Review: The West Without Water (Edited)

I was in Mendocino at the Gallery Bookshop when I spotted The West Without Water by B. Lynn Ingram and Francis Malamud-Roam on a shelf reserved for environmental books, one of the larger categories in this excellent book shop in liberal land on the coast. According to the book flap information on Amazon:

The West Without Water documents the tumultuous climate of the American west over twenty millennia, with tales of past droughts and deluges and predictions about the impacts of future climate change on water resources. Looking at the region’s current water crisis from the perspective of its climate history, the authors ask the central question of what is “normal” climate for the West, and whether the relatively benign climate of the past century will continue into the future.

The West without Water merges climate and paleoclimate research from a wide variety of sources as it introduces readers to key discoveries in cracking the secrets of the region’s climatic past. It demonstrates that extended droughts and catastrophic floods have plagued the West with regularity over the past two millennia and recounts the most disastrous flood in the history of California and the West, which occurred in 1861–62. The authors show that, while the West may have temporarily buffered itself from such harsh climatic swings by creating artificial environments and human landscapes, our modern civilization may be ill-prepared for the future climate changes that are predicted to beset the region. They warn that it is time to face the realities of the past and prepare for a future in which fresh water may be less reliable.

This is a very interesting book that provided some climate history that I was unfamiliar, with especially the 1861-62 flood in the Central Valley. I thought is was just in Sacramento, but it was the whole valley,  filled like a bathtub 10 feet deep. Records spanning the last 2000 years indicate these huge floods happened once or twice per century. We may be close to a major flood event in the near future, according to the cyclical record.  These flood events were more prevalent during cold periods, like the Little Ice Age. And, we are on the cusp of the next grand minimum, an extended cooling period according to leading solar scientists. 

The central message of the book is that we are not taking advantage of history in planning our water future in the West.  According to the authors, the last 150 years in the West have been living in a climate aberration, avoiding the historical droughts that have lasted several decades. These long droughts have occurred about every 50-90 years over the past two millennia. In the past 150 years the longest drought was 6 years long. So far the West has avoided these 20-30 year long droughts. It is not clear why, but the authors think that there is more warming in our future, based on the NASA Climate Models and California Climate Change Assessments. More drought on the horizon is their forecast. 

My problems started when the authors kept making sly references to anthropogenic global warming in early chapters. I attributed these early references to an academic disease, the need to pay homage to the gods of climate change in academic papers and books. A necessary homage for all academic grant seekers. However, when the authors made direct reference to discredited climate models to forecast our future in California, I was more disturbed, scribbling BS in the margins with my red pen. 

If the authors were willing to buy in to this modeling bad science, how bad was all their science in the previous chapters?  Was it also tainted by orthodoxy to some religious cult of bad science, or was the science presented credible? Were the authors jiggering the numbers to make their case for catastrophic droughts and floods?  Sea level rise is not increasing, the number of forest fires is not increasing, snow pack decline is not exceeding normal variability over the past 100 years according to a study by Dr John Christy, who used the raw data collected by observers.

It was impossible to ignore the bad science when the author started using down scaled general circulation model results to forecast the state’s future warming climate. The problem with downscaled global general circulation models (GCM) is the input assumptions about the future level of greenhouse gas emissions. These assumptions add to the uncertainty inherent in NASA climate models, which is compounded by the downscaling, as a result uncertainty cascades through each modeling stage.

Here is a graphic representation of the compounding uncertainty.

uncertainty in regional models

If you start with a flawed GCM that is unable to backcast or forecast the current climate, and add more and more uncertainty by downscaling, scientist end up with an unreliable and misleading tool. No where in the book is this uncertainty mentioned, the authors accept the models output at face value, and present it to their readers without perspective or warning of the uncertainty. This is not science, it is propaganda. 

That said, there were some interesting facts on the climate in California during the last grand minimum, the Little Ice Age. These conditions could be repeated in the future as, we live in a world of cycles. And, we appear to be on the cusp of another grand minimum according to solar scientists.  The real issue for current readers is that these changes are going to take place over several generations, unless we have some violent volcanic eruptions, or a large meteor impact.  Many readers will not be around to experience the next great cold period, the resulting droughts and floods.  

Over the next 20 years weather will slowly change starting with a series of cold storms, with each winter bringing more cold storms as the snow pack grows thicker and thicker each year. Some of the storms will originate in the tropical regions bringing warm storms with copious amounts of rain that melts the heavy snow pack, creating raging streams and rivers that turn the Central Valley into an inland sea. Multiple proxy records show this has happened multiple times, most recently about 150 years ago in 1861-62. Marsh sediment records show that it happened in AD 1100, twice around AD 1400 and again in 1650 during the Little Ice Age. These incidents dwarfed the 1861-62 event, according to the authors.

The evidence points to a 200-year recurring interval of floods as large or larger than the 1861-62 event, when the water covered the basements and first floors in down town Sacramento, resulting in Capital buildings being raised 11 feet, to protect against the next flood. Flood control dams were build to control the raging waters, but in the author’s assessment, these will not be enough to protect valley dwellers against a mega-flood like those found in the paleontological records over the last 800 years.

Sacramento water planners and political leaders are planning for extended global warming and more drought, when the gravest danger is going to be flooding, mixed with multi-year droughts caused by the colder climate and the Pacific oscillating between warm and cold phases, with La Niña and El Niño events superimposed on the larger cooling trend. The result in the past has been multiple warm and cold extreme events. 

The bottom line message in the historical record is that over the last 150 years we have been living in an unusual period of stable climate extremes, and our world is about to change, more long-term droughts and more mega-floods. And, we are not prepared for either. 

I recommend the book to all serious thinkers, especially Central Valley residents. California Indians did not build permanent villages in the valley.  Just avoid the anthropogenic modeling bad science and take note of the historical climate record. We live in a chaotic world where change is constant, prepare for it. 

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Author: Russ Steele

Freelance writer and climate change blogger. Russ spent twenty years in the Air Force as a navigator specializing in electronics warfare and digital systems. After his service he was employed for sixteen years as concept developer for TRW, an aerospace and automotive company, and then was CEO of a non-profit Internet provider for 18 months. Russ's articles have appeared in Comstock's Business, Capitol Journal, Trailer Life, Monitoring Times, and Idaho Magazine.

8 thoughts on “Review: The West Without Water (Edited)”

  1. What is this garbage about ‘liberal land’. The labels liberal and conservative are nonsensical rubbish. The average Californian doesn’t think, only excretes. You can not recommend a book to residences, maybe residents. Lose your brain dead political bias or don’t expect to be taken seriously. By the way, sea level will rise 25 feet by 2040. Put that in your pipe and choke on it.

    1. Dear Professor Xavier. Sorry of I touched your hot button. We have a long experience with the lovely liberal folks in Mendocino. I am proud to be called a conservative and support my views. Why would a liberal object to being known as a liberal?

      Speaking of views, perhaps you would like to support your claim of sea level rise of 25 feet by 2040 with some facts we can discuss. Where do you get your information, you are claiming about a foot a year, starting this year. The current rise is in tenths of an inch per year. What is going to change?

    2. You had me rooting you on like a sports fan in the bleachers until the second to the last sentence. I loved the comment claiming sea level will rise 25 feet by the year 2040. If that is true, it will have to happen on a parabolic curve (lacking an exact word or phrase to describe it). In other words, it may rise an inch this year, two inches next year, four inches the following year, that sort of thing (until reaching a total rise of 25 feet by the year 2040). Such a cascading effect in sea level rise is possible. However, I think that estimate is somewhat aggressive. I’ve heard estimates it will rise 10-15 feet by the year 2100, or something like that. It’s catastrophic but not apocalyptic (at least, not for our generation — we will likely get off the hook and leave the next generation holding the bag).

  2. Interesting. Didn’t know about the level of flooding experienced in the 1860’s. If California enters another mega-drought, it will fundamentally change life in this state. In 2011, snowpack statewide was 190% of normal. Since then its been 39%, 17%, 18% respectively. (18% currently but that may change.) If we have, say, two more years of 18%, then we have a full blown crisis. If the Central Valley is again allocated zero water for agriculture… (agriculture currently uses 70% of state water)… then that massive industry will start to collapse, taking whole regional economies with it. Additional water storage must be built as quickly as possible and, hopefully, an intervening wet year will allow enough capture to moderate drought effects. With tremendous national differences in precipitation, will we get to the point of needing a national water system like our national highway system? We always eventually come out of these droughts but the massive growth in population and water consumption means a decade long drought is not survivable. In that event, an established pipe delivery system from the east may be our only hope, along with coastal desal facilities. If I was considering buying a home in California, I would wait at least two years before making a decision.

    Note: my snowpack statistics were taken from a drought discussion I either watched on TV or a podcast. Don’t recall but I remember the interviewees were credible.

    1. Fuzz

      I agree we need to add water storage capacity. California has had multiple long period droughts. Most recent was in the 1980s a six year drought period. But, as the book authors recount, we have had much longer periods of drought. We may be on the cusp of a El Niño, which should bring more moisture to the state, with a cool PDO we should get some more snow pack. That said, the El Niño could turn out to be total bust. Keep an eye on Bob Tisdale’s posts at Watts Up With That, he seems to be the expert worth watching.

      On the capacity issue, we keep adding tolet flushers to the population, but do not add any water storage capacity. Conservation can only go so far, someday the facet will be dry.

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