Observing California, the drought and (again) LA in the NYT

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Once again the Angelenos who get perturbed by slight, poorly thought-out style pieces about Los Angeles in the New York Times have something to text each other about: Los Angeles and its booming creative class lures New Yorkers, in Sunday Styles. Dated and thin, it could have been written 20 years ago and probably was: "A new generation of restless New Yorkers is starting to heed the Los Angeles siren call, and not just aspiring actor-waiters, as in years past."

A related thread complains that the NYT has such a piece on the same day that Tim Egan writes in Sunday Review (The End of California?) about the deep, structural changes that may flow from the drought — as if it's a gaffe for the New York Times to have stories with different tones and takes on the same day. Sorry, children, that's not a bug. At a grown-up newspaper, it's a feature. If anything, there's not enough of that. And the NYT? Often better at observing on California and LA culture and politics than local media.

As usual, Egan's is one of several recent drought interpretations in the media worth considering. A sample:

In a normal year, no one in California looks twice at a neighbor’s lawn, that mane of bluegrass thriving in a sun-blasted desert. Or casts a scornful gaze at a fresh-planted almond grove, saplings that now stand accused of future water crimes. Or wonders why your car is conspicuously clean, or whether a fish deserves to live when a cherry tree will die.

Of course, there is nothing normal about the fourth year of the great drought: According to climate scientists, it may be the worst arid spell in 1,200 years. For all the fields that will go fallow, all the forests that will catch fire, all the wells that will come up dry, the lasting impact of this drought for the ages will be remembered, in the most exported term of California start-ups, as a disrupter….

Surprising, perhaps even disappointing to those with schadenfreude for the nearly 39 million people living in year-round sunshine, California will survive. It’s not going to blow away. The economy, now on a robust rebound, is not going to collapse. There won’t be a Tom Joad load of S.U.V.s headed north. Rains, and snow to the high Sierra, will eventually return.

But California, from this drought onward, will be a state transformed.

In the May 4 issue of the New Yorker, Los Angeles-based staff writer Dana Goodyear considers the drought's impact through the story of the Salton Sea. Here's how the landlocked, low desert accidental lake ties in: Letting it die would have terrible consequences for the environment and the economy of the poorest corner of California, but keeping it alive could take water the Colorado River doesn't have to give — or force the rest of the state to divvy up more water for the million-plus people San Diego. Sample:

There is a place in the California desert where a pipe pokes out from a berm made of broken concrete and delivers freshwater to a dying sea. I stood there recently, on a beach of crumbled barnacles, and watched it gush….

the Salton Sea, is fifteen times bigger than the island of Manhattan and no deeper in most places than a swimming pool. Since 1924, it has been designated as an agricultural sump. In spite of being hyper-saline, and growing saltier all the time, the sea provides habitat to some four hundred and thirty species of birds, some of them endangered, and is one of the last significant wetlands remaining on the migratory path between Alaska and Central America.

In early April, the governor of California ordered the state to conserve a million and a half acre-feet of water in the next nine months, a drastic response to an intensifying four-year drought that has devastated small communities in the north, decimated groundwater supplies in the Central Valley, and made the cities fear for the future. To achieve this savings, Californians are starting to forgo some of the givens of life in modern America: long showers, frequent laundering, toilet-flushing, gardening, golf.


Between the needs of the city and the farmers sits the Salton Sea, which conservation will destroy. “The sea is the linchpin between Colorado River water and urban Southern California,” Michael Cohen, a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, a water-policy think tank, says.

Yeah, the Colorado River. There, the drought has been going for more than a decade. John Glionna had a piece in the LA Times last week on Lake Mead hitting its historic low water level. Lake Mead is the reservoir that feeds Nevada, Arizona and Southern California — including the Salton Sea and the Imperial Valley farms — with water that fell as snow up in Colorado and beyond. Everything about this news is, as Glionna writes, "bone-dry bad." Look at the calendar. It's May — summer is still ahead. Lake Mead also provides hydroelectric power to Southern California.

"We're only at 38% full. Lake Mead hasn't been this low since we were filling it in the 1930s," said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Las Vegas. "All the way around, this is bad news. There's not much good to say about 15 years of drought, no matter how you look at it."

The Colorado River provides water for 40 million people across the Southwest and parts of Mexico — the majority of them in U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas. But as populations continue to climb — Las Vegas' population of 2 million is expected to double by 2060 — water experts say consumers need to take drastic measures or the water will one day run out.

"The death of Lake Mead should be a wake-up call to people across the West that we need to boldly address this drought," said Howard Watts, a spokesman for the Great Basin Water Network, a nonprofit group composed of environmentalists, ranchers and Native Americans that seeks to preserve the health of the Colorado River system.

"We've been slow to act, slow to react. Nobody knows when this drought is going to end. We need to become far more aggressive in areas of conservation to protect lake levels from falling even lower."

Meanwhile, the state cancelled Friday's regular Sierra snow survey. Officials already know the answer: there's no snowpack to melt into farm and drinking water this spring and summer. A new concern, in the weekend LA Times: the safety of irrigating crops in the San Joaquin Valley with treated oil field wastewater. From Julie Cart's story:

The heightened interest in recycling oil field wastewater has raised concern over the adequacy of safety measures in place to prevent contamination from toxic oil production chemicals.

Fresno author and journalist Mark Arax was on NPR's "Fresh Air" on Thursday, telling Terry Gross about the drought from the Central Valley view. One of those views is the oversimplification of the fixation on the almond as the bogeyman of the water crisis. Here's the audio. Sample:

ARAX: You have to look at it from the standpoint of the almond grower. Many almond growers used to grow cotton. And cotton is a crop that can be grown anywhere in the United States. And it's a crop that uses a good deal more water than the almond does. And so they evolve and decided that we were going to plant nuts. Nuts can only be grown really in California. It's a high-value crop. And they've planted the hell out of them. I mean, right in the midst of drought here - I drive up and down the Valley, and they're planting tens of thousands of more acres of almonds and pistachios. So the almond has become - I mean, this is all about whose draw of water is more righteous than the other. And so the almond farmer got thrown under the bus pretty quickly. And it is true that the almond uses about 10 percent of the developed water in California.

There are a million acres of nuts now. This has gone up, you know, threefold in a very short period of time. So the almond farmer's going to tell you that I'm using my ground for something that's very profitable. It's a very efficient deliverer of protein. And if you look at it that way, it has a much better water footprint than beef or soybeans or certainly alfalfa. So this is what's happening. It's almost a zero-sum game. And everybody has to now argue its commodity and why its draw of water, you know, is maybe not sustainable but justifiable.

GROSS: You write in one of your articles that farmers, hedge fund managers and investors from India and China are growing more than the one million acres of almonds and pistachios in the California nut rush. And I thought, really, hedge fund managers and investors from India and China?

ARAX: Yeah, it takes a lot of investment to convert from a row crop to almonds and pistachios, about eight to 10 thousand dollars an acre. And the banks here sometimes aren't so willing to lend that money. So these farmers go looking afar, sometimes all the way to India, to find investment. And they partner up with these investment firms. And it's always been that way. When my grandfather came here in 1920 and became a raisin farmer - growing Thompson Seedless grapes and then drying them in the sun, blistering them into raisins - a lot of the farmers in the area were farming land that investors in LA and San Francisco actually owned. So that's a - it's kind of a long tradition here.

The talking point emerging on the political right — voiced recently by potential Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina — is that the California drought could have been avoided if only the state had built more and bigger dams. In a new piece in the National Journal, titled Why California's Drought was Completely Preventable, Victor Davis Hanson adds immigrants to liberals as the bogeymen of the drought. Sample:

What is new is that the state has never had 40 million residents during a drought — well over 10 million more than during the last dry spell in the early 1990s. Much of the growth is due to massive and recent immigration.

A record one in four current Californians was not born in the United States, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Whatever one’s view on immigration, it is ironic to encourage millions of newcomers to settle in the state without first making commensurately liberal investments for them in water supplies and infrastructure.


A single 1 million acre-foot reservoir can usually be built as cheaply as a desalinization plant. It requires a fraction of desalinization’s daily energy use, leaves a much smaller carbon footprint, and provides almost 20 times as much water. California could have built perhaps 40–50 such subsidiary reservoirs for the projected $68 billion cost of the proposed high-speed rail project.

Atmospheric scientist and sometime LA Observed contributor Grace Peng has also been fact-checking some of the writing she sees on weather, climate and the drought. At her blog, she takes issue with the methodology in a recent LA Times piece calculating the water footprint of chickpeas and other crops. Sample:

If the LA Times reported US statistics, then the chickpea data is highly suspect. It's the classic "statistics of small numbers" problem. The smaller the sample size, the more variable and unreliable the statistic.

Suppose the LA Times did report the GLOBAL water footprint, then it is important to look at the hydrologic cycle of the areas where chickpeas are farmed.

Luckily, I work at a weather and climate data archive and have access to stuff like this classic paper about the terrestrial seasonal water cycle by Willmott and Rowe...I give you permission to play with your food data.

And this. Boom: A Journal of California did it's water-themed issue back in 2013. But the magazine currently offers a summary of its writings on the drought and water.

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