California drought – A cautionary tale

I wrote this a while ago and forgot to put it up! I’m in the process of moving house.

Figure 1: California and the Western US has been plagued by recent droughts

Figure 1: California and the Western US has been plagued by recent droughts

A cautionary parable told by environmentalists is that of the lily pond. It goes as follows. We have a pond with lilies growing in it (or in some versions pond scum) and gradually spreading. If the lilies cover the entire pond, they will cut off the sunlight and oxygen and kill all life in the pond. The lilies double in area each day and will take 30 days to cover the entire pond. Assuming we wait until half the pond is covered before taking any action, at what point do we act? Well day 29, one day prior to the pond being covered! Of course by then it will likely be a case of acting too late to do anything meaningful.

Figure 2: The lily pond problem

Figure 2: The lily pond problem

California is in the grip of one of the worse droughts in its history. The media describe it as “unprecedentedbut its not. The risks posed to California, and for that matter the whole of the Western US, and its misuse of the regions water resources is well known and environmentalists have been raising the matter for decades. Indeed this problem extends well beyond California, or the US, but into other parts of South America.

So we end up with the cautionary tale whereby environmentalist raise concerns about an issue, upon which they are either ignored or laughed at. People peered into the vast reservoirs of water behind dams in California or the Mid West and questioned how anyone can worry about “running out” of water. Of course by doing so they failed to understand that the water in the reservoir is merely the floating stock of water. If the supply upstream drys up, or the lake is drained at a rate faster than it can naturally refill, then obviously sooner or later even the largest lake can be emptied.

In the next phase environmentalists are accused of being anti-progress, and part of some sort of thinly disguised Luddite plot. Environmentalists countered by pointing out they weren’t calling for everyone to stop using water, no more than anyone is calling for us to stop using energy. In fact in as much as a good part of the solution to climate change has always been about energy conservation (given how excessive we waste energy), greater conservation of water would mean existing resources would go a lot further.

For the reality is there is much water wastage in California, whereby householders are provided with water in a semi-desert at prices so cheap many wash their cars or keep manicured green lawns. Or where farmers grow water intensive crops that could easily be grown in less water scare parts of the country. And keep in mind that in the US farming is heavily subsidized, yes the government is paying people to waste water! So with good water management, there’s no reason why consumption in states like California could have been dropped down to some sustainable level.

Figure 3: Water wastage on agriculture and households has been a big part of the problem (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Figure 3: Water wastage by agriculture and households has been a big part of the problem (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Of course I’m talking in the past tense because we are well beyond the point where such sensible long term measures will do any good. Given the implications of climate change, the only options left on the table are the drastic and heavy handed types, e.g. water rationing, cutting off supplies to farmers, forcing residents in Californian cities to rely on water from stand pipes or bowsers. While the Republicans are trying to delude themselves that they can magically whisk water out of thin air, the reality is that the window of opportunity where “capitalist” free market friendly solutions could work has now passed. We are left with only the heavy handed big government options.

And given this tale, let us consider issues such as peak oil and climate change. Again, the environmentalists raise concerns. And as noted, we’re not suggesting a complete halt to fossil fuel consumption. An emphasis on energy conservation (better insulation of homes, use of energy efficient appliances, more fuel efficient vehicles, increased use of CHP, etc.) in the short term, would go along way. After all is it really sensible to be rolling coal in an SUV’s at the same time as being concerned about the rise of ISIS within spitting distance of three quarters of the world’s oil reserves? Longer term, a commitment towards renewables and the gradual phase out of fossil fuels would resolve many of our problems (noting that the greater the level of energy conservation in the early days the more time is bought to complete any phase out and develop the necessary technologies).

Figure 4: Why is it rednecks & terrorists have the same choice of vehicles? When you roll coal you roll with ISIS....

Figure 4: Why is it rednecks & terrorists have the same choice of vehicles? When you roll coal you roll with ISIS….

However, we are woefully behind when it comes to meeting any meaningful targets on climate change. Its likely that, like the infamous lily pond, we’ll waiting until the problem is obvious before acting, which will probably mean waiting until its too late to do anything. And again that means waiting until the window of opportunity when more democratic and capitalist friendly solutions have passed…if that window hasn’t already passed. Leaving us with only the drastic and the authoritarian options left (rationing of not just energy supplies but everything that comes from fossil fuels!).


About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in climate change, efficiency, energy, Global warming denial, peak oil and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to California drought – A cautionary tale

  1. deacongill says:

    You paint an apocalyptic picture – it’s all so frustrating.

  2. Pingback: Don’t mention the climate deficit | daryanenergyblog

  3. Pingback: The flawed logic of preppers | daryanenergyblog

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