Exaggerations make CA drought seem worse than it is

drought, california, flickrFaced with fears of a permanent climate crisis, commentators monitoring California’s drought have been inadvertently led to spread erroneous claims about its severity. Although the state’s thirst for water has reached crisis levels, careful observers have made some gains in pointing out some of the most apocalyptic recent warnings were overblown.

The Golden State drought became an issue of national concern this past year as it drew in federal legislators and national policy activists. For many Californians, drought has been a fact of life for decades.

And for the state’s elected officials, water policy has been one of the few areas of reliable bipartisanship. As CalWatchdog.com recently noted, Gov. Jerry Brown went out of his way to ensure his latest pledge of water relief enjoyed support from prominent Republicans as well as Democrats — although it meant enduring strong criticism from those to his left.

With attention to gain through sensational news reports, media outlets often have been pulled in the direction of activist environmentalist perspectives. For now, however, a fragile cooperative balance has prevailed in Sacramento.

False warnings

Analysts and policymakers have built steadily on a broad understanding that California’s water reserves have fallen to historic lows. But in an effort to raise the alarm, a NASA water scientist with a professorship at the University of California, Irvine touched off nationwide concern that California would run out of water entirely in just one year.

Although Jay Famiglietti actually warned in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece that California has about one year’s worth of water stored in its reservoirs, the Times triggered a wave of dismayed coverage by sensationalizing the editorial’s headline.

“California Has About One Year Of Water Left,” it read. “Will You Ration Now?”

“A previous version of this article’s headline,” as a subsequent Times correction ran, “left the impression that California has only one year of water left.”

The corrected version, currently online, now reads, “California has about one year of water stored. Will you ration now?”

“Famiglietti said it gave some the false impression that California is at risk of exhausting its water supplies,” the Times later reported of the original headline. The satellite data he cited, which measure a wide variety of water resources, show ‘we are way worse off this year than last year,’ he said. ‘But we’re not going to run out of water in 2016,’ because decades worth of groundwater remain.”

The correction did not erase the many stories it inspired from the internet. News outlets from MSNBC to Fox News picked up on the one-year claim, and have yet to pull their stories. Wired, which did try to fact-check the apparent claim, wound up arguing that California faced more like three years until it went dry.

Legislating morality?

Although the truth has pointed in a different direction, the flurry of misleading reports helped reinforce the notion that only draconian measures could save California:

  • As far away as Great Britain, the claim surfaced in the Daily Mail that the drought had turned parts of California into “an environmental time bomb.”
  • According to KRCR News in Redding, Californians discovered the drought was driving up the flea population.
  • The Washington Post reported on California’s rough ski season.
  • The relatively snowless slopes also imperiled California’s efforts toward hydroelectric power, as the Christian Science Monitor reported.

The drumbeat of stories created the impression of a state on the brink of an economically harmful transformation.

Already, an expert consensus has formed strongly around the need for increased conservation. “Although scientists seem to have differing opinions on exactly how much water remains available for California, they all agree that the state’s citizens need to step up conservation efforts to keep the dwindling supply available,” Weather.com observed.

But officials and scientists have also agreed that a full-blown catastrophe was not around the corner.

Still, Brown recently chose to speak out with vitriol against Republicans he characterized as in denial about climate change. But his use of terms like “immoral” to describe opponents of carbon emissions regulation created a controversy of its own, as some warned that a conservationist consensus would be harder to forge if skeptics believed they were seen as evil.


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  1. desmond
    desmond 29 March, 2015, 01:29

    10000000 illegals make about 90 million lbs of human waste per year . It has no impact on the environment per Gov. Brown. I am looking forward the the day when the governor thinks Anne is Linda Ronsdadt, and starts preaching about the new ice age. “Linda, Did you see the Time magazine cover?”

    Reply this comment
  2. Ted E Mind of your Godhead Ted
    Ted E Mind of your Godhead Ted 29 March, 2015, 20:45

    Why can’t we recycle all of the teabaggers water/waste…then send them to Mexico….then import Mexicans to do the jobs that are beneath the dignity of the corpulent teabag children?

    Problem solved.

    Is Ted Cruz an alien? Will we get to see his birth cert? Is Rand Paul a human? Isn’t Mike Huckabee wonderful?

    Reply this comment
  3. JimmyDeeOC
    JimmyDeeOC 30 March, 2015, 10:21

    The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
    As true now as when the Bard of Baltimore put these words to paper nearly a century ago.

    Reply this comment

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