We occasionally hear stories of the Great Dustbowl in America’s grain-rich Midwest during the Great Depression of the 1930’s when prolonged drought became so extreme as strong winds, drought and clouds of dust plagued nearly 75 percent of the United States. The Dust Bowl lasted for eight years from 1931 to 1939. Yet we hear little, especially in US national media of a new dust bowl which threatens to literally dry up the nation’s most populous state, California.
The origins of the 1930’s Dust Bowl went back to the introduction of large-scale mechanized agriculture across the Midwest prairie lands. In the early 1920’s the Federal Reserve interest rate policies triggered a deep recession and to survive, farmers turned to mechanization and the new Ford tractors and other equipment. Between 1925 and 1930 more than 5 million acres of previously unfarmed land were plowed. US farmers as a result produced record crops during the 1931 season just in time to coincide with the collapse of living standards of the Great Depression. The result was severe overproduction of wheat that led to severely reduced market prices. The wheat market was flooded, and people were too poor to buy. In a desperate bid, farmers went into debt those who were able and expanded their fields in an effort to turn a profit, much as is taking place across the shale oilfields of North Dakota and Texas today for oil. The result was that they covered the prairie with wheat in place of the natural drought-resistant grasses and left unused fields bare.
Picture of a black blizzard of soil during the Midwest Dust Bowl in the 1930s
The new plow-based farming in the Midwest region caused loss of fertile topsoil that literally blew away in the winds, leaving the land vulnerable to drought. Then the rains stopped. By 1932, 14 dust storms, known as black blizzards were reported, and in just one year, the number increased to nearly 40, forcing millions of people to flee the region. It wasn’t until 1939 when the rain returned that relief came.
One year of water left
Now we return to California, America’s most populous state. It has 38 million people, larger than most countries of the EU, and with a GDP in 2013 of $2.2 trillion which, were California a nation, would give her the eighth largest GDP in the world behind only the USA, China, Japan, Germany, France, Brazil, and the United Kingdom. In short, California matters not only to the future of the USA economy but of the world economy. It is home of some of the planet’s most concentrated centers of high technology from the Silicon Valley to the great scientific labs and universities such as Berkeley and California Institute of Technology.
For four consecutive years the state has been in a severe drought. Each day that passes it depletes the ground water resources, reservoir lakes and other sources more.
Jay Famiglietti, Senior Water Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology and a professor of Earth System Science at UC Irvine has sounded the gravity of the situation for the first time in an OpEd in the Los Angeles Times.
According to Famiglietti, this past winter, California’s usual ‘wet season’, “paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.”
Famiglietti is regarded by peers as one of the best water scientists in the United States, if not the world. His warning is not the usual climate scare propaganda of an Al Gore. It is based on measurable scientific facts. He cites some:
- Folsom Lake was only 35% of capacity as of September 30, 2014…More than 600 empty docks sit on dry, cracked dirt at Folsom Lake Marina, one of the largest inland marinas in California.
- Data from NASA satellites show that the total amount of water stored in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins — that is, all of the snow, river and reservoir water, water in soils and groundwater combined — was 34 million acre-feet below normal in 2014. That loss is nearly 1.5 times the capacity of Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir.
- Statewide, we’ve been dropping more than 12 million acre-feet of total water yearly since 2011. Roughly two-thirds of these losses are attributable to groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley. Farmers have little choice but to pump more groundwater during droughts, especially when their surface water allocations have been slashed 80% to 100%. But these pumping rates are excessive and unsustainable. Wells are running dry. In some areas of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.
- California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began.
Famiglietti concludes with the sobering warning that, “Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain. In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis.”
California running out of water means dry taps, no water in the reservoirs, and no water for agriculture. California, despite its high-tech image is one of America’s most important agriculture producers and its production is all water-intensive irrigated agribusiness large farms producing much of the fruits, grapes for wines, and dairy products of the United States.
Over the past several decades large agribusiness combines transformed the vast Central Valley farm area as lakes and rivers were drained to expand land for industrial farming. The effect on the ecology is perhaps like that in Kansas and Oklahoma during the 1930’s, a significant factor causing the present drought or at least aggravating it. Yet for all the high-tech modern agribusiness, quasi slave labor, done mostly by illegal Mexican migrant farm workers desperate for dollars, is the Valley’s largest source of manual farm labor. According to a 2005 report by the Congressional Research Service, the San Joaquin Valley was one of the most economically depressed regions in the US, on par with the region of Appalachia. Overall, California has a poverty rate of 23.5%, the highest of any state in the country.
Joseph Reed, a graduate geologist working in the IT industry in California, sent this author his own eyewitness chronicle of the unfolding disaster he has witnessed during the past several years of living in the West: “I have been to Lake Oroville. It was in early Summer last year, and the level of the lake was already more than 200 feet below normal. Area newspapers report that the level of the lake is now nearly 300 feet below the top of the lake. You have to see this to understand. ..One has to stand there and see this huge, tall wall of dry mud and a puddle at the bottom of a gigantic lake to fully grasp the magnitude of this problem. “ Lake Oroville is the second largest water reservoir in the State of California. Here and here are some striking photos of Lake Oroville taken last year.
He continues the tale of devastation: “I visited is Lake Shasta near Redding, the heart of Northern California’s agricultural region…a year-and-a-half ago. At the time the lake was over 120 feet below normal. According to California’s ”Bi-Weekly Drought Briefing,” as of March 16 Lake Shasta is at just 58% capacity. Lake Shasta is the largest water reservoir in the State of California as well as an important hydroelectric source: ” viii Here are some photos of Lake Shasta from last Summer.
Reed concludes, “I have also been to Lake Folsom, which is the water reservoir for Sacramento. One of the people I work with has a house on the lake there with a boat dock. Except that now the dock is on dry ground and one needs binoculars to see what is left of the water. So that’s the lakes. The ground water is becoming exhausted, and it is also increasingly polluted due to massive fracking as well as the dumping of toxic waste underground (with permission from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)). “
Most alarming, the Sierra Nevada snowpack which is essential to maintain water supplies across the State as the snow melts through the Summer growing season has been measured across the Sierra’s “at or below the lowest on record” which includes data back to 1950. The Weekly Drought Briefing states “Electronic snow sensors indicate the Northern Sierra snowpack is at 14% of average to date, the Central Sierra is at 18% of average to date, and the Southern Sierra is at 19% of average to date.”
Even after a Winter that did see some significant precipitation, reservoir levels as of March 15 are still low according to the Drought Briefing. The largest water reservoirs in the state are:
- Castaic Lake 29% of capacity
- Don Pedro 43% of capacity
- Exchequer 9% of capacity
- Folsom Lake 59% of capacity
- Lake Oroville 50% of capacity
- Lake Perris 37% of capacity
- Millerton Lake 39% of capacity
- New Melones 25% of capacity
- Pine Flat 17% of capacity
- San Luis 68% of capacity
- Lake Shasta 58% of capacity
- Trinity Lake 48% of capacity
As he understands the crisis, Joseph Reed affirms the warnings of Jay Famiglietti, adding that , “There is no question that Washington has known about this crisis for a long time. That Washington, and the government of the State of California have taken little action to protect the water supply has very profound implications. And no, I don’t think this is due to stupidity, although certainly there is an element of that. This is not just about water, this is also about electricity. The hydroelectric dams are also almost out of water. No water, no electric generation.
Will Vegas Lose the Bet?
The drought is not only affecting California, but also a vast area of the Western part of the United States. Lake Mead, which provides 90% of the water for Las Vegas is 145 feet below normal levels. The lake is expected to drop another 20 feet by June of 2016. It is close to the point that the water intake pipes that carry water to Vegas will be above the water and “sucking on air” as detailed in this Telegraph article. A new 1.5 billion water intake pipe and pumping station will soon be finished and in operation in case that happens. But even this is not viewed as a long term solution. If the water levels keep dropping the Hoover Dam, which holds back the Colorado River and formed Lake Mead, would lose the ability to generate electricity. The Colorado River, the only major river in the southwest part of the United States, is drying up itself. Its basin supplies water to about 40 million people in seven states, and irrigates roughly four million acres of farmland.
Maybe this explains the recent driving push of US agribusiness interests to grab fertile agriculture land in Ukraine’s soil rich western regions. In the least it portends a crisis which no one is yet discussing openly, neither in the USA or internationally. And it raises the issue of why is Washington spending billions of dollars to arm an Islamic army to overthrow the Assad Government and to prop up the government of Ukraine, while ignoring a crisis that can lead to the loss of perhaps 1/3 of the US food supply and threaten the very lives of more than 40 million Americans. Are the lives of that many Americans not a “National Security” Issue?
The irony may be that in order to save the lives of millions of Americans living in coastal cities like San Diego and Los Angeles, President Obama may have to ask Vladimir Putin for the use of floating nuclear reactors to desalinate seawater for the use of those cities.
F. William Engdahl is strategic risk consultant and lecturer, he holds a degree in politics from Princeton University and is a best-selling author on oil and geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.