Exaggerations make CA drought seem worse than it is

by James Poulos | March 28, 2015 9:44 am

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[1] 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[2], 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[3] a wave of dismayed coverage by sensationalizing the editorial’s headline.

“California Has About One Year Of Water Left,” it read[4]. “Will You Ration Now?”

“A previous version of this article’s headline,” as a subsequent Times correction ran[5], “left the impression that California has only one year of water left.”

The corrected version, currently online, now reads[6], “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[7] 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[8] to Fox News[9] 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[10] 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:

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[15].

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[16] 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.

  1. made: http://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/world/2015/03/14/24777001/
  2. noted: http://calwatchdog.com/2015/03/25/browns-drought-battle-heats-up-sacramento/
  3. triggered: http://www.hcn.org/articles/drought-california-shasta-water
  4. read: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/14/ca-drought-water_n_6869616.html
  5. ran: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-famiglietti-drought-california-20150313-story.html
  6. reads: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-famiglietti-drought-california-20150313-story.html
  7. reported: http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-0320-drought-explainer-20150320-story.html
  8. MSNBC: http://www.msnbc.com/jose-diaz-balart/nasa-scientist-california-has-one-year-water-left
  9. Fox News: http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/03/18/california-has-1-year-water-left-nasa-scientist-warns
  10. arguing: http://www.wired.com/2015/03/californias-run-water-act-now/
  11. surfaced: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-3012890/The-Salton-Sea-time-bomb-amid-California-drought.html
  12. discovered: http://www.krcrtv.com/news/local/california-drought-affecting-flea-population/31993482
  13. reported: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/03/24/these-snowless-ski-resorts-show-just-how-bad-californias-drought-really-is/
  14. reported: http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/2015/0322/Will-California-s-drought-affect-hydroelectric-power-video
  15. observed: http://www.weather.com/climate-weather/drought/news/california-water-shortage-one-year-left
  16. created: http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/2015/0323/How-California-drought-became-ammunition-in-climate-policy-debate-video

Source URL: https://calwatchdog.com/2015/03/28/exaggerations-make-ca-drought-seem-worse-than-it-is/