Can California survive this dire drought?

As a boy growing up on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, I often saw an amusing admonition posted in the rest rooms of gas stations, restaurants and even public libraries: “Please Flush the Toilet ... California Needs the Water!”

The joke provided some relief from the resentment felt by farmers and ranchers who believed that Californians were taking more than their fair share of Colorado’s water. But although they believed they would prosper with more water, the Coloradans got by, partially by grumbling and joking.

The situation is no longer funny. The western states have experienced droughts of varying severity for a decade or more, and now California, the biggest water user of them all, has plunged into the deepest drought in its recorded history. The media abounds with reports of the drought’s severity. There is so little water flowing from the usual sources – winter rainfall and the Sierra snowpack – that farmers in the vast Central Valley are letting fields go fallow and depleting aquifers to water their remaining crops and livestock. (Once depleted, the aquifers collapse and cannot be refilled.) Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.

Less reported are three crucial aspects of developing crisis:

It is connected to global warming and could be part a long-term (and long-predicted) climate pattern.

Beginning just four years ago, the drought worsened quite rapidly in terms of our ability to respond to it.

Its potential effects will reach far beyond the borders of California and the economic discomfort of having to pay a little more for produce.

Setting aside the global-warming connection for the moment – while it’s certain enough, the explanation is somewhat complex – it appears that the western U.S. drought, which began in Texas 15 years ago, is part of a long-term climate pattern. It’s prudent to expect California to remain dry for at least several more years.

The drought’s unpredictable future makes adapting to this “new normal” well nigh impossible. What should California do? Build a bunch of dams? Where is the money going to come from, and what if it doesn’t rain and the dams don’t fill up? Build desalinization plants? Again, an expensive solution that wouldn’t produce nearly as much water as is needed.

Steal water from elsewhere, as California has done in the past? Sorry, there ain’t no more water to steal anywhere in the West – even Oregon and Washington are experiencing drought.

Conservation measures, which we’ll explore in forthcoming columns, could help – for a while. But Southern California’s economy is dependent upon squandering our most precious resource on water-intensive crops such as cotton, and on thirsty livestock. (Agriculture consumes 80 percent of the state’s water.) More water is wasted on unessential but profitable golf courses, swimming pools, lawns and other frivolities alien to an arid region. This is not readily changed. Can we anticipate a reverse Dust Bowl with Californians migrating to squalid camps near your ecological house?

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues.

Reach him via email through his website,