National Geographic : 2014 Oct
Western Drought 71 Oregon State University. Shrinking snowpacks and earlier snowmelts mean—in practical terms—that the region faces a persistent and worsening drought. Early this year, as the East Coast shivered, California baked. January wildfires burned sub- urban homes, a sinking reservoir exposed the long-drowned ruins of a gold rush town, and in the spring, Yosemite Falls shrank to a trickle. As the drought crept toward historic levels, the political conversation settled into familiar ruts. Farmers called on Congress to lift protections for endangered fish species. Urbanites pointed out that an average of 41 percent of California’s water is used for agriculture, while less than 11 percent goes to cities (nearly 49 percent stays in the rivers). Sound bites prevailed, and any sign of rain silenced the conversation entirely. “And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years,” John Steinbeck wrote in his 1952 epic, East of Eden, a family tragedy set in the Salinas Valley of the early 20th century, “and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years.” Such forgetfulness is almost a western birthright. But it doesn’t have to be. For proof, look to Australia, a place with deep parallels to California and the West. Both California and Australia have desert cores and a temperate, urbanized edge. Both depend on complex plumbing to move their water: In fact, the pair of Canadian brothers who built some of California’s first irrigation systems in the late 1800s also helped engineer the water-delivery systems of Australia’s arid Murray-Darling Basin. Australia’s Big Dry, a decade-long drought that began around the start of this century, led at first to the same kind of political bickering heard recently in California. But after years of environmental destruction, urban water stress, and great suffering by many dryland farmers, Australian politicians—and farmers—took some serious risks. “At the peak of the drought, it became very apparent that the environment doesn’t lie,” says Mike Young, a professor at the University of Adelaide who was active in the country’s drought response. Australia reduced urban water use by investing billions in conser- vation, education, and efficiency improvements. SHASTA LAKE, CA Before the 602-foot-high Shasta Dam was completed in 1945, the pine and fir forests were logged. As the reservoir contracted this spring, tree stumps—some of which were preserved underwater for 60 years—were exposed.