Brown Warns of Drought Disaster; Says ‘Hard Choices’ Face California
Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. warned here today that drought-stricken California was “facing a disaster of immeasurable magnitude.”
“The specter of drought has been gathering momentum, not only in California but across the country,” the Democratic Governor declared, adding that people must learn that “this is an era of limits and there are some very hard choices to be made.”
Well, yes indeed, but the limits have proved difficult to respect, and the right choices challenging to make – that was a report from March 1977. In January 2014, not far off forty years later, Governor Jerry Brown reprised his earlier role and declared a state of emergency:
We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas. I’ve declared this emergency and I’m calling all Californians to conserve water in every way possible.
Given the historic (and largely unpredictable) nature of Californian aridity, it’s inevitable that, if you are a sufficient glutton for punishment to become governor twice, you will experience a couple of droughts. Unfortunately, Jerry Brown has been in charge for two of the worst – indeed, the current drought has broken essentially every historical record. But it is interesting to contemplate how, given the recognition of limits and hard choices forty years ago, we couldn’t be “much better prepared” today.
The 1977 news report was covering a two-day “Governor’s Drought Conference attended by about 800 water district officials, farmers, ranchers and other interested persons,” among the last category being the keynote speaker, Luna Leopold. The son of the influential conservationist and author, Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, Luna became one of the world’s leading hydrologists during the latter half of the last century. He revolutionised and quantified for the first time the science of fluvial geomorphology and changed the way we think about rivers, how they and their landscapes work, and their role in the grand scheme of things – “Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.” He was, incidentally, also a close friend of, and collaborator with, my hero, Ralph Bagnold – I have a recording of the address he gave at Bagnold’s memorial service, his words made all the more compelling by the deep resonance of his voice.
But, back to the Los Angeles Convention Center in March 1977. You can’t help but be impressed that Brown invited Leopold to give the keynote address, but it seems likely that the governor and the ranchers were somewhat bemused to be told, in the speaker’s first, undoubtedly resonant, words, about Herodotus.
Leopold titled his address A Reverence for Rivers. The full text is available online, but I shall extract from it here because I – and I hope that I’m not alone - find it not only provocative but as relevant today as it was nearly forty years ago. It’s stimulating food for thought – and a few posts.
Here are his opening words:
In the years around 450 B.C., that is about 2,400 years ago, the most widely travelled of the time was Herodotus. His book The Persian Wars differs from any previous written history in that he was conscious of the influences of geography, climate, and social custom in the direction of development of political and economic history of a state. In all the intervening time, we seem not to have learned how the political and economic aspects of our lives are related to geography and climate, nor have we been able to bend social custom to accept the constraints placed on us by geography and climate.
“In all the intervening time” since 1977, we don’t seem to have learned a great deal either.
He goes on discuss our approach to renewable and non-renewable resources and comments that “it can hardly be called management”:
The management of resources cannot be carried out successfully if it is looked upon as just another facet of economics, administration, and politics. Yet the latter view describes rather accurately our present approach to resource use (it can hardly be called management).
Being the scientist that he was, he asserts that “renewable resources”
... are parts of operating natural systems that can be deranged with very troublesome results. The hydrologic system of precipitation, streamflow, sediment, dissolved salts, ground water and evapotranspiration is typical of a system that can be deranged. Moreover, such operating systems are subject to natural fluctuations resulting from climate and geography. These fluctuations can be lessened but not eliminated.
I love that wording – the troublesome results from deranging natural operating systems. He goes on to acknowledge to his drought-stricken California audience that “none of us knows how to put into operation a philosophy of water management,” but suggests that a crisis offers some advantages in attracting attention to a problem and that “there may be some merit in examining some of the elements that might be included in such a philosophy.”
He recognised that his audience might not be instinctively sympathetic to “philosophic points of view” and proceeded to counter three possible “contrary arguments”:
(1) Our technology can fix it; (2) It is politically impossible; and (3) It is an example of the impractical idealism of crackpot environmentalists.
I will return to Leopold’s discussion of the first two, but his response to number three is a potent summary of his own philosophy and something that resonates today – at least with me:
… there is a balance or harmony in natural systems which, dictated by the laws of physics, has gradually developed during the 4 billion years of Earth's history. The maintenance of this balance is not only to the advantage of human organization, but should be the object of both our wonder and our admiration. The desire to preserve this harmony must also be incorporated into any philosophy of water management, and I will call this, as did Herodotus, a reverence for rivers. If this is environmental idealism, then let it be said that I am an idealist.
So where, exactly, does Herodotus fit in to all this? Quite how Luna Leopold’s audience responded is lost in the mists of time, but he described how
Speaking of the Persians who dominated Asia Minor in the 5th century B.C., Herodotus said, "They never defile a river with the secretions of their bodies, nor even wash their hands in one; nor will they allow others to do so, as they have a great reverence for rivers." It is the last phrase that deserves our attention. The river is like an organism; it is internally self-adjusting. It is also resilient and can absorb changes imposed upon it, but not without limit.
So, having cast a somewhat different light on Brown's "era of limits," he concluded that
Man's engineering capabilities are nearly limitless. Our economic views are too insensitive to be the only criteria for judging the health of the river organism. What is needed is a gentler basis for perceiving the effects of our engineering capabilities. This more humble view of our relation to the hydrologic system requires a modicum of reverence for rivers.
Given the derangement of our planet’s river and sediment systems that we have accomplished, before and after 1977, you have to wonder whether we – now stuck in the Anthropocene – have any reverence at all. But I believe that, for whatever difference it might possibly make, it’s still worth listening to Luna Leopold.
To be continued…
[Image at the head of the post Lucy Nicholson/Reuter/Baltimore Sun, caption: "Discarded shopping carts lie in the dry Tule river bed in Porterville, California October 14, 2014. In one of the towns hardest hit by California’s drought, the only way some residents can get water to flush the toilet is to drive to the fire station, hand-pump water into barrels and take it back home. The state’s three-year drought comes into sharp focus in Tulare County, the dairy and citrus heart of the state’s vast agricultural belt, where more than 500 wells have dried up."
Image above, Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources: The South Fork of the Feather River feeding Lake Oroville on Sept. 5, 2014.]