Liberty Chronicles

The Definition of a Drought

How can California be in both a Drought crises and a Flood crises at the same time?

By Ed McKervey
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Low River

It was fascinating to attend the city council meeting last week on March 21st where our elected officials voted on two separate crises declarations on the subject of water. The 14th item on the agenda was extending the multi year drought crisis, which enables the city to force conservation measures, sometimes by imposable fines. The second water item on the agenda was a special item pertaining to the flood crisis. Imagine that. A single meeting with two opposite water issues voted on affirmatively that we are in both a drought and a flood crisis at the same time. Go figure. Ironically when you stop to realize the scope of this, our city through crisis can fine you for using water that you paid for if you do not use it the way they tell you to. This is not only unethical but an egregious overreach of power when you consider that we have consistently exceeded our conservation efforts by double digits as a community. 

Interestingly enough the recent testing of our flood control dam and our river capacity may have been a direct result of our myopic behavior of managing to a drought and not looking up at the reality of more than 200 percent snow pack on a fire devastated drainage that places us squarely against an extreme flood risk. It looks to most like managing to a drought led us to some very poor decisions about how to use our flood control dam. It wasn’t until after the flooding that we woke up from our slumber and started to realize how severe the issue was. We quickly went from flood control to flood management as many were impacted and many more will be as the water moves downstream and begins to form Tulare Lake in its natural position at the low point in the valley. For those of us that have been around a while this was expected. We have learned in living here that this is normal in flood years, despite all of our dams, if you know anything about the history of our area. Normal weather in the south valley is relentlessly variable between the extremes of flood and drought.  In fact we need to be wary in the weeks and months ahead as we continue to get more snow this week and wet weather in our forecast with all of our lakes nearly full at this time.

The releases from all four dams in our water control district (Schafer, Kaweah, Isabella & Pine Flat) was the same leading up to the flood.  Minimal release and water storage. I can’t imagine why we would be storing water in the face of one of wettest years we have ever seen. Managing to a drought in the face of a flood is a bad idea and increases the flood risk across the board. It looks like sustainable water policies may have helped to lead our “Water Masters” to manage to a drought in flood conditions.  Our city was threatened with destruction and our river surged to about 11,000 CFS almost 4x what was previously thought was the limitation of this waterway. This because we were managing to a drought and water was coming over the spillway uncontrolled.

There are many questions remaining about how that all happened especially the question about the water releases prior to the major flood events on March 10th and then again on March 14th. On March 10th severe flooding above the lake that saw more than 40,000 CFS flow through Springville which became the inflow to our flood control dam recently renamed Shafer Dam.  The inflow to the lake was 4x Times what we saw in the river in the city the following week and filled the lake in roughly 36 hours. Many questions remain about the outflows from our Schafer Dam at below 500 CFS leading up to the warn storm and only in the 2000 CFS range leading up to storm #2 that tested the spillway before its completion and tested the capacity of our Lake and our river. Thank goodness that Second Storm did not dump as forecast, we prayed for rain and we got more than we bargained for.

This brings me to the title of this piece.  Are we in a drought?  The definition of a drought comes in two forms from what I can glean from the official definitions and documents.  The first definition is “meteorological drought” this is the definition most of us are familiar with as it pertains to rainfall.  The definition is simply variations from what is considered average or normal rainfall. This is very interesting because we live in a drought-flood climate called California. Our normal climate is one of extreme and relentless variability of rainfall over time.  Something that we all know that live here, and for generations have known in the past. If you zoom out and look at 100 year weather patterns the swing between drought and flood is consistent and normal. In other words the normal is extreme and relentless variability makes plain our definition of drought is non specific and agenda driven. So to say we are in a drought and a flood at the same time might help us understand more clearly that there are many definitions of drought and how they are used.  How to balance this against reality becomes the question. Do we trust the sensational media that loves to report on crisis? Do we trust the actions of those trying to tame the extreme variable weather using averages and spreadsheets and artificial intelligence?  BTW I prefer REAL intelligence over artificial all day every day, and twice on Sunday. 

The second form of drought that is not top of mind is “socioeconomic drought”. This is the real drought that folks are enduring.  This is the drought that seeks to make the relentless variability of our weather out to be average when it is not.  This is the new “Sustainability” approach that seeks to control the weather so it fits nicely in a spreadsheet for the new water banking system. The hubris of man to think they can control nature rears its ugly head yet again. The socioeconomic drought is man made.  We have turned water into a currency and it is making things worse not better.  We might call this new currency, wielded by the powerful, a crypto currency.  Quite simply we can state water banks are not backed by the FDIC and the people have to bail out the water banks through rationing and higher prices from water inflation through water meters coming soon.  Simply put water banks leak. We face many crises in our day we can see that most of them are man made and the solutions only seem to go in one direction. 

What did we expect would happen after we drained the natural lakes (wetlands), dammed the rivers and monetized the water?  The craziest part of water banking to me is that there is no distinction between slow water that feeds the aquifer (GOOD) and fast water that moves past the alluvial inlets in flood conditions. This leads to exporting our water in flood years while it provides water credits to folks with shares to pump from our receding aquifer in dry years. This is a “double dip” from our aquifer and further into the socioeconomic drought also known as sustainable water policy.  Lastly one of the new programmed “Solutions” presented by the “Water Masters” is to limit more of your water consumption and make more money from it through “Smart Meters.” Smart meters will raise the cost of water for individuals and do nothing to solve the wider problem of this man made disaster in the making. Bottom Line we use more water than the Good Lord Provides and force those that need it most, to pay more for it in this forever drought.  Socioeconomic drought is the definition we need to learn if we are going to face this issue head on where scarcity & sustainability will rule us through socioeconomic drought policy evermore.


This article was originally published in the Porterville Recorder's March 29th, 2023 Edition.

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Ed McKervey

Liberty Chronicles presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of the editors, Blessings of Liberty, or its Board of Directors.

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