The Times: Daily news from the L.A. Times

Let's blame someone for California's drought

Episode Summary

Southern California is facing unprecedented water restrictions in the face of the worst drought in 1,200 years. Our Masters of Disasters tell us who to blame.

Episode Notes

It’s barely spring in 2022 and California has already broken record heat and drought levels never before seen in 1,200 years. Major reservoirs across the American West are at record lows. Groundwater is drying up. It’s projected to get even worse in the upcoming summer months. Come June 1, millions of Southern Californians will have to learn how to live with the region’s most severe water restrictions ever.

So who can we blame? Today, our Masters of Disasters tell us. Read the transcript here. 

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times earthquake reporter Rong-Gong Lin II, L.A. Times wildfire reporter Alex Wigglesworth and L.A. Times breaking news reporter Hayley Smith

More reading:

A drought so bad it exposed a long-ago homicide. Getting the water back will be harder than ever

It’s not even summer, and California’s two largest reservoirs are at ‘critically low’ levels

Your lawn will suffer amid the megadrought. Save money and put it out of its misery

Episode Transcription

GA: This is a code red, folks.. It’s barely Spring in 2022 and we’ve already broken record heat and drought levels never before seen in twelve hundred  years. 

Major reservoirs across the American West are at record lows. 

Groundwater is drying up. It’s projected to get even worse in the upcoming summer months. 

And come June 1....millions of Southern Californians will have to learn how to live with the region’s most severe water restrictions ever. Fun times!  

 

BEAT drop 

I’m Gustavo Arellano. You’re listening to The Times: Daily news from the LA Times. It’s Friday, May 13, 2022. 

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GA: Today…tomorrow…forever…California is in a drought. Local governments are taking action with unprecedented water restrictions, which means you could be seeing browner lawns, dead trees and….shorter showers. Damn.  

It's times like these that we fall back on our monthly panel of peril, my colleagues of catastrophe, our own Marvel Cinematic Universe of environmental eternals, or avengers, or eternals or guardians of the groundwater or whatever. Yep, it's time for…

Masters of Disasters-s-s-s-s 

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GA: Sitting as always in the earthquake chair is Rong-Gong Lin II. And Ron. When you're not out covering, shaking on the ground, you've been pulled into drought coverage for God. How many years now? 

RL: 15 years. So, you know, for a couple of droughts now. 

GA: Oh, geez, that's like what, one mega megadrought, though so…// on the wildfire wing, as always, Alex Wigglesworth. Alex, if a tree burns in the forest, does it make a sound? 

AW: Definitely. It's pretty loud, actually. 

GA: Oh, that was supposed to be more of a mystery, but thank you. And our Cassandra of the coast, Rosanna Xia, off to get crowned as an honorary tern. So joining us this month is breaking news reporter Hailey Smith. Hailey, what's your most precious drought memory? 

HS: Well, I grew up in Miami, which is basically a place with too much water. So when I first got to Los Angeles during the last drought, I was so scared to waste even a drop that I was standing in cold showers instead of waiting for the water to heat up. And I feel like these days that might be a practice I need to revive. 

GA: So your job now is to create a canal from Miami right to Los Angeles. Can you do that? 

HS: I'll get to work on that.

GA: Awesome. Thank you so much. And thank you all, you masters, for joining us. And Haley, as the first timer here, you get the first question. So, much of Southern California is going to go through unprecedented water restrictions and that's saying something. So what are the proposals? 

HS: Yeah, this is huge news. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which is the largest drinking water supplier, not just in California, but in the whole United States, has basically announced that they don't have enough water from the state to get us through to the end of this year. 

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HS:  So in order to make what we have last, they're ordering about 6 million Southern Californians to immediately cut water use by 35%. It's the most severe cut they've ever asked for. Areas that rely on water from our other major source, the Colorado River are being spared for now, but that river is also dangerously low and we're getting warnings that similar reductions are on the table. 

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GA: Water. Water? Nowhere. Not a drop to spare, but how much water is the average person using in Southern California? 

HS: So the number does vary by area, but Metropolitan says on average, each person uses about 125 gallons of water a day. And we need to get that number to about 80 gallons per person per day. So // for some context, an old toilet uses about six gallons of flush. Newer models use about 1.3. 

GA: If it's brown, let it mellow….

HS: Some something like that. Ha. 

GA: Ron, you're not just our earthquake master, but you're like the old man of drought. So back in 2007, back in the days, you wrote an article where you talking to people throughout Southern California about that drought. And that year was the driest on record. That was 15 years ago. Did people take it as seriously then, too? 

RL: Yeah, I feel like people took it more seriously back then because in that drought from like 2007, we only got like three inches of rain that year in L.A. and we usually get 15. And it was so bad that like the butterflies were staying asleep and the oak trees weren't even sprouting acorns. Even the rattlesnakes were slithering, like, into houses, including the home of Sally Fields. He actually had to call a rattlesnake hustler to get the snack.// 

GA: They love her. They really love her. 

RL: But the reason why I think that people don't take it seriously is because there was a lot of rain in December in L.A., like nine inches of rain. But compare that to the last five-year drought between like 2011 and 2016, we never even got nine inches of rain like every rain year. So that felt a little bit more super apocalyptic than it does now. 

GA: So because of that, people just say there is no drought because it rained a lot. 

RL: Exactly. And I feel like as Californians, we have like super short attention spans. So if there's a time in the last few months where it felt like it rained a lot, it doesn't feel super real. And I feel like that's been kind of the problem with this drought. Like, I kind of knew reading-wise that we were in a drought for the last several years. In fact, we did an episode on this last year. But it was only really after we started talking about this for this episode that I realized, Oh crap, it really is historic in nature. That didn't really sit with me until basically the last couple of days. 

GA: That's how bad this drought is, folks. We did a drought week last year. We thought, okay, that's it, we're done with it. And here we are again. So scary. Scary times, Alex, all this dryness. It's great for wildfires, obviously, but what's scarier is that drought makes things hotter. And I know that kind of seems like duh, but it's not.

AW: Yeah. So drought can make temperatures hotter because there's less moisture in the soil to evaporate and carry away heat. The earth becomes kind of like a person who can't sweat. There's just no way for it to cool off. And then hotter temperatures can also worsen drought by causing more precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow, and by causing what snow does fall to melt more quickly and earlier in the year. So instead of providing this gradual source of moisture that trickles slowly down into the streams and reservoirs and keeps the vegetation wetter into the spring and early summer when we need it most, you have a situation where the water comes all at once and things green up and then dry out. Then when you add in hot, dry background conditions, more of the water will also absorb right back into the soil and into the atmosphere instead of making its way down into those streams and onto that vegetation. Conditions are only getting hotter over time due to greenhouse gas emissions driving up global temperatures. And all of that increases the risk of large fires in the spring and summer.

GA: So are you saying we should just put a bunch of five gallon Home Depot buckets on the Los Angeles River to just get all of that water? 

AW: Sure.

GA: Ron, save me here. 

RL: Yeah. I mean, it's totally not like I was looking at Lake Shasta, which is California's largest reservoir, and I was looking at how much water is in Lake Shasta at this time of year. And in my lifetime, based off of the data that I have on my screen, it's never been this low and it should be almost full because the winter is over and it should be full of rainwater. But it's really at like a severely low level. And if you look at like Lake Mead, it's at 30% of full capacity. This is the lake that's held up by Hoover Dam. 

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RL: And that Southern California relies on for a lot of its water is at its lowest level since it was filled in the thirties during the Great Depression. So stuff that I thought was apocalyptic and I thought would // never could happen in our previous droughts. It's actually happening this time. So it's pretty severe.

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GA: Apocalypse Now: now. We'll be back with our Disaster Masters after this break. 

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GA: So, Alex, should Californians expect even more fires this year because of the drought? 

AW: The short answer is yes. But there is one potential silver lining to the drought when it comes to fires. And this is only if you live in central and Southern California. More fires tend to be in grass and shrublands. Here are the worst fire seasons tend to happen when we get really big pulses of moisture that help new grasses grow, followed by periods of dryness that dry the grasses out. But we haven't had one of those big wet pulses since like 2019. So it's possible we won't have as active a fire year here because there's less vegetation to help the fires spread. The National Interagency Fire Center, which is the federal support center for wildfires, is actually predicting near-to-below normal fire activity in central and southern California this year. Now, in northern California, the picture is totally different. First of all, they've gotten more rain this year. That's helped the grasses grow. There's also more vegetation there in general. So fires are not typically limited by the amount of growth in a given year. So the federal forecasters are still calling for an above average fire year there, kind of along the lines of what we saw last year. There's also one thing that will play a big role in determining how this fire season shapes up that we don't know for sure at this point. That's whether it will get extreme heat waves. But as the planet warms due to climate change, this has become a lot more likely. So it's now not so much a question of will we get heat waves this summer, but just how severe, frequent and long lasting will they be? 

GA: It's more like when will we not be in heat waves anymore, sadly. Ron, I've asked you in the past if a lot of rain can drown earthquakes, and you said no. But how about the opposite? Can heat waves kill earthquakes? 

RL: Ha. No. But we could get an earthquake of shame if we play our cards right. So, like, one of the things that // I remember from the last major drought was how effective was the shame big drought wasters? So this happened in the Bay Area where one of the large water providers, they actually make public a list of hundreds of excessive water wasters pretty frequently. And it was pretty interesting to watch. I mean, you get corporate executives who are well known in the Bay Area who are wasting a lot of water. In Beverly Hills, the city disclosed letters to one of our colleagues about high water wasters and it ensnared property owners, including Amy Poehler and property owned by David Geffen

GA: Not Amy Poehler! 

RL: Exactly, but it seemed to work. And not all agencies do this like, the L.A. Department of Water Power in 2016 or so, didn't do this. But it works because there was a study by UCLA that actually point out that wealthier neighborhoods typically use three times more water than poor neighborhoods. 

GA: Of course. Of course. Of course. A horse is a horse. It looks like agencies, in fact, you're reporting on this, are now having to think of even more creative ways to conserve water than just shaming people. So what are some of the ideas floating around, not just in California, but throughout the American West?

HS: I like that you said floating around. It's a great question because we are not the only place in the world that's dealing with a water crisis thanks to climate change. And I think part of the problem is that so much of our water infrastructure in California was really built on the hydrology of the past 100 years. And that's just not the world that we live in anymore. So obviously, some of the immediate measures we're taking, like reducing outdoor watering, might help us get through the summer. But we really do need to start thinking long term about infrastructure, water recycling, conveyance and of course, conservation. So there are some really cool examples.//  Las Vegas, for example, has pretty much outlawed yards and is insisting on drought tolerant landscaping for pretty much everyone.  Israel, which is naturally a very water scarce country, is another example. They have invested heavily in wastewater recycling so that everything that goes down the drain pretty much gets recycled and reused. And desalination has also worked really well for Israel and in fact, provides about 80% of the country's drinking water. But desalination, as we know, is not without downsides, including some high energy costs and possible threats to marine life. So I don't see that being our only solution here. But I think one key takeaway is that most dry places that are working to adapt aren't focusing on a single approach. We sort of need an all of the above solution. And I do think that Los Angeles of the near future will need to look a lot more like Las Vegas or Phoenix, for example. 

GA: Ron, all these ideas that Haley just talked about, weren't they brought up before? 

RL: Yeah. Yeah. And I think the question is about mindset, right? // Do we go back to our old view of things like back in the eighties and nineties where Californians kind of thought of droughts as like a three year thing or a five year thing, and then we can get, quote unquote, “back to normal.” Or do we see this as like the new future? I mean, one of the things that happened when I've covered droughts before was this idea. And I remember people being really freaked out about it was this idea that, like, since the Hoover Dam was built, it's filled up only twice. And we were told back seven years ago that, do not expect Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam to ever fill back up in our lifetime. And I was thinking, no way, no way. But it really is becoming true when you get to the point of finding out that lake levels are getting so low that dead bodies and human body parts that haven't been around for years. 

GA: In a barrel. 

RL: Yeah. And they figured out the timing of the body based off of the clothes that the person had been wearing back then. To me, it's like it's super important that people realize that like this is the rest of our lifetime, this is for our kids and the grandkids. And I thought it was actually a big deal when someone from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California said, you know, we just can't afford lawns anymore. And we talked about this before. And I thought it was really interesting that, like, people are now getting their heads around this idea that, like, we can't afford purely ornamental lawns. Yeah, maybe it makes sense to water lawns that are being used for fields, for for recreation, but having row after row of lawns // on residential homes, that doesn't make any sense anymore. 

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GA:This is what's scariest to me. Whenever we talk about drought, I learned this from Mike Davis in Ecology of Fear, his prophetic book, What we say, is, quote unquote, normal rainfall in Southern California. It was done back what was in the 1880s when it was a historically wet year for California. It was far wetter than before. So we're basing our normal on an anomaly of what Southern California is supposed to be. And the only now are we realizing like, oops, maybe we shouldn't have a thought of a mega megalopolis around that water table, basically. 

RL: Yeah, definitely. Like California was never meant to sustain this many people. I mean, if you think about it, that California's water conveyance system is like a marvel of modern engineering, but it was always based off of this overly optimistic presumptions that it could last. And it clearly isn't. And not only do we have to figure out things on how to deal with // water use in the cities, but farmers have this this issue, like almond farmers, are going to have to figure out how do we figure out ways to save water in the future. And there are some things that they can't do. They can do things like micro irrigation rather than flooding fields. But that's something that they're going to really have to kind of grasp on to if that industry is going to survive.  

GA: Or better yet, don't grow almonds, grow pecans, pecans out of the desert. Not like almonds. But anyways. Question for everyone. Do you think people are really aware how bad this drought is going to be? Haley. 

HS: Yeah, I think, you know, as journalists, sometimes it is easy to forget that not everyone is thinking about these things all day, every day the same way we are. And I remember last week or a couple of days after Metropolitan made its big announcement about the water cuts, I met up with some friends and I was like, Oh, crazy news about these water cuts, huh? And they were like, What are you talking about? 

GA: Was this that raging water? 

HS: Yeah. As we went down the water slide, they were like, What water got? So I do think that messaging is going to be key here. And I also think there is a bit of disaster fatigue. I mean, we've got war in Ukraine, we've got Roe v Wade, we've got inflation. We have a global pandemic, by the way, and there's a drought. So it is a lot for people to deal with. 

GA: Ron Alex, what do you folks think? 

RL: I mean, I cover the pandemic too, and the drought wasn't really real for me until like super recently…

GA: Until you got assigned a story. 

RL: Exactly. Until I was sitting down preparing for this podcast. [00:17:59][3.3]

GA:Alex?

AW:  Yeah. I will be the contrarian on this one just because that's kind of my thing. I just think it depends on who you talk to. If you talk to firefighters, fire officials, people who are living in areas affected by a fire, these are people who are acutely aware of the drought, whether their homes are burned down or having to evacuate summer after summer. They're like choking on horrible air for months at a time. They’re out fighting like massive fires during a season that's now lasting the majority of the year. When you're living under those types of circumstances, I think it's hard to ignore. So I just I think it depends on, you know, kind of where you are, to some extent. 

GA: So who do we blame for all this wasted water, all this wasted opportunity, frankly, where we knew a day like this was going to come? Do we blame lawns? Do we blame almond trees? Do we blame Loki? Thanos. Ron, help me. Who? 

RL: I love how you blamed everybody. Everything else except for us. 

GA: I mean….us? Never us. 

RL: I know this is like a state that built its capital city, Sacramento, on the confluence of two rivers and was like, Oh, maybe it's a bad idea to build a city right next to places that flood all the time. I mean, it's kind of nuts how we don't really think about what California was designed for. 

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RL:  We have to get around the idea that, like, California was never meant to hold this many people. We created this ridiculously complicated aqueduct system that literally crosses mountains and desert for hundreds of miles. Only now are we really realizing that stealing water from elsewhere. I mean, it just kind of shows that the jig is up. 

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GA: We'll be right back. 

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GA: And now comes our traditional ending to Masters of Disaster, where we ask our masters what's bringing them joy in these trying times. So, Ron, let's start with you. What's bringing you joy right now? 

RL: It's something that will bring you joy too…it’s loquats. 

GA: But nobody eats loquats…

RL: Nobody, nobody except for me and like many other Californians, like the loquat tree at my in-laws house is amazing. And this year we were prepared for it. Every year I always forget it until, like, it's already bursting and the season's halfway over. So this year I'm like, May is the time. And so we created all these things. And just just the other day we created a loquat cake, and then we'll try out some more local recipes. 

GA: You got to go Snorlax on that, man. Alex, what's bringing you Joy? 

AW: So, as you guys know, I recently moved out to the high desert. And one thing I love about it out here is that there's a lot of art in unexpected places. I was driving home the other day. I randomly came across a place called Sun Vale Village. It's like a giant installation of basically discarded toys. They call it a community for the small. They all have, like, characters, like back stories, custom built little homesteads. It's really cool. It definitely gave me a lot of joy. 

GA: Ooh, cool toys. And Hailey, our apprentice master. What's bringing you joy right now? 

HS: Well, as Ron mentioned, I think all these bodies being exposed by dwindling reservoirs is sort of hopeful that we might solve some old cold cases.

GA: Oh, damn.

HS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. On a more personal level, it got, like, slightly cold over the weekend, and I realize it's probably the last we're going to get. So I made some vegetarian chili, which I have been eating the last three days, and it's gotten me through. 

GA: Mm hmm. Vegetarian chili is very, very good. That's very joyful.

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HS: Mm hmm. 

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GA: Hayley Smith, Ron Lin, Alex Wigglesworth, thank you so much for being on this episode of Masters of Disaster, Zaza. Thank you. 

AW/HS: Thanks. 

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GA: Ron. Say thank you.

RL: Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. 

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And: And that’s it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times

Shannon Lin was the jefa of this episode.

She’s a senior producer, along with Denise Guerra, and Kasia Brousalian. David Toledo, Ashlea Brown and Angel Carreras are producers. 

Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

And hey, The Times and KCRW are  co-hosting a debate with some of the top LA mayoral candidates later this month. It’s focused on homelessness. What questions do you want me to ask them? Call or text ‪(619) 800-0717‬ with your questions. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.

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SFX- Sprinklers at the park