Tuesday, January 21, 2014

To A God Unknown: Steinbeck, Stine, and Medieval California

    After a time of wandering, Joseph came to the long valley called Nuestra Señora, and there he recorded his homestead.  Nuestra Señora, the long valley of Our Lady in central California, was green and gold and yellow and blue when Joseph came into it. The level floor was deep in wild oats and canary mustard flowers. - from To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck
In his 1933 novel To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck tells an allegorical tale of the California experience. The protagonist, Joseph, comes to California to create his future. He discovers a place of apparent wealth and promise. And indeed he appears to be achieving all that he dreams. But over time, tragedies strike and a drought undoes his life work.

The story is about the arrogance of Californians who hold the belief that their efforts as humans, individually and collectively, create orderly wealth in a place where natural wealth has always existed in its own order of things.

In the "California Gold Rush" from 1848 to 1853 some 12 million ounces of gold was removed from the streams of "Gold Country" before hydraulic mining was used on ancient gold-bearing gravel beds that were on hillsides and bluffs in the gold fields sending large amounts of gravel and silt, in addition to heavy metals and other pollutants, into streams and rivers. Once the gold was depleted, gravel and silt remained in the areas affected.

Farmers followed the miners to extract another kind of wealth. In the Sacramento Valley and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta reclamation districts were formed to prevent the flooding of farm lands by building an extensive levee system. In the same period, dams with water diversion and canal projects were proposed and subsequently built to move water into the desert areas of the Southern San Joaquin Valley and all of the State south of the Tehachapi Mountains in the California Aqueduct. Water became "Liquid Gold" for Californians as it seemed quite plentiful in the 1950's.

New Californians hadn't read To A God Unknown. Instead they believed that water was an endless resource of wealth for future Californians. Lands that once were orchards in Southern California. the San Francisco Peninsula, and Santa Clara County, and farms in the Central Valley became subdivisions of housing for large populations, urban/suburban populations that were now dependent upon that water for human consumption competing with the remaining agricultural interests. In 2009 the Southern San Joaquin Valley has become the first area in the State to suffer significantly from the continuing drought as reported in a previous post.

    People in cities may forget the soil for as long as a hundred years, but Mother Nature's memory is long and she will not let them forget indefinitely. - Henry Cantwell Wallace.
    We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings. - Franklin D. Roosevelt
    People need to be cautious because anything built by man can be destroyed by Mother Nature. - Russel L. Honoré
At the time of that 2009 post, "The Great California Slump" had resulted in a considerable disruption to the California economy, disruption that continues today, disruption caused by simple greed.

At that point, the idea of a drought that could destroy an economy was only understood by California's long declining population of non-corporate farmers, some "pointy headed" academics, and a very few true environmentalists (not the kind that see important solutions in electric cars), all of whom had been speaking out for years to a deaf population.

The remainder of Californians continued to believe in the Golden Cities myth that drove the Spanish to explore and conquer in the 15th-18th centuries. Continuing that heritage, Californian's prefer to hear Governor Jerry "Moonbeam-the-Spinmaster" Brown tell us we can move out of this time of continuing economic crisis into another period of wealth-building by embracing fun-but-already-stale technology. That Southern San Joaquin Valley drought was just an anomaly, not warning that California is subject to Mother Nature's memory and she is prodding our memory.

We 21st Century Californian's need to become familiar with history of the soil that we have chosen to squat on to create an economy, perhaps by first looking up from our portable devices long enough see the nature of what we occupy.

After we have gained some familiarity with the soil under our feet and cities, Californian's should use their portable devices to access a convergence of studies done in the mid-1990's (and later ones based upon that '90's groundwork) to learn three facts: (1) the 20th Century Californian experienced far fewer extreme dry years and more wet years than the Californian's who lived here the preceding three centuries who offered anecdotal reports of extreme droughts, reports generally ignored by most except than those few who listened like Steinbeck; (2) starting around 900 AD California suffered two droughts, one lasting 220 years (from A.D. 892 to A.D. 1112) and the other 140 years (from A.D. 1209 to A.D. 1350); and (3) during the past 3,500 years, most of the time the "California experience" was much drier than the "normal"165 year American California experience.

John Steinbeck's second novel To A God Unknown published in 1933 was later acknowledged as the hardest for him to write, taking him more years than his better known works. Part of the problem is that he initially tried to adapt a play written by a friend but kept adding context based upon facts as he understood them. And what he understood from the generations of Californians who preceded him was the truth about the land and the water, a truth we need to face.
    About every thirty years there have come periods of rainlessness to Central and Southern California. These desolating years seem to come creeping up out of lhe white desert to warn the west that it will one day die as the desert has died. They are like the Reminders of Death at an Egyptian feast ....
    And now the periodic drought had settled on the land. Little by little, year on year the water was sucked from the ground. The hills looked gaunt and hungry and pale. The bones of many thousands of starved cattle were whitening on the ground. Two families of Waynes packed up their possessions and drove away. Joe watched his dying land with terror and with loathing. - From an early draft of To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck
Joe's "terror" came from a normal California weather cycle. Twenty years ago in 1993, Scott Stine, Ph.D, of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at California State University, Hayward, completed a research study entitled "Extreme and Persistent Drought in California and Patagonia During Mediaeval Time" which was subsequently published in June 1994 in the academic journal Nature. In it he offers the evidence, now supported by others, that indeed before and after the year 1000 AD California had two droughts that lasted well over 100 years.

In May 2001 the website Sierra Nature Notes: The Online Journal of Natural History News in the Sierra Nevada published a followup article by Stine "The Great Droughts of Y1K" in which he explained what he believed to be the weather pattern associated with the 100+ years droughts:
    One may reasonably ask why these droughts occurred. The simple answer lies in the wintertime configuration of the "storm track" (a.k.a. the "jet stream" and the "polar front") over the northeastern Pacific. When the storm track persists over California for much of the winter (as it did, say, in 1982, ‘83, 86, and ‘96), many Pacific cyclones are steered over the state, and we accumulate much precipitation. When the track lies to the north of California, the fronts are steered away, and the region remains dry. This latter case prevailed during the 1976-77—the one period of our instrumental record dry enough to provide an analog to the Medieval droughts. Nineteen seventy-seven, it turns out, was not only the driest winter on record over much of California, it was also the wettest winter on record over much of Alaska. Simply put, rather than the storm track bowing south over California, in 1976-77 it bowed north over Alaska, and held there.
    Evidence is now emerging that the "dry-winter-in-California, wet-winter-in-Alaska" model holds true not only for 1976-77, but for much of upper Medieval time as well....
This year we saw that very same weather pattern as illustrated by this one recent satellite image:

That persistent weather pattern indeed created the current drought situation in California. The real question for Californian's is whether the pattern will be seen regularly over the next decades? And if so, will Californian's come to understand that we are living off the artificial and transient wealth structure created over the last 165 years? And if we come to understand it, will that understanding come too late? And if it doesn't come too late, will we respond with sufficient energy and speed to successfully prevent a major disruption in our economy?

After all, we Californian's are the people who in the San Joaquin Valley allowed ground subsidence to happen from pumping too much groundwater as explained below (from a USGS website):

     This photo shows the approximate location of maximum subsidence in the United States, identified by research efforts of Dr. Joseph F. Poland (pictured). The site is in the San Joaquin Valley southwest of Mendota, California. Signs on pole show approximate altitude of land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977.
    In this case, excessive groundwater pumping allowed the upper soil layers to dry out and compress and compact, which is by far the single largest cause of subsidence. Soil compaction results in a reduction of the pore sizes between soil particles, resulting in essentially a permanent condition—rewetting of the underground soil and rock does not cause the land to go back up in altitude. This results in a lessening of the total storage capacity of the aquifer system. Here, the term "groundwater mining" is really true.
What is critically needed now at the beginning of the 21st Century would be very expensive and complex. And it is needed immediately. It can be summarized in two statements:
  1. Virtually all of the urban areas of Southern and Coastal California need to quit transporting water from distant rivers and switch to desalinization for municipal water. To do so we need to get rid of silly ideas like the Governor's expensive bullet train, the funding for which would fund some of the preliminary engineering needed to solve the urban water crisis.
  2. Farming and ranching within California requiring large water transfers from distant sources and/or over-pumping of groundwater should cease. These activities need to become sustainable using local water resources wisely.
What is needed may be impossible because we forget history as described by Steinbeck.
    Joseph leaned back against his saddle again, and suddenly he chuckled. "I will go," he said. "I will take every means. Look, Juanita. You know this place, and your ancestors knew this place. Why did none of your people come here when the drought started. This was the place to come."
    "The old ones are dead," Juanita said soberly. "The young ones may have forgotten." - from To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck
Four currently living generations of Californian's have been trying to achieve the California Dream, each one thinking his or her Dream is unique. It is the same Dream described by Steinbeck and like all dreams, in reality it can become an ordeal.

Dr. Stine's 1993 study was reviewed in a less academic article in the July 19, 1994, New York Times article "Severe Ancient Droughts: A Warning to California"which at the end offered the following observation:
    But in the end, he said, a reprise of the medieval droughts would simply overwhelm California's efforts to cope. And he said: "We don't need 200 years of drought to bring us down. At some point, in the 9th year, or the 15th year or the 19th year, the damage is done and it doesn't matter any more."
In the 20th Century the rain came breaking up each comparatively short dry cycle with wet years. Whether that will continue in the 21st Century without a decade or more of drought is unlikely. Dr. Stine explains it well in the Sierra Nature Notes article:
    ...Persistent droughts, moderate by Medieval standards but strident relative to our "normal" conditions of the past 150 years, drew lakes and rivers well below their modern levels on numerous occasions during the past two millennia, most recently during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Indeed, increasing evidence indicates that there is little that is climatically "normal" about the past century - and- a-half; it appears, in fact, to be California’s third- or fourth-wettest century-scale period of the past four or more millennia.
    Since statehood, Californians have been living in the best of climatic times. And we’ve taken advantage of these best of times by building the most colossal urban and agricultural infrastructure in the entire world, all dependent on huge amounts of water, and all based on the assumption that runoff from the Sierra Nevada will continue as it has during the past 150 years. Yet even in these best of times we have run out of surplus water, and we fight over allocation.
The challenge is to not have our grandchildren explaining to their children that the worst case scenario happened because our generations thought bullet trains or smart phones deserved our attention and financial resources. We do not want to regret our failure to see the soil as did Steinbeck's Joseph Wayne:
And time passed and Joseph grew grey too.... "I should have known," he whispered.... "I am the land," he said, "and I am the rain." - from To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck