supplies here in California and around the rest of the Southwest, and so we're headed in the long run towards a water crisis.


Well, what's the long run? How long until you get there?

PATZERT: Well, in 50 to 100 years, if population continues to double and maybe even triple - my goodness that would be something, wouldn't it - there will be a genuine crisis, and it will threaten really the entire fabric or civilization here in the American West.

HOBSON: What needs to be done, what's already being done, what's not being done yet to deal with this?

PATZERT: You know, we've done a lot in terms of water conservation in the West. We're probably the stingiest water users all over the United States. But, you know, when you fly from L.A. to Boston, before you get to the Mississippi, everything is brown. So you have to remember the natural state here in the West is dry, whereas in the East it's wet. And so building a civilization in a fundamentally dry location, right, has great risk, and we're looking forward to all the challenges that those risks will engender.

HOBSON: I noticed one thing that you've said about this, which is that part of the problem in terms of planning is that the 20th century was in fact among the wettest for the state in centuries, in 2,000 years. So a lot of the planning for what kind of water would be coming was done based on a historic anomaly.

PATZERT: If we did plan in the West, well, that's a good question all by itself, but when we look back on the tree ring records for the American West and the Southwest, over the last 2,000 years the 20th century, which was the century in which we built this great civilization in the West, was one of the wettest in the last 2,000 years.

And so if the next century is more like, for instance, the 11th century where there was an 80-year drought in the West, then we're in big trouble.

HOBSON: Bill Patzert is a climate scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech in Pasadena, California. Bill Patzert, thanks so much for joining us.

PATZERT: My pleasure.

YOUNG: And this update on a story we're monitoring, today Secretary of State John Kerry is denying weekend reports that it was France that helped scuttle a possible deal in nuclear talks with Iran. Kerry says all six of the major countries in the talks were unified. It was Iran that refused conditions. Meanwhile, separately, today Iran reached an agreement with the U.N. to allow for more inspections of that country's existing nuclear sites, but the U.N. deal does not include key sites, including an important military facility. We'll continue to monitor this story. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.