Creating social change,  Designing edible landscapes,  water wisdom

Multi-year drought, megadrought or Aridification

We’re in a drought. This year, aside from one atmospheric river for one week around the holidays and perhaps a brief storm that could deliver some water this week, it hasn’t rained any measurable rainfall.

That means our gardens are dry, and our soils are going hydrophobic, not only in our gardens, but also in the mountains that surround our city. This is going on throughout the Western states, which means the problem extends to farmland that feeds much of the nation. But for purposes of this post I’m going to stick with a local, urban perspective.

When we say “drought,” that’s a really lightweight term for what we’re experiencing. We should really be using far stronger terms. A multi-year drought? A megadrought? Aridification? Let’s consider the differences.

A multi-year drought sounds kind of long, like it’s been going on for a while (which it has). This term drives home the message that we’d better conserve, tighten our belts and all that. We need to make a little water go further.

A megadrought sounds like it’s big, perhaps over a wide area – which it is, it’s over the entirety of the Western states. When we use the term megadrought, it makes sense that we can’t rely on piping in more water, because that means taking from our regional neighbors, and they don’t have any either.

Aridification is the term science is now using. It means changing toward arid, a permanent state – as in, the-rest-of-our-lifetimes permanent.

Let that sink in.

If we happen to get a wetter year sometime in the future, that’ll be an extraordinary and very precious thing, rather than some return to “normal average rainfall of 16 inches” (City of Los Angeles, per Google). Right now we need to be redefining what “average rainfall” is for our area. From my amateur analysis, what we consider our new “average” should probably be about 5 inches. Which puts a very different perspective on a water year like 2021-2022.

Terminology makes a difference, because each of these descriptions points toward a different set of solutions.

If we’re in a multi-year drought, it sounds like it’s time for conservation. All that shorter showers stuff, turn off the faucet when you’re brushing your teeth. In your landscape, it’s time to let your lawn brown out. It’s time to switch your vegetable garden over to water-wise techniques. Remember to water your trees. It makes sense to place limitations, such as “irrigate only on your day.”

The thing about calling it a “multi-year drought” is that makes it sound like it’s only for a little while longer, so replumbing the place and relandscaping the yard don’t make sense.

If we’re in a megadrought, that means hang on tight, it could be a long ride until it’s over. It’s time for larger-scale adaptation.

Investing in drip irrigation and a few rain barrels begin to start to sound like smart projects. Any lawn at all is not very wise. It makes sense to hike water rates, to use tiered billing and dramatically increase the top tiers. Socially, verdant green becomes an indicator: this house here is a water hog.

It makes sense to take advantage of those rebates and overhaul your garden so that the entirety is designed for low-water. If you’re going to have a vegetable garden, let it be a small sunken-bed patch of intensively planted vegetables. Meanwhile, plant lots of local natives to repair the decimated ecosystem and support wildlife.

Policies in a multi-year drought should include split metering for indoor versus outdoor, meaningful water labeling on appliances, incentives for apartment dwellers to slash water use, and boosting all the incentive programs for lawn removal, weather timers, etc.

“I wish we wouldn’t say drought because this is climate change. Drought actually ends. And we’re continually seeing these extremes of drier and drier years,” commented Connor Everts, executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance. “And if we don’t account for that on a long-term basis, we’re going to continue to have these discussions.”

as quoted in the L.A. Times, May 24, 2022

If we’re talking aridification, we’re on another level entirely: Mourn the way it once was, say goodbye to deep green and get over it, it ain’t that way anymore.

With aridification, we’re talking all lawns should be illegal. No more garden plants from England, Ireland, New England – in fact, ban them from the nurseries. Instead, look to Phoenix, Tucson, Israel, arid parts of Mexico and India. If you plant any vegetables, they better be in sunken beds, with mulch, and plant only those varieties that were developed for the desert Southwest.

This goes far deeper than a “low water” tag on a nursery plant. In the same way that we understand chill hours regarding fruit trees (it doesn’t make sense to plant a tree that expects 400 hours/yr below 40 degrees when we only get 150-200 hours/yr), we need a new understanding about what to plant. We need to plant only those plants and trees that can get by on 5-6 inches of rain per year (and probably less as the future unfurls).

Policies should mandate gray water on all properties, plus infiltration pits for stormwater. Perhaps there should be incentive programs for planting the kind of native plant gardens that restore the local native plant community, since wildlife communities will be suffering. Meanwhile, to prevent things from getting worse, we’ve got to incentivize building living soils, to boost carbon sequestration.

Projects like the city of Los Angeles is implementing, to reuse sewer water, become absolutely necessary. Aridification means unexplored territory, it means embracing an entirely new future.

Semantics matter because, like with any change, human emotions rise up. 

In the case of a multi-year drought, we see the fatigue: “I’m sick of this already.” There’s a temptation to cheat, “I’ll grab a long hot shower anyway.” There’s a temptation to continue normal habit patterns, to band-aid it, to just get by, waiting for “normal” to return.

When we call it a megadrought, we see frustration. Frustration that we can’t steal from the neighbors. We see “I don’t want to have to” attitudes resisting water policies. There’s still a sense that it’s only for a little while longer, “normal” will come back, so replumbing the place and relandscaping the yard are up for debate.

However, when we start using the word aridification, we begin to reset expectations. We acknowledge that this change is permanent. “16 inches per year” is gone, it’s old history, it’s not coming back. At that point, we can access the grief, mourning what has been, which releases the old and opens the path toward true change.

Our water woes become one more facet of the total transformation we need to go through, a transformation some call The Great Turning. This transformation includes zeroing carbon emissions, designing for zero waste, powerdown, and dramatically increased carbon sequestration.