Californians Want to Fix the Drought—Without Spending Any Money

droughtCalifornians agree their state’s drought is a big problem, but they’re not enthused about spending money to alleviate it. That’s one of the takeaways from a just-released University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll. Some other findings:

Big problem, getting bigger

Just prior to California’s last gubernatorial election in November 2010, 46 percent of voters agreed that “having enough water to meet our future needs” mattered “a great deal.” The proportion of people who care a lot about water issues has crept up a lot since then:

  • 89 percent of voters call the drought a “crisis or major problem” now.

Save us some water, just don’t send us the bill

Californians are notoriously tax averse, but even what may be the worst drought in 500 years is apparently not enough to get most voters to agree that the state should improve its water infrastructure:

  • 36 percent of voters said the state should improve water storage and delivery systems, even if it costs money.
  • 52 percent said the state should address these problems without spending money, by taking measures like encouraging conservation.

Scientists believe that this year may end up being the driest in the last half millennium, according to University of California-Berkeley professor B. Lynn Ingram. Californians are scared, with good reason: Fire danger in the state is high, and drinking-water supplies are low.

But the drought will have repercussions outside the state’s borders, as well. California produces a good chunk of the nation’s food: half of all our fruits and vegetables, along with a significant amount of dairy and wine.

So how will this historically dry period affect Californians—and the rest of us? Here are a few important facts to keep in mind:

How bad is it? According to the United States Drought Monitor, most of the state is experiencing “extreme drought,” the second highest of six rankings. About 10 percent of the state is experiencing “exceptional drought,” the highest possible level. As of Feb. 2014, 17 communities are in danger of running out of water, forcing some to buy it or run pipes from other districts.


Despite improvement, drought taking a toll

During the four-week period ending on June 3, 2014, contiguous U.S. drought coverage declined 2.74 percentage points to 37.32%.  Coverage reached its year-to-date peak of 40.06% on May 6, but subsequent rainfall across portions of the nation’s mid-section has slightly reduced drought’s imprint.

Nevertheless, drought still covers a substantial portion of the central and southern Plains and the western U.S.  On June 3, the highest level of drought—D4, or exceptional drought—was noted in portions of California (25%), Oklahoma (21%), Texas (9%), Nevada (8%), Kansas (2%), and Colorado (2%).  California also led the nation with 77% coverage of extreme to exceptional drought (D3 to D4).

In addition, California topped the U.S. with 70% of its rangeland and pastures rated in very poor to poor condition on June 1, according to USDA.  Following California were New Mexico (68% very poor to poor), Arizona (55%), Kansas (43%), Oklahoma (43%), and Nevada (40%).  According to the latest “agriculture in drought” statistics, based on the June 3 Drought Monitor, 29% of the domestic hay acreage and 43% of the U.S. cattle inventory were located in a drought-affected area.

drought2The nation’s winter wheat crop continued to suffer from the effects of drought, a harsh winter, and several spring freezes.  Based on the “agriculture in drought” statistics, 51% of the winter wheat production area was within an area experiencing drought on June 3.  Nearly half (44%) of the U.S. winter wheat was rated in very poor to poor condition by USDA on June 1, paced by Oklahoma (78% very poor to poor), Texas (64%), and Kansas (62%).  During the last two decades, only the drought-affected 2005-06 crop was rated lower overall at this time of year.  On June 4, 2006, U.S. winter wheat was rated 48% very poor to poor.

Lingering drought in the western Corn Belt remained a concern with respect to pastures and summer crops.  On June 3, drought covered 16% of the soybean area and 22% of the corn area.  On June 1, Missouri (38% good to excellent) was the only state from the Mississippi Valley to the East Coast with less than half of its pastures rated in good to excellent condition.

 Climate refugees–who’s next?

It was reported that thousands of people of the Tarahumara indigenous group, who live in the Sierra Madre range in northwest Mexico, have been coming down out of the mountains to seek food aid, because after two years of severe drought, coupled with unusual cold this winter, they are reaching their breaking point.  Faced with starvation, they have become climate refugees.

The Tarahumara are known in Mexico for their incredible endurance in long-distance running.  They are a proud people who have held themselves aloof from modernized Mexican culture, still keeping their ancient traditions of weaving, hunting and farming.  They still speak their ancestral language, and they have always been able to take care of themselves.

Until now.

In what is sure to be a trend in the coming years, it is the people who live furthest out on the margins of Empire who are affected first and most harshly by climate change.  People living on South Sea atoll islands or on the Arctic tundra are already seeing the effects of the rising seas and thawing permafrost.  Mountain people who depend on glacial melt for their freshwater are coming up dry.

We here in the heart of modern Western civilization are still feeling no pain.

Poorer people and Latinos are feeling harder hit

The poll found:

  • 11 percent of people making more than $50,000 annually said the drought had a “major impact” on their lives.
  • 24 percent of people making less than $50,000 annually said the same.
  • 29 percent of people making less than $20,000 annually said the same.

It’s worth noting that some of California’s poorest people are Hispanic farm workers. While 25 percent of Latinos surveyed said the drought had a “major impact” on their lives just 13 percent  of people from other racial groups said the same.
Climate denial

A recent study has linked the drought to climate change, but some Californians still aren’t so sure about the connection. While 78 percent of Democrats said climate change was “very or somewhat responsible” for California’s water trouble, only 44 percent of Republicans agreed.

In Mexico, the severe drought has left some two million people without access to potable water and basic food supplies, and authorities say they expect the situation to worsen.

This is bad enough, but it gets worse:

“The drought, which has been compounded by freezing temperatures, has already pushed up the cost of some produce, including corn and beans….But government officials have said they do not expect the price of exports to be affected.”

I am sure all readers of that NY Times article were reassured to hear that the cost of their imported avocados, tomatoes and other vegetables will be unaffected.  Who cares that corn and beans, the staff of life for millions of Mexicans, will cost poor people more?  That’s their problem!

Until it becomes ours.  If corn and beans become unaffordable in Mexico, and sustenance farming is no longer an option in a drought-stricken landscape, what comes next?  You guessed it, illegal emigration al Norte.  What other choice do these people have but to take the risk of trying to cross the border?

Up here, anti-immigrant fervor continues to burn.  Just this week House Republicans passed a law seeking to deny cash refunds under the child tax credit to anyone filing tax returns using “individual taxpayer identification numbers” rather than Social Security numbers.

Most of the people filing taxes without Social Security numbers are hardworking Latino immigrants who are paying taxes even though their earnings are at or below the poverty level.  Their children, many of whom are American-born citizens, will pay the brunt of their parents’ loss of the child care tax credit.

But really–who cares? Who gives a good goddamn if the poor can eat?  Just so long as we can still buy gleaming fresh produce year-round, and no one messes with our electricity or gasoline, let the rest of the world go to hell.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m being sarcastic.  Seriously, this arrogant attitude is only going to be able to go so far.  Today’s climate refugees, tomorrow’s undocumented workers, are the harbinger of what may very well befall all of us as the climate keeps spinning out of control.

Just as in our forests, it is often the oldest, most majestic trees that are under the greatest strain from climate change, our oldest, proudest ethnic groups are also under tremendous strain now.  The Tarahumara managed to survive the Spanish Conquest, the Mexican Revolutionary War and the Industrial Revolution…but if they can no longer grow crops in their homeland, they must move or die.

Indigenous people like the Tarahumara have the best chance of actually surviving a catastrophic climate shift, because they still know how to live a low-consumption lifestyle, close to the earth.  We would do well to learn from them, and other indigenous groups worldwide, while their cultural traditions are still intact.

Those of us still enjoying the luxuries of Empire should be cognizant that for us too, it’s only a matter of time.




PLEASE NOTE:  The next issuance of this drought update will be Thursday, July 3, 2014, unless conditions warrant an earlier release.  The “U.S. Crops in Drought” products will still be produced on a weekly basis, and can be viewed at:

Archived “U.S. Crops in Drought” files can be downloaded at:




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