Trump is Correct about the California Drought

On Friday, May 27, the prospective Republican candidate for president Donald Trump went to the city of Fresno, the capital of California’s farming community, and declared: “there is no drought!”

This seemingly brash statement was met with ridicule and scorn across the blogosphere -- how could anyone make such a so-called “stupid” statement when everyone knows that California has experienced a historically high dry spell since 2013? But was Trump right? Arguably yes. Here’s why.

Historically, California has a mega Wet Year once about every ten years with mini Wet Years in between. So four out of five years, or as much as eight out of every ten years, are Dry Years where reservoirs aren’t filling up enough and groundwater basins aren’t being recharged enough, except by the runoff from farmer’s fields and by recycling in urban areas. The mega Wet Years are those when California refills its reservoirs and groundwater basins to be drawn down over the next five or ten years depending on the rainfall and snowfall cycle. It is normal for reservoir levels to be dropping and for groundwater basins to be “overdrafted” until they are replenished by a deluge and floods. 

To put this into words instead of numbers, “drought” is normal in California and Wet Years are abnormal, unlike most other states. Drought implies an emergency condition that is abnormal. But it isn’t. It is the “norm” because it is what is experienced in most years.

So Trump is right that there is no California drought, although there has been a hot spell and a man-made water shortage from failure of government to plan for “normal” drought.

Does California System Water Flow to the Ocean?

At his rally in Fresno, Trump stated the simple solution to California’s water problems was to “start opening up the water so that you can have your farmers survive… We’re going to solve your water problem. You have a water problem that is so insane. It is so ridiculous where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to the sea” in order “to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish” said Trump. In short, Trump’s water policy is the same as his energy policy: pump oil, gas and water or open the reservoir spillways and let water gravity flow to farmers.

Even the California Department of Water Resources officially states:

“Ultimately, about a third of the dedicated supply flows out to the Pacific Ocean, in part to meet environmental requirements, or to other salt sinks” (Salton Sea, the old Alkali Sink in Bakersfield, the former Tulare Lake in Southern Central Valley).

Average water use in California is about 82.5 million acre-feet of water per year (An acre-foot of water is an acre of land one foot high in water). One third would be 27.22 million acre-feet of water. This would be enough to supply about 54 million households per year or about 9,073,333 land acres of farmland. To put this in Trumpian perspective, there were only 12,617,280 households in California as of 2014 and 7,214,130-acres of farmland.

Again, Trump is vindicated. California allows one third of its system water to escape to the ocean to protect fish.

Trump Implied Something “Fishy” About Drought

A 2008 study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) estimated that California has a supply-demand deficit of 2.28-million acre-feet of water in a normal water year. In other words, California reservoirs were in a structural, not cyclical, water deficit even before the 2012-2015 “drought”. Newspaper reporters, academics, and water policy wonks have blamed the drought on the depletion of groundwater supplies mainly by agriculture and rich cities. But farmers had record gross sales of agricultural products in 2015 and Central Valley groundwater doesn’t and can’t supply big coastal cities.

To big newspapers it was wealthy cities such as Beverly Hills, Newport Beach, Palm Springs, Solano Beach, and wealthy avocado ranchers in Rancho Santa Fe that soak up all the urban water supplies. But all those cities only use a puny 33,675 acre-feet of imported water from Northern California or the Colorado River each year. Conversely, the Big Blue coastal cities of Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, San Diego, Fresno, San Francisco, Irvine and Oakland-Richmond use 2,135,707 acre-feet, or 695.9 billion gallons, of imported water per year. In other words, the entire structural water deficit is due to water use by big coastal cities, not agriculture or small wealthy cities.

Trump mentioned that too much water is allowed to flow out to the ocean to protect fish runs instead of being conserved as one of the culprits causing shortage. But he should have added that, by definition, where there is water shortage is with big city imported water. Today big city and environmental water use comprises 57 percent of the total average system water deficit and agriculture only 43 percent. By 2030, the BOR projects that agricultural water use will shrink to 12 percent and urban and environmental water usage will swell to 88 percent of the water demand deficit.

For all his seeming bluster and bravado, Trump is right that there is “no drought”, although there is a man-made water shortage and heat wave, and implies that there is something “fishy” about the “drought”. However, don’t expect him to get any credit for it on any fact check website.

Wayne Lusvardi worked for California’s largest urban water agency for 20 years and was former water policy analyst/writer for the Pacific Research Institute and Email: