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Patt Morrison: A brief history of drought in California




Dry cracked earth is visible on the banks of Shasta Lake at Bailey Cove Aug. 31, 2014 in Lakehead, California. As the severe drought in California continues for a third straight year, water levels in the State's lakes and reservoirs are reaching historic lows.
Dry cracked earth is visible on the banks of Shasta Lake at Bailey Cove Aug. 31, 2014 in Lakehead, California. As the severe drought in California continues for a third straight year, water levels in the State's lakes and reservoirs are reaching historic lows.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Sure, it's an easy phrase to bandy about — "historic drought." But what, exactly, does it mean? Historic, like the Dodgers 1988 World Series win? Or historic, like the drought that up-ended California's economy in the midst of the Civil War?  

If you read the tree rings for the story of our great thirsts, California is on its way to its driest year since Sir Francis Drake was on his way home to England from a trip around the world.

That was 434 years ago, on a voyage where Drake had made landfall on the California coast. Maybe he left because he was thirsty.

The worst drought within modern memory hit during the Civil War. It ruined what was left of the great Californio rancho economy, the vast grazing herds of cattle and sheep. Rain fell at a fraction of its normal levels.

A man who signed his name "Hidalgo" recalled it when he wrote to the Los Angeles Times in 1897:

The rainfall was but nine inches in Humboldt County, which usually has from 26 to 32 inches ... south of San Francisco Bay, it was well below six inches. The writer can well recall the sorrowful effect it had on him, riding through Monterey and San Benito counties, to see the shepherds slaughtering the lambs, throwing them into piles of 70 or 80 and then setting fire to them, in order to save the ewes from being suckled to death .... In the streets of Los Angeles, steers were sold as low as $5, and cows for less. That was better than slaughtering them for their hides and horns and leaving the carcasses to rot.

Californians wrote in with stories of entire herds of mares being driven into the sea to drown. Massive livestock slaughters. And in the thick of the drought, in May 1864, William Brewer, a botanist working on California's first geological survey, wrote this:

We came upon the San Jose Valley ... the air scorching and dusty. The drought is terrible. In this fertile valley there will not be over a quarter crop, and during the past four days' ride we have seen dead cattle by the hundreds ... The hills are terribly dry, totally bare of forage.

So, barely a dozen years after California became a state, the place that had yielded gold nuggets turned off the tap on the rain that put gold in the pockets of farmers and ranchers.

It has happened again and again — water, cheap and plentiful, and then not there at all, a fickle landscape that would seduce you and enrich you and then ruin you.

Mark Twain was a newspaperman in the Bay Area during the drought of the 1860s, and to him is credited the pithiest of all sayings about our relationship with water: that here, whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting over.

Alas, UC Berkeley's authoritative Twain collection has never turned up evidence that Twain ever wrote or said any such thing.

But that doesn't change the truth of it. And it goes a long way to explain why, in spite of temperate and pleasant days, in spite of irrigation canals and manmade waterways and reservoirs, in spite of the mockery of late-night comedians, we still read and watch and listen for the weather reports every day, with that deeply historical anxiety that it will happen all over again.