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Fire, Water, and Global Warming: It's All One Crisis

by: Robert Cruickshank

Thu Oct 25, 2007 at 09:55:14 AM PDT


There were hurricanes before Katrina, and Southern California wildfires before Witch Creek, Santiago Canyon, and Running Springs. As those of us who have ever lived in SoCal know, the fall winds can easily turn the brown hillsides into menacing flame.

But like the hurricanes spawned by the Atlantic Ocean, the fires spawned by the Santa Ana winds are growing worse. Even though the current danger has not yet passed in SoCal, it is worth examining the links between global warming and wildfire. We've known for some time that the two were linked. Perhaps now it is time to finally get serious and do something about it.

The key isn't merely higher temperatures. At the center of the problem is moisture. California is at the opening stages of the worst water crisis in its modern history. Without enough rainfall, plants and trees will dry out more quickly and more thoroughly, leaving more fuel for fires. From today's SF Chronicle:

"Fires are burning hotter and bigger, becoming more damaging and dangerous to people and to property," U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell said. "Each year the fire season comes earlier and lasts longer."

The flames stretching from Malibu to the Mexican border struck during the driest year in Southern California history. Measurements taken by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection detected less than 10 percent moisture in the region's vegetation. The moisture level in kiln-dried lumber is generally 12 percent.

"They got less rain than they've ever gotten," said Hugh Safford, a Forest Service ecologist. "Any time you have a dry year like this one, you are going to get fires."

As Paul Rosenberg at OpenLeft notes, however, this has been known since 2003. Other studies make the point even clearer.

Robert Cruickshank :: Fire, Water, and Global Warming: It's All One Crisis
The Southwestern US - and the Colorado River basin in particular - has been in a drought since October 1999. As last week's cover story in the San Diego Reader explained, "As far back as 2004, the U.S. Geological Survey started calling this drought "comparable to or more severe than the largest-known drought in 500 years." The drought is having a catastrophic effect on vegetation, including the centuries-old oaks that dot the hillsides and canyons of Southern California:

Duncan McFetridge's oaks and others suffering in the Cleveland National Forest get none of the Sacramento water. And trees are thirsty creatures. They say that a mature oak tree needs 300 to 500 gallons of water a day. But you have to wonder: these trees must have endured droughts like this before, and now they must have more capable roots than ever before. How is it they're succumbing?

Orrin Davis, whose company Butler Drilling has been drilling water wells in the mountains east of San Diego since the 1960s, says oaks are vulnerable to changes in the water table. "Back in the '70s, '80s, you'd have to drill down an average of 400 feet to reach water. Today, it's 800 to 900 feet. I've had to go to 1400 feet. In my 40 years, this is one of the longest droughts. As far as I'm concerned, this drought has been going since the early, mid-'90s."

He says the die-off has been going on for years. "If it's true that this is the worst drought for 500 years, these are drought conditions these oak trees have never experienced. And I would estimate Duncan's oaks were 300 to 400 years old, the bigger ones."

The lack of rainfall causes a cascade effect on water supplies and, consequently, on vegetation. Without rainfall, cities and developers have to draw down already-stressed aquifers, depleting the soil moisture that helps keep plants somewhat watered even in the dry months. As this is drawn down, the ongoing lack of rainfall means the aquifers aren't getting replenished. Stresses on the Colorado River mean California must reduce its share of water drawn down from the river. And the ongoing problems with the Sierra snowpack and the Delta mean that Southern California gets less water delivered - reinforcing the stress on groundwater.

Worse, the lack of readily available water could potentially hamper firefighting efforts. Already this week the Metropolitan Water District estimated that over 600 million gallons of water had been used, a significant spike, to knock down the flames. Pumps ran overtime to keep the water pressure high enough for firefighters to use. As global warming distresses water supplies even further, the darkest scenario comes closer to reality - an inability to both supply cities and beat back hotter, more intense wildfire.

And it is not clear, and probably not likely, that there are any new sources of water to develop. This week the New York Times Magazine ran a feature story titled "The Future Is Drying Up" - focusing on the Colorado River drought and responses in Southern Nevada and the Colorado Front Rage to the crisis. Water managers in Colorado are trying to buy rights to agricultural water, both on the Plains and in the Rockies. But those sources are themselves stressed; there isn't enough to go around. Taking her cues from William Mulholland, Pat Mulroy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority has decided to go after water supplies in the surrounding deserts - but here again it is not certain that the supplies are enough to meet demand.

This drought, so far, is a drop in the bucket compared to megadroughts that hit this state several centuries ago. As Mike Davis recounts in his crucial environmental history of Southern California, Ecology of Fear, researchers have discovered a 200-year period of drought hit the state around the 1200s, and suspect many more exist in the historical climate record. (This is the same drought believed to have forced the dispersal of the Anasazi culture in Arizona.)

Climate change in California is expected to produce a hotter and drier climate, with a reduced snowpack. Precipitation in the Sierra is expected to fall as rain more often than snow, forcing significant shifts in how water is stored. Nobel laureate Steven Chu of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab told the NYT Magazine:

even the most optimistic climate models for the second half of this century suggest that 30 to 70 percent of the snowpack will disappear. "There's a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster," Chu said, "and that's in the best scenario."

The real crisis we face is a water crisis. Global warming will leave us drier and thirstier before it inundates our coastlines. And the warming climate, combined with reduced water supplies, will make the fires larger and more difficult to control. Just as many climatologists expect a repeat of Hurricane Katrina before long, we must confront the likelihood that the fires and evacuations experienced in SoCal this week will repeat themselves as well, so long as the drought continues.

What to do about this problem? In the next few weeks we'll continue to discuss that subject here at Calitics. It is worth noting that these fires broke out just a few weeks after the collapse of the special session on water in Sacramento. Republicans, insisting that new dams be part of any water solution, torpedoed Democratic plans to both restore the delta and provide funds to localities to develop sustainable water supplies and, more importantly, stronger conservation measures. The California Republican Party has now apparently decided that the concept of global warming and any effort to do anything about it are their primary targets, and they will do anything to prevent action on global warming or the water crisis. Nevermind the fact that dams are pointless if less rain and snow are falling. Republicans appear quite happy to leave Californians at further risk of catastrophic water shortfalls. In their inaction, California's future hangs in the balance.

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