Expert: Calif. ‘Perfect Drought’ Could Span 100 Years

Some experts say the pieces are falling into place for a so-called "perfect drought," and it could have devastating consequences for California.


KABC ABC Channel 7 (Los Angeles) – By Dallas Raines

Southern California is now in its eighth year of an extended drought. But what would happen if that drought lasted for decades, or even a century? Some experts say the pieces are falling into place for a so-called “perfect drought,” and it could have devastating consequences for California.

Higher temperatures, less water, and more wildfires — the effects of global climate change can already be seen here in Southern California. And when you combine climate change with drought conditions, the consequences can be severe. Some say we’re in the middle of a historic drought.

2007 will go down on the books as Southern California’s driest year in recorded history. Fires raged out of control. Millions of dollars were lost as California crops shrivel in the searing sun. And the Eastern Sierras, where L.A. gets most of its water, marked its second lowest snowpack on record.

It’s a recipe for disaster, or as one expert calls it — the perfect drought.

“The idea of a perfect drought plays off the idea of a perfect storm,” said Glen MacDonald with the Department of Geography at UCLA. “It’s a convergence of natural or man-made effects that lead to a somewhat unexpected, but catastrophic result.”

A so-called perfect drought would last not one or two years, but a decade or more. Scientists studying ancient tree rings have found evidence of epic droughts in Southern California, with some lasting as long as 100 years.

“You can’t say with 100-percent probability, but we are putting into place the pieces for a perfect drought,” said MacDonald.

This year, parts of Southern California got less rainfall than Death Valley.

“We didn’t plant this time for the first time in 85 years,” said Betty Bouris of Bouris Ranches.

The Bouris family has been farming in Riverside County since 1922. This year, the lack of rain forced them to lay off long-time employees and auction off their farming equipment.

“I think it hit home to me when I walked into the parts room that was absolutely stocked, and I went in there and all the shelves are empty because all the parts were sold,” said Bouris.

It’s a growing crisis across the American Southwest as a whole. The region is now in its eighth year of an extended drought.

Lake Mead, the nation’s largest man-made reservoir, stands at less than half its normal levels. California’s predicted population explosion will further strain already scarce water resources.

“California could have 50 million people by 30- or 40-years from now,” said Dan Cayan, a climate researcher for the Scripps Institute and the USGS.

Water conservation in L.A. — now voluntary — could turn into mandatory water rationing in the not too distant future.

“If this continues for another year or two like this, we’ll have a full-fledged drought and we’ll need to take more drastic steps,” said David Nahai, president of Department Water and Power (DWP).

Drastic steps, such as a return of the drought busters who roamed the streets of L.A. issuing citations during our last major drought from ’87 to ’92.

Drought conditions promote wildfires, like the one in Lake Tahoe that destroyed more than 200 homes; or the Zaca fire in Ventura County, which is now the second largest in California history.

The San Bernardino forest is tinder dry — a million dead trees killed by bark beetles and the drought. Thousand Oaks hillsides are still scorched from a fire in January.

“If you look around you, the Chapparal, the coastal sage, it’s absolutely tinder dry,” said MacDonald. “It takes nothing to ignite this.”

The deepening drought led Governor Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in Riverside County. Extreme measures for an extreme dry spell — but still too late for the Bouris family.

“It’s just in your blood to farm,” said Bouris. “It’s kind of sad, to see a family tradition end like that.”

Government forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have announced they believe another La Nina is on the way. That weather phenomenon is a periodic cooling of surface temperatures in the Pacific that’s expected to bring drier-than-normal conditions this fall to an already drought-stricken Southern California.

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