Last week, I interviewed Mark Lubell, professor of Environmental Science and Policy at UC Davis, and he helped shed some light on how recent developments and decisions arguably do more bad than good in our response to the drought.
By Connie Kwong
California needs to quench its physical and psychological thirst. The entire state is currently under drought conditions, and countless reports declare that this is arguably the worst drought recorded in state history. But while these are sobering facts that certainly stress the magnitude of California’s drought crisis, it shouldn’t be news that droughts have happened before, and, will happen again.
The problem with the drought isn’t just the drought itself. As Mark Lubell, a UC Davis professor of Environmental Science and Policy pointed out, the sensationalist journalism and political theater capitalizing on the drought have caused us to lose sight of the bigger issue – what are we going to do the next time this happens?
Professor Lubell says that “panic politics” demonstrate how climate and weather’s psychological effects have a knack for clouding our judgment. During our interview, he described how when droughts happen, “people panic about it. And the pundits scream about it, but when it starts raining and it gets wet, we forget about it. The amount of risk assigned to drought isn’t going to be realistic when it’s raining. ‘We don’t have to worry about the drought now, it’s raining.’”
This certainly applies to new reports from meteorologists suggesting that El Nino conditions have an 80% chance of developing later this year, which means that California would experience a wetter winter. I asked Professor Lubell if this should be classified as good news, and he explained that we have to think of the drought as being like a debt – in this case, a water debt. “El Nino conditions might help mitigate the debt with some extra rain, but we can’t depend on it to solve all our water supply problems.”
And it’s true. We can’t rely on a positive turn in weather conditions to alleviate our concerns about the drought. I’ve said before that much of the solution ultimately lies in revamping a fundamentally broken water system, but Professor Lubell also emphasized how politicians need to change the way they think in responding to the drought. I asked if it was possible that given the severity of this drought, politicians would try to be less political and more practical in their approach.
“Maybe this drought is so bad, people will remember it,” he replied. “I’d like to think so but realistically, no. Our drought planning and management hasn’t gotten better over time. Our psychological reaction translates to our political response.”
In other words, although this drought is certainly an emergency condition, our response should not be comprised of “emergency-urgency actions.” For instance, last week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that water stored in the Friant Dam north of Fresno will be tapped for the first time in decades in order to provide relief to northern California. Professor Lubell points out that this is not the right solution because while it acts as a safety buffer for the agricultural industry and urban areas, it consequently hurts wildlife biodiversity by disrupting the flow of water on the justification that emergency conditions suddenly take priority over environmental concerns.
He also highlights the fact that agriculture and urban areas “haven’t figured out a way to give themselves a cushion.” If anything, “we need to have reserves in place, so that when droughts come, we don’t have to rely on emergency actions…every time there’s a drought, we’re taking that water and giving it to agriculture and urban areas… We’re not doing an effective job… We haven’t learned from past droughts [like the one in the 1970s].”
Although Professor Lubell notes droughts haven’t established precedents for water management, some climate change models suggest that the future will bring more frequent droughts. And while his suggestions that we build up our reserves and conserve water better sound like a simple diagnosis, the means and mechanisms to achieve that won’t happen unless politicians can learn from their mistakes.
“The way the media and politics play out makes it seem like this is the first time a drought has happened – ‘oh my god’ – and it’s not…One thing I know for certain about California climate is that drought will certainly come again. When? That’s uncertain. But it will happen again, and we ought to be as prepared for it as we can, and that includes building our resilience and not repeating past mistakes.”