Been There, Done That, Survived and Got the Patch – California and Drought

My take – Nature’s Past reveals that Nature’s natural cycles in California in the first millennium, unaffected by significant man made pollution were worse than our greatest fears about man made global warming. To me, these two articles are an example of the problems with an environmental viewpoint that doesn’t consider all of the tradeoffs when setting forest policy.

1) Scientists: Past California droughts have lasted 200 years – From MSN News

Some selected Quotes:

“Through studies of tree rings, sediment and other natural evidence, researchers have documented multiple droughts in California that lasted 10 or 20 years in a row during the past 1,000 years — compared to the mere three-year duration of the current dry spell. The two most severe megadroughts make the Dust Bowl of the 1930s look tame: a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years.” AND “The longest droughts of the 20th century, what Californians think of as severe, occurred from 1987 to 1992 and from 1928 to 1934. Both, Stine said, are minor compared to the ancient droughts of 850 to 1090 and 1140 to 1320.”

“”We continue to run California as if the longest drought we are ever going to encounter is about seven years,” said Scott Stine, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Cal State East Bay. “We’re living in a dream world.””

“the past century has been among the wettest of the last 7,000 years”

“Although many Californians think that population growth is the main driver of water demand statewide, it actually is agriculture”

“”I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point here where you turn on the tap and air comes out,” he said.”

2) An interesting post on the California drought and the need for better forest management in the form of reducing fuels – from the San Jose Mercury News

Some selected Quotes:

“In contrast, better forest management can reduce wildfire intensity and help to safeguard water quality. Ecologically based forest management may also increase water yield by thinning overly dense forests, thereby reducing the utilization of water by small trees and allowing more snow (and snowmelt) to reach the ground.”

“we must address the importance of California’s forested headwaters in securing and enhancing California’s water supply.

This includes the need to increase the pace and scale of fuels reduction in these forests as an important part of the state’s water strategy.”


  1. Sharon:

    I don’t know if this information is accurate or not, but it is exactly why I think we need to better document the past before making plans for the future. So far, all of the fire “regime” and “return interval” models I’ve looked at seem to be foolish and generally misguided when compared to actual documentation. A few hundred tree ring samples here and there — coupled with generally biased and usually unstated assumptions during analysis — have not created a particularly insightful or very accurate dataset in regards to actual fire history; they have, however, given us a fairly good insight into past vegetation patterns and growing seasons, which is very important information, in my opinion.

    From my perspective, this is the critical information that is needed for “climate change” considerations when it comes to forest planning — we already have enough billion-dollar failures when it comes to our agency and university “predictive models.” Actual facts are what is needed for reliable planning, not just more government-funded projections and sideshows. In my opinion.

  2. Yes, there still are people out there wanting a reduction, or an outright elimination of the Forest Service’s timber sale program. Some would like us to return to the Clinton version of the Sierra Nevada Framework, where all trees over 19.9″ dbh are off limits to cutting, as well as limiting harvest, in some areas, to trees between 10.0″ and 12″ dbh. That plan had reduced timber volumes to 1/30th of prior harvest levels. I am very sure that people are still pursuing these ultra-low levels of management.

    We’ll see how much soil is moving when the rains end, for now. However, we are seeing on TV the results of heavy rains on burned lands. Yet another example of “whatever happens”. Yes, we KNOW how to reduce wildfire acreage and intensity but, it seems that some people just don’t care about all the impacts that go along with “letting nature take its course”.

  3. Yes, I agree that we need to learn from the past, and know what happened before we Europeans swooshed onto the screen. Interesting that this past history in terms of climate is often most successfully viewed through tree ring analysis of large, old trees. Just think…if the native Americans had been successful in burning all those “ancient old-growth” trees, we would have no historical record to view. So old, old-growth does have some value!
    I can see the day that there will be renewed efforts to minimize forest cover in select watersheds to maximize water runoff, for downstream users. An easy tradeoff for many Californians…less trees and wood for more water. We can always import our wood needs from Canada, eh?
    And for those who think “thin,thin,thin” is the answer to almost all forest issues, don’t forget that in much of the mountain west this thinning can’t be done without more,more,more road access. And I hope we all can agree that in many steep, thin soil situations more roads will (not might, but will) negatively impact water quality. Maybe more water but also more sediment and other crud. There is always a tradeoff.

    • Here in California, Ed, we have been strictly thinning for the last 20 years without building new roads. There is no need to build roads here. We’ve made our trade-offs and while it hasn’t worked out perfectly, we have avoided many of the wildlife issues that are common in other parts of the country. Canada is converting some of their mills to metric, in order to export to countries other than the US. Besides, what good is it to import wood from other countries where environmental standards are much lower than on Forest Service lands? Although there is a water quantity benefit to intensive forest management, the extra water cannot be worth the extra impacts. However, large wildfires like the Rim Fire do supply more dirty water and sediment to our reservoirs. Remember, decomposed granite is very highly erodible, and is very common in the Tuolumne River watershed. Highway 120, through the fire, is notorious for its mudslides. It will take long term management and money to coax long-lived forests back into this area. I think the recent thinning project done in plantations within the Rim Fire will show that it did mitigate burn intensity and mortality.

  4. California has not had enough water to support is ambitions for over 100 years. Agriculture is very important to the nation and the state, however, there are a number of crops that bear consideration for a revision. Take rice for example. Two billion tons annually, second only to Arkansas. Arkansas has a very different weather regime and water supplies. Alfalfa is another crop worth review. Cutting trees to increase run-off is dangerous at the least. It would pay California double to consider reviewing what crops are the highest value for the high price of water. Then again, a drought cycle is a natural occurrence and robbing Peter to pay Paul is neither efficient or sustainable. The market has to bend because the nature of climate will never lend itself to our economic theories.

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