COMMENTARY: Water and human adaptation

Drought may be the normal condition - we will adapt to it

There is the joke about a family who lived near a busy railroad. Finally, the railroad decided to close that track after which the family had difficulty sleeping because the noise they had grown accustom to was missing. There is more truth in that than humor. Humans are the world’s ultimate adapters, but until they adapt they tend to believe that whatever they experience is normal and the more they experience it the more normal they think it is.

We will adapt to the drought as we do to everything else and what we can’t or won’t mitigate by adaptation will be attacked with technology. That’s the way humans have always done things and it’s why we live in the fantastic world we do.

According to the New York Times Science Section feature article, scientists say that California and the Southwest occasionally had even worse droughts — so-called megadroughts — in the ancient past that lasted decades. “At least in parts of California, in two cases in the last 1,200 years, these dry spells lingered for up to two centuries.”

The current drought is the worst in 200 years, but it is hardly the worst drought in the area’s history, not even close. Having two cases in 1,200 years where the drought lasted two centuries each would seem to indicate that drought is more normal than not and that the last 200 years was just a “Wet Era” – and that’s exactly what the article claimed.

All these measurements rely on indirect evidence, the only rain gauges and records available come from the natural world, but we also know something about normal distributions; in most cases variables, like rainfall and snowpack, return to the average over time; it’s called regression to the mean.

That’s comforting until we confess that we do not know what that the average is. You pick an era and a range within that era and you can have almost any answer you desire.

The substantial water consumption savings realized in many California communities over the last four years prove just how adaptable we are and my bet is that we are just scratching the surface. Right now there are many agenda driven ideas to throw the baby out with the bathwater by threatening economic collapse, that’s merely a cynical version of never letting a good crisis go to waste.

Agriculture cannot be sacrosanct in our conservation efforts if we are serious, but it’s not as bad as many think. The popular and overused number that agriculture accounts for 80 percent of California’s water use is misleading in some respects. In the first place it’s a generalization; that percentage swings significantly in wet and dry years and by locality.  One study put that at 52 percent based on the total water supply of a dry year – it’s still a lot, but not 80 percent.

A recent analysis by the California Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) indicates that there is likely to be only a small economic drought impact statewide because “agriculture directly generates only about 2 percent of the entire state's gross domestic product (GDP).”  Local impacts will depend on the structure of the local economy; those areas heavily dependent on agriculture will fare worse; by the way, that’s not us.

I have done my own research based on county crop and U.S. Census reports and found that in 2013 the San Benito County total crop value came to a maximum of $5,740 per capita; Monterey $10,200, Fresno $12,460, Merced $6,738, and Santa Cruz County $2,225. This would indicate that San Benito County is much less economically dependent on agriculture than the other counties in the near region with the exception of Santa Cruz.

Additionally, agriculture, like everything else, has options. They can switch from high water use crops to low water use crops, change the way they apply irrigation to more efficient methods, use technology to ensure that they are not over irrigating, and reduce evaporation.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult, perhaps impossible at this point, to get an unbiased view because we are in the “jockeying stage” of this adaptation. The various interests are positioning themselves publically and politically to demand better treatment from the water stewards.

Eventually we will adapt as we have always done.

Marty Richman

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Marty (Martin G.) spent his teen years in northern New Jersey. He served more than 22 years on active military duty, mostly in Europe, and is a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4, Nuclear Weapons Technical Officer. Marty then worked 25 years in various engineering and management positions in the electronics and energetic materials industries supporting the communications, computer, aerospace, defense and automotive sectors. He is a graduate, summa cum laude, from The College of Hard Knocks, among his numerous awards and accomplishments. He was a regular weekly Op/Ed columnist and feature writer for The Hollister Free Lance for seven years and a member of its editorial board for five years. Marty is a frequent commentator and contributor to BenitoLink on a wide variety of local, state, national and international subjects.   Marty was elected to represent the City of Hollister District 4 on the City Council in November, 2018. Marty and his wife, Joyce, have been residents of Hollister since 1996.