Drought in California

California is running out of water:

California is dry as a bone, and the effects are like something out of an apocalyptic film.

Cities are running out of water. Communities are fighting over what little water there is. Local governments are imposing rationing coupled with steep fines. Fires are ravaging the state. Entire species and industries are threatened.

For California, 2013 was the driest year since the state started measuring rainfall in 1849. Paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram says that, according to the width of old tree rings, California hasn’t been this dry for about 500 years.

California is hardly the only state facing record droughts. Nevada and Nebraska are also in danger of drying up and blowing away.

Periodically doomsayers come along to lecture about overpopulation and environmental degradation. They’re right to do so.

And since I’m always able to bring everything back to religion, this sort of story also makes me think about the absurdity of the fine-tuning argument for God. We are asked to believe that the universe has been meticulously fine-tuned for human life by a loving, omnipotent Creator. Yet almost the entirety of the universe is utterly inhospitable to any sort of life. The large majority of the surface of the one planet that can support life is inhospitable to human life. And on the small portion of the one planet where human life can exist, life nonetheless balances on a knife-edge.

As George Carlin once said, this is not good work. A universe like this has no business appearing on the resume of an all-powerful God.

Comments

  1. #1 G
    January 31, 2014

    Yo Jason, typo alert: “Draught” is UK English for “draft” in USA English. “Drought” is prolonged lack of precipitation. Pesky auto-complete apps. Feel free to delete this comment.

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 31, 2014

    Heh! Thanks for pointing out the error. At least I spelled it right in the rest of the post!

  3. #3 Richard Wein
    January 31, 2014

    Yes, G. On reading the title (as a Brit) I wondered what on Earth the post could be about. Has California introduced conscription of some sort? Has it become more windy?

  4. #4 Richard Wein
    January 31, 2014

    Incidentally, here in Britain the last couple of years have been very wet, and particularly the last month: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/25966889

  5. #5 Richard Wein
    January 31, 2014

    It turns out the U.S. is responsible for our wet weather!
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-25958382

  6. #6 G
    January 31, 2014

    The way I frame overpopulation and overconsumption, and the dominant quack-myth called “economic growth,” is: “If you can map an infinite plane onto the surface of a Euclidean solid, I’ll nominate you for a Field Prize” (Nobel-equivalent for math).

    About those deities: When are we going to hear news reporters asking the victims of natural disasters if they blame a deity for their particular tragedy?

    Victim: “Thank God we got out alive!”
    Reporter: “But do you curse God for burning your house down?”
    The problem with this of course, is that True Believers will always find a rationalization, ranging from the relatively benign such as “He moves in mysterious ways,” to the utterly malignant such as “God Hates Fags.”

    About that universe: Though, it may be (and probably is) the most-hospitable universe possible with any consistent set of physical laws. Of all the physically possible universes, we are most likely to find ourselves in one that is above-average favorable to the prolific existence of intelligent life. That doesn’t imply an Abrahamic god any more than the reasonable version of the Gaia hypothesis implies a Greek goddess.

  7. #7 Valhar2000
    January 31, 2014

    The problem with this of course, is that True Believers will always find a rationalization

    A more immediate problem is the fact that that reporter would never work again.

  8. #8 Lenoxus
    January 31, 2014

    Well, it’s not like God can just make water out if thin air. Where would you get that idea?

    Ah, I know what you might be thinking of. But creationists actually like “explaining” the Genesis flood by giving the water a source, usially a “vapor canopy”. This is their attempt to scientifically interpret the Bible’s actual cosmology (similar to that of Israel’s neighbors), whereby beyond the solid “firmament” of the sky there used to be a lot of water — the very “waters of the deep” that were themselves uncreated, but which Elohim moved over when he got to work.

    Anyway, those waters have long since drained away, plus God madrsome kind of promise with a rainbow, so California is out of luck.

  9. #9 MNb
    January 31, 2014

    “this sort of story also makes me think about the absurdity of the fine-tuning argument for God”
    You’ve got this entirely wrong! Don’t blame god! Never blame god! It’s original sin! Humans causing environmental issues totally proves this.
    Ain’t christianity beautiful? It always gets it right, no matter what happens. So it must be true.
    The little snag of course is that it doesn’t provide any clue how to tackle the drought issue. Be sure though that if it’s tackled the same christians are very quick to praise their lord.

  10. #10 eric
    January 31, 2014

    Nevada and Nebraska are also in danger of drying up and blowing away.

    This may be urban legend, but I heard that Las Vegas is basically draining every aquifer in the state. Not intentionally as in “ha ha, we’ve come to steal your water!,” but unintentionally because as they pull water from their ground, it starts pulling water from the surrounding area, and so on, and so on.

    To put that in perspective for our British friends, that means that one city in the US is using all of the water available in the surrounding 110,000 square miles. The size of great britain is 89,000 square miles.

  11. #11 Eric Lund
    January 31, 2014

    This may be urban legend, but I heard that Las Vegas is basically draining every aquifer in the state.

    There’s a reason why Las Vegas is where it is: it’s one of the few places in Nevada with access to water. (Reno/Carson City/Lake Tahoe would be the other.) And the water supply would probably be enough for a city of maybe 100k or so. But not for Las Vegas as it currently exists. The view of Las Vegas from the air is instructive: lush green golf courses next to desert scrub. The state is downwind of the Sierra Nevada, which is why they get so little rain.

    Same thing with Phoenix: it’s one of the few places in Arizona with access to water, but not enough for a city of its present size, and they also use much of it on golf courses and such. So they have been using water from the Colorado River, which is oversubscribed. As they say in the western US, water flows uphill to money.

  12. #12 SelfAwarePatterns
    SelfAwarePatterns.com
    January 31, 2014

    I’ve always said that people who think the universe is finely tuned for life need to look around more. If we were instantly transported to all but an infinitesimal fraction of places in this universe, we would die instantly.

  13. #13 eric
    January 31, 2014

    @12 – yes. Imagine a bacterium in a warm, tasty petri dish a few inches in diameter. That dish is sealed in a cube a mile on a side filled with bleach, which would destroy the bacterium instantly if it came into contact with it. And the bacterium thinks the cube is finely tuned for it.

  14. #14 John
    January 31, 2014

    The short sightedness of man never ceases to amaze me. Nature operates in cycles which helps drive evolution. We don’t know this by now? We have been over using water from the aquifer for many years. Now there is a slight natural problem and man’s over use makes the problem a catastrophe. Why are we surprised? If the drought lasts a bit longer, we’ll be facing starvation. Maybe we could stop sending food overseas and let the Africans starve. This was available for us to know. Why have we acted with such ignorance? Why have we stuck our heads in the sand so Mother Nature could kick us in the butt? But then again this crisis may pass; people will go back to ignoring this wakeup call until the next time. We’ll again go back to think that the US is the most powerful nation and disasters just don’t happen to us and that we can provide humanitarian support with our treasure to everyone else.

    One day the debt will hit us in the face. Then we’ll again be amazed. Until then the voters will not change. Like in Greece, the voters will riot in the streets demanding God give them stuff. This is why religion works. Religion takes a long-term view and sets policies to prepare for the down side of the cycle. See the story of Joseph in the bible. 7 years of storing food that the voters rioted against followed by 7 years of famine. Egypt emerged as having overcome the crisis. Have we stored enough food to last for a 20-year drought (experienced in north America some 600-800 years ago in the southwest of all places)? OR, have we given away our food for temporary relief of others who won’t help us? So how do you get people to do the right long-term thing? Invent a God and get people to believe in God’s capricious nature. Get conservative in outlook. The proof of a new social model requires a few hundred years not 1 year.

    The cycles in nature are known. We choose to ignore them and thus become sensitive to destruction.

    Human life like other life adjusted to life in our environment. I suppose George Carlin would prefer to have not been born. Well, he could have killed himself if he didn’t like life.

    We don’t know life doesn’t exist elsewhere. With no evidence other than the anthropic principle and the reductive philosophy, I suggest life is a natural outcome of the functioning of the universe. But we need a definition of life.

  15. #15 JimR.
    January 31, 2014

    The deeper aquifers in So. NV flow very slowly, perhaps at a rate of 1″/year.

    The BIG takeaway of the CA lack of water is the loss of a significant agricultural produce we enjoy during the winter in the East. This may be offset by imports from So. America.

    The Late Great State of CA may come about due to large scale fires and out migration. There are people organizing prayers for rain for Los Angeles. I expect to see pronouncements by some religious types about punishment for the evil ways of LA and SFO.

    This is serious and I hope we develop better water management policies. The Eastern US needs to get serious about water policies.

  16. #16 SelfAwarePatterns
    January 31, 2014

    @13 eric,
    That’s an awesome example. I’ll have to remember it.

  17. #17 deepak shetty
    January 31, 2014

    . Yet almost the entirety of the universe is utterly inhospitable to any sort of life.
    Isn’t God great? He can create life even in the most inhospitable conditions ….

  18. #18 Science Avenger
    January 31, 2014

    The Colorado river no longer makes it to the Gulf. It dries up before it gets there. Tells you about all you need to know about that region’s water usage.

  19. #19 JimR.
    January 31, 2014
  20. #20 Blaine
    January 31, 2014

    “Draught” is UK English for “draft” in USA English.

    Darn, I thought we were talking about my favorite subject: microbrew beer…California IPA!!!!!!!!!!

    On a lighter note, have you ever noticed how most hurricanes that hit the US start as low pressure areas off the west coast of Africa…obvious terrorist activity.

    Non sequitur.

  21. #21 Jim Thomerson
    February 1, 2014

    There is a good argument that we will run out of water long before we run out of oil. No known subsitutes for water.

  22. #22 eric
    February 2, 2014

    No known subsitutes for water.

    Its probable that natural fresh waster will become a resource of significant value. But desalinization just takes energy, which we can produce through many means. So I don’t think there will be any crash; more likely, he cost of everything just goes up incrementally in price to pay for the cost of the fresh water involved.

  23. #23 MNb
    February 2, 2014

    “the cost of everything just goes up”
    Just?

  24. #24 eric
    February 2, 2014

    Mnb – well, as opposed to a mad-max style civilization crash. There won’t be an economic apocalypse over fresh water.

  25. #25 Jim Thomerson
    February 2, 2014

    I recently read a report of large aquifers buried under deep ocean. Can we picture a Deep Water Horizon rig drilling for fresh water? There are some saline aquifers here in Texas. There are proposals for building desalination plants scattered strategically over the state. There are energy and economic costs to water at present. No doubt these will rise as fresh water becomes less common. Any way, there are smart rich folks buying up water rights as we type.

  26. #26 MNb
    February 2, 2014

    “There won’t be an economic apocalypse over fresh water.”
    There might be very well be a social apocalypse though. People generally don’t take it well if they have to pay a lot of money for something they need so badly. Mind you, I’m not going to say it will happen; that will depend on the difference between the price people expect to pay and what they actually have to pay. Nobody can predict that.

  27. #27 G
    February 2, 2014

    Re. SelfAware Patterns and Eric at 12 and 13: the fatal flaw in your arguement is the implicit assumption that other configurations of universe would be more hospitable to life than the one we’re in.

    Can you construct a set of math and physics that gets you a universe without blazing stars and light years of frigid vacuum between habitable places, a universe that’s one big 4space ecosystem in which you could, if you wanted to spend the time, ride your bicycle to the Moon?

    Prediction; mark my words: Once we have the supercomputer capacity to simulate the range of activity from the Planck scale to the level of protein synthesis, we will discover that no self-consistent set of alternative physics yields results as favorable to life as the one we presently observe. If I’m proven wrong on this, I’ll concede the point in public.

  28. #28 G
    February 2, 2014

    Practical stuff for the drought: painless water conservation.

    1) Purge water.

    Go down to the hardware store and get a large funnel, an elastic or velcro strap, and a length of tube sufficient to reach from your showerhead to a foot or so off the shower floor. And get a 5-gallon pail and 2-gallon pail.

    When you turn on the shower, there is a quantity of cold water that normally goes to waste before the hot water arrives. This is called “purge water.”

    Strap the funnel over your showerhead, with the tube running from it to the 5-gallon pail. Let the purge water collect in the pail until the water is hot enough to use. Take your shower as usual.

    Use the purge water for flushing the toilet. For this it helps to have a second pail of about 2-gallon capacity, to make it easier to handle. 3/4 of a gallon flushes #1, 1-1/2 gallons flush #2.

    Flushing the toilet with water in a bucket is easy; practice a few times and you’ll get the technique pretty quickly.

    2) Gray water.

    If you have a laundry sink into which your clothes washer discharges: Get a stopper on a chain. Stop up the sink. Observe an entire full cycle of your clothes washer to be sure the water discharge does not overflow the sink (thus the chain on the stopper, and also be sure you can turn off your washer immediately if the sink is getting too full).

    Now you have a laundry sink full of used water from the washer. Use a small pail to bail this water into another 2-gallon pail that you can use for toilet flushes.

    (I’ve designed simple automated systems for all of this and more, but the basic manual versions are cheap & easy for anyone to use.)

    Net result of both of these methods used together: approx. 20% savings of indoor water consumption, while you still get to shower daily, wear clean clothes, and flush the toilet as often as needed.

  29. #29 eric
    February 3, 2014

    Mnb:

    People generally don’t take it well if they have to pay a lot of money for something they need so badly. Mind you, I’m not going to say it will happen; that will depend on the difference between the price people expect to pay and what they actually have to pay. Nobody can predict that.

    In the US, fresh clean tap water is a few cents per gallon, yet people willingly pay 100x that price for bottled water because advertising has convinced them its better…even though in some cases the quality standards are laxer on the bottled water.
    So, given that many US consumers are choosing to pay around $20/gallon for branded water like Evian, I am skeptical that the US will suffer some economic catastrophe when the price of fresh tap water goes from 5 cents per gallon to 50 cents per gallon. Do I want that to happen? No; I’d much rather we conserved so we didn’t have to. And do I think there will be press, complaints, political blamestorming, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth? Yes. But it isn’t going to break the bank because in point of fact, many of us are already choosing to pay desalinization-style costs for irrational, advertising-based reasons.

  30. #30 eric
    February 3, 2014

    G:

    Can you construct a set of math and physics that gets you a universe without blazing stars and light years of frigid vacuum between habitable places, a universe that’s one big 4space ecosystem in which you could, if you wanted to spend the time, ride your bicycle to the Moon?

    Of course not, that is an incredibly silly standard of evidence you’re putting on us. But I don’t reallly need to: I can think of all sorts of solar systems obeying current laws that would give us lots more livable space. If Mars had an iron core, it would have a magnetosphere and have been able to hold onto its atmosphere, and we’d have two habitable planets instead of one. If Venus had developed differently, we’d have three. Heck, if humans had evolved to be half their current size we would’ve weighted 4-8x less, consumed 4-8x less resources per day, and consequently the earth’s resource pool would be much “bigger” in terms of number of people it could support in prosperity.

    Unless you’re willing to take a stand that the state of the current solar system and biological evolution were both mathematically necessary consequences of the starting conditions of the entire universe, you have to admit that we don’t have as much living space as we could have had; that this is a sub-optimal solution.

    Moreover, we’re talking about the fine tuning argument for God. Are you asserting that this is the best God could do? According to the bible, he is perfectly capable of and willing to perform miracles, so there is frankly no reason why he should be limited to ‘what laws of physics can produce’ at all. Want a warm, infinite, flat earth stretching out in all directions? Supposedly, omnipotence can do that, right? if it can’t, its not omnipotent.

    So what I, a human with limited understand, can come up with in terms of physical laws that give us more living space is not really the issue. The issue is what God could do, both via miracle and simply using the laws we see around us. And for both cases, it is pretty rational to think that he could’ve done better…and it’s also pretty rational to think that if he couldn’t, he’s not the omnipotent God described in the bible.

  31. #31 Kevin
    February 3, 2014

    Luckily.. here in NYC we have all the water we need. We are at 90% reservoir levels.. and we expect more rain and snow as the climate warms.

  32. #32 Jim Thomerson
    February 3, 2014

    Out on the ranch we had a well and windmill providing house and stock water. We had no indoor plumbing other than a kitchen sink. Mother would wash dishes in a pan and then pour the water on a fruit tree in the yard. Baths were in a tin tub in front of the wood fired stove in the winter. Out in the yard in the summer, with hot water coming out of the hose in the sun. Bath water went to a tree as well. We actually enjoyed life under those conditions. Not recommending, or longing for it today, you understand.

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