We all engage in the great sport of criticizing the weathercaster. We know it’s hard to predict weather in a place where the weather comes off the largest ocean in the world, but we can’t help it. They get it wrong; we make fun.
But we can only hope that they have it wrong this time, because the meteorologists are predicting a 4th year like the last three – another La Niña pattern set to bring the American Southwest another dry year and another dry year in a climate sufficiently warmer and drier to produce less runoff from whatever meager snowpack we do get in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain Ranges. An 80% chance of persisting through January for the 3rd year in a row say the meteorologists.
A “three-peat” La Niña is rare. It has happened only twice before since record-keeping began. Of course, “record-keeping” encompasses only a 140-year data base, less than a nanosecond in geologic time. La Niña occurs when ocean temperatures in the Eastern Tropical Pacific are below normal, which shifts the storm track that California depends on northward.
Add to the dismal predictions about the precipitation year that began October 1 a few more disquieting realities, and the picture is not pretty. The Colorado River, which during the 2012-2016 drought was sufficiently robust to provide relief, is in critical condition today. California has already announced that it is ceding 9% of its current Colorado River allocation, and it is virtually certain that this was but a down payment on more in givebacks the 1st quarter of 2023.
A feature of both traditional La Niña’s and even more so the conditions that prevail under warmer, drier conditions is the “atmospheric river” – deluges that drop inordinate amounts of rain in quick bursts on an infrequent basis, providing most of a year’s precipitation in two or three storms. The problem: The infrastructure required to capture that rain and store it does not yet exist. Less snow that yields less water per snowflake in conjunction with less rain that falls less frequently that cannot be captured before running out to sea; that’s what the weathercasters are telling us to expect.
We can only hope that they have it dead wrong. Our laugh will be one of relief, not derision. Golf can deal with the first four levels of drought declaration. It can manage the 5th level for a time. Beyond that, golf and much else are in for a rough ride.
And so, we wait and hope – in the short term, that is. Longer term, we must recognize that California cannot simply conserve its way out of what is increasingly looking like permanent drought.
Conservation will always be a crucial tool to be sure, but it cannot be the only tool. An effective toolbox must include the water capture and conveyance technologies consistent with a 21st century weather pattern far different from the conditions that existed from 1880 to 2000.
Director of Public Affairs for the SCGA
Chair of the Coachella Valley Golf & Water Task Force