Last week at a press conference declaring a drought emergency, Governor Jerry Brown used the word “desert” to describe our state.
Dictionary.com defines a “desert” as follows: “a region so arid because of so little rainfall that it supports only sparse and widely spaced vegetation or no vegetation at all.”
There are deserts in California, most notably south of the Tehachapis and east of the Sierra Nevada. Some of them are home to agriculture, and others home to large cities. But California is not a state dominated by deserts as is Nevada. And the Central Valley is not a desert, any more than San Francisco is. Saying it is over and over again in the media might make it a “fact”, but it doesn’t make it true.
Our state has a Mediterrean climate with distinct wet and dry seasons, with some areas receiving abundant precipitation and others less so, depending on local microclimates.
Droughts do not only occur in places with dry summers like California’s. The word “drought” is not defined by a specific amount of rain over a specific period of time, or lack thereof. Rather, a drought is when a certain geographic area receives below normal rainfall for several months or years and it causes a shortage of water. Drought can and does happen anywhere in the world, even in tropical rainforests.
Droughts have become more common across the U.S. in the last ten years, even in places that receive two or three times more rain on average than California. This is likely due in part to climate change. But water shortages caused by drought have also gotten worse, due to our country’s failure to invest in new water storage to keep up with our continually increasing population.
The level of hysteria in the media about California’s drought is reaching the point of complete absurdity, with headlines pondering the end of agriculture in the state and the need to relocate millions of people.
The reality is much less interesting. Farmers in areas without reliable water are either adapting or going bankrupt. Groundwater resources are being overused in certain areas by agriculture as well as by cities and suburbs. New houses are still being built and new almond orchards and vineyards are still being planted. Some people might call this crazy, but in California, it’s really just business as usual.
Will our state government do the hard, expensive and boring work of modernizing the 20th century water infrastructure to make our existing water supplies go even further? Maybe. Will we acknowledge the need to address our unsustainable economy that depends on continuous growth? I seriously doubt it.
Do all Northern Californians a favor, though. Next time you hear someone say “California is a desert, yaddayaddayadda”, politely explain to them that they are wrong. Including our governor.