Capture the rain

It’s raining again today, and we’re grateful. This will help put a damper on what was shaping up to be a terrifying early start of fire season. But the tiny amounts won’t make a dent in the drought. The recent showers bring us to 24 inches of rain for the season, about 2/3 of normal. But 10 of those 24 inches came in one big burst on Oct 24.

Here are a bunch of those raindrops sailing down the Santa Rosa creek to the mouth of the Russian River at Jenner.

With Sam Learner’s amazing River Runner we can follow a drop that fell in the Mayacamas range as it makes its way to the ocean.

Until 2014 I’d only ever lived east of the Mississipi River, in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. During those decades there may never have been a month with zero precipitation.

I still haven’t adjusted to a region where it can be dry for many months. In 2017, the year of the devastating Tubbs Fire, there was no rain from April through October.

California relies heavily on the dwindling Sierra snowpack for storage and timed release of water. Clearly we need a complementary method of storage and release, and this passage in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future imagines it beautifully.

Typically the Sierra snowpack held about fifteen million acre-feet of water every spring, releasing it to reservoirs in a slow melt through the long dry summers. The dammed reservoirs in the foothills could hold about forty million acre-feet when full. Then the groundwater basin underneath the central valley could hold around a thousand million acre-feet; and that immense capacity might prove their salvation. In droughts they could pump up groundwater and put it to use; then during flood years they needed to replenish that underground reservoir, by capturing water on the land and not allow it all to spew out the Golden Gate.

Now the necessity to replumb the great valley for recharge had forced them to return a hefty percentage of the land to the kind of place it had been before Europeans arrived. The industrial agriculture of yesteryear had turned the valley into a giant factory floor, bereft of anything but products grown for sale; unsustainable ugly, devastated, inhuman, and this in a place that had been called the “Serengeti of North America,” alive with millions of animals, including megafauna like tule elk and grizzly bear and mountain lion and wolves. All those animals had been exterminated along with their habitat, in the first settlers’ frenzied quest to use the valley purely for food production, a kind of secondary gold rush. Now the necessity of dealing with droughts and floods meant that big areas of the valley were restored, and the animals brought back, in a system of wilderness parks or habitat corridors, all running up into the foothills that ringed the central valley on all sides.

The book, which Wikipedia charmingly classifies as cli-fi, grabbed me from page one and never let go. It’s an extraordinary blend of terror and hope. But this passage affected me in the most powerful way. As Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert explains, and as I’ve seen for myself, we’ve already engineered the hell out of California’s water systems, with less than stellar results.

Can we redo it and get it right this time? I don’t doubt our technical and industrial capacity. Let’s hope it doesn’t take an event like the one the book opens with — a heat wave in India that kills 20 million people in a week — to summon the will.

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3 thoughts on “Capture the rain

  1. It’s hard to be hopeful. Most of California’s water troubles are caused by its Byzantine and absurd system of senior water rights, which means just because someone nailed a claim first to a tree in the 19th century they can use as much water as they want and other users have to make do with the dregs. The judicial system is used to enforce stasis. This leads to situations like Saudi Arabia buying up senior rights, using water to grow absurdly low-value crops like alfalfa and shipping it to Saudi Arabia as cow fodder, essentially stealing our water. The fact water is subsidized and there are perverse incentives against conservation and efficient irrigation only compounds the problem.

    You might be interested in Paolo Bacigalupi’s SF novel “The Water Knife”.

    1. I guess if aquifer recharge doesn’t happen, rights holders will find themselves holding rights worth nothing. Sooner or later the necessary thing must happen. Sooner would be better and I like to imagine what that would look like. Ministry for the Future is full of things I want to see happen. Fossil-fueled air travel goes away, mostly, but solar-plus-wind-powered ocean-going vessels running on hydrofoils and dirigibles for passengers and freight provide delightful alternatives. The book specifically imagines business travel happening this way: a relaxed end-to-end schedule but full productivity enroute with highspeed net.

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