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Have We Reached A “Peak Water” Tipping Point In California?

Have We Reached A “Peak Water” Tipping Point In California? thumbnail

It may be a see-saw course, but it’s riding an uphill train.

A bit ago I wrote, regarding climate and tipping points:

The concept of “tipping point” — a change beyond which there’s no turning back — comes up a lot in climate discussions. An obvious tipping point involves polar ice. If the earth keeps warming — both in the atmosphere and in the ocean — at some point a full and permanent melt of Arctic and Antarctic ice is inevitable. Permanent ice first started forming in the Antarctic about 35 million years ago, thanks to global cooling which crossed a tipping point for ice formation. That’s not very long ago. During the 200 million years before that, the earth was too warm for permanent ice to form, at least as far as we know.


We’re now going the other direction, rewarming the earth, and permanent ice is increasingly disappearing, as you’d expect. At some point, permanent ice will be gone. At some point before that, its loss will be inevitable. Like the passengers in the car above, its end may not have come — yet — but there’s no turning back….


I think the American Southwest is beyond a tipping point for available fresh water. I’ve written several times — for example, here — that California and the Southwest have passed “peak water,” that the most water available to the region is what’s available now. We can mitigate the severity of decline in supply (i.e., arrest the decline at a less-bad place by arresting its cause), and we can adapt to whatever consequences can’t be mitigated.


But we can no longer go back to plentiful fresh water from the Colorado River watershed. That day is gone, and in fact, I suspect most in the region know it, even though it’s not yet reflected in real estate prices.

Two of the three takeaways from the above paragraphs are these: “California and the Southwest have passed ‘peak water'” and “most in the region know it.” (The third takeaway from the above is discussed at the end of this piece.)

“For the first time in 120 years, winter average minimum temperature in the Sierra Nevada was above freezing”

My comment, that “most in the region know it,” is anecdotal. What you’re about to read below isn’t. Hunter Cutting, writing at Huffington Post, notes (my emphasis):

With Californians crossing their fingers in hopes of a super El Niño to help end the state’s historic drought, California’s water agency just delivered some startling news: for the first time in 120 years of record keeping, the winter average minimum temperature in the Sierra Nevada was above freezing. And across the state, the last 12 months were the warmest on record. This explains why the Sierra Nevada snow pack that provides nearly 30% of the state’s water stood at its lowest level in at least 500 years this last winter despite precipitation levels that, while low, still came in above recent record lows. The few winter storms of the past two years were warmer than average and tended to produce rain, not snow. And what snow fell melted away almost immediately.


Thresholds matter when it comes to climate change. A small increase in temperature can have a huge impact on natural systems and human infrastructure designed to cope with current weather patterns and extremes. Only a few inches of extra rain can top a levee protecting against flood. Only a degree of warming can be the difference between ice-up and navigable water, between snow pack and bare ground.


Climate change has intensified the California drought by fueling record-breaking temperatures that evaporate critically important snowpack, convert snowfall into rain, and dry out soils. This last winter in California was the warmest in 119 years of record keeping, smashing the prior record by an unprecedented margin. Weather records tend to be broken when a temporary trend driven by natural variability runs in the same direction as the long-term trend driven by climate change, in this case towards warmer temperatures. Drought in California has increased significantly over the past 100 years due to rising temperatures. A recent paleoclimate study found that the current drought stands out as the worst to hit the state in 1,200 years largely due the remarkable, record-high temperatures.

The rest of Cutting’s good piece deals with what the coming El Niño will do. Please read if that interests you.

There’s an easy way to think about this. Imagine the thermostat in your home freezer is broken and the temperature inside goes from 31 degrees to 33 degrees overnight, just above freezing, with no way to turn it down. Now imagine the Koch Bros (and “friends of carbon” Democrats) have emptied your town of repair people — every last one of them is gone. It’s over, right? Everything in the freezer is going to thaw. Then the inside is going to dry out. And everyone in your house who doesn’t already know this will figure it out. All because of a two-degree change in temperature that can’t be reversed.

When it comes to climate, two non-obvious rules apply:

  • Change won’t be linear; there will be sudden bursts at tipping points.
  • Pessimistic predictions are more likely to be right than optimistic ones.

Most people get this already, even if they haven’t internalized it. Which is why most people already know, or strongly suspect, that California and the American Southwest have already crossed a line from which there will be no return. This revelation, from the state’s water agency, just adds numbers. Time to act decisively? Do enough people think so?

Negative and Positive Takeaways

I said that two of the three takeaways about California, from the text I quoted at the beginning, were these: “California and the Southwest have passed ‘peak water'” and “most in the region know it.” The third is from the same sentence: “though it’s not yet reflected in real estate prices”  — meaning farm land as well as urban property.

It’s just a matter of time, though. Prices will fall as awareness hits, awareness that future prices can only fall. Note that prices in bear markets tend to be decidedly non-linear. And when that awareness does hit, when land is cheap, insurance expensive and the population in decline, nothing coming out of the mouths of the Kochs — or methane-promoting politicians in the Democratic Party — will change a single mind. (In terms of our playful freezer metaphor, you know the thing’s going to end up in the yard, right? It just hasn’t been carted out yet.)

But that’s just the negative takeaway. There’s a positive takeaway as well. It’s not over everywhere, not yet. From the same piece quoted at the top, referring to the tipping point of extreme weather:

This [incidence of extreme weather] is “a” tipping point, not “the” tipping point. We have slid into a “new normal” for weather, but please note:

  • We’re talking only about the weather, not a host of other effects, like extreme sea level rise. I don’t think we’ve passed that tipping point yet.
  • We can stop this process whenever we want to — or rather, we can force the “carbon bosses” and their minions in government to stop whenever we want to stop them. They have only the power we collectively allow them to have.

It really is up to us, and it really is not too late in any absolute sense. For my playfully named (but effective) “Easter Island solution,” see here. For a look at one sure way out, see here.

Will it take a decidedly non-linear, noticeably dramatic, event to create critical mass for a real solution? If so, we could use it soon, because the clock is ticking. It may be a see-saw course, but it’s riding an uphill train. (Again, the real solution, expressed metaphorically, is here. Expressed directly, it’s here. Everything less is a delaying tactic.)

75 Comments on "Have We Reached A “Peak Water” Tipping Point In California?"

  1. surf on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 3:01 pm 

    Long multi year droughts and periods of very frequent short droughts have been a common occurrence in California long before CO2 levels started to rise. 20 years ago there was a 8 year drought in California. There is no evidence out there that indicates this drought is any different than any of the past droughts. Al drought more than 200 years were caused by changes in the sun which is currently at a 100 year low.

  2. Davy on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 3:02 pm 

    Greg tell me how 4.5Bil people in Asia are going to find food without BAU and JIT. It works both ways. Overconsumption and or overpopulation equals overshoot.

  3. apneaman on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 3:11 pm 

    Puerto Rico battles record heat wave amid drought

    “SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico is facing a record-breaking heat wave this month amid an ongoing drought.

    The National Weather Service said the first five days of October are the warmest in the history of the U.S. territory for the month since record-keeping began.

    Forecasters said a high of 94 degrees registered Tuesday broke a 1987 record by 1 degree.

    Temperatures have averaged 94 degrees across the island this week as a result of rare southeastern winds.

    The heat wave comes as tens of thousands of people face strict water-rationing measures because of the drought.”

  4. GregT on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 3:25 pm 

    “We have people actively wishing the death of millions. They have all kinds of justifications. Murder and mayhem is always justified in these people’s minds.”

    Murder, mayhem, starvation, and suicides are coming Davy. Whether you believe that other people are actively wishing it or not. I’m not so sure about millions though, I’m thinking more like billions.

    People like myself, or yourself, may or may not make it through this Davy. People living in first world countries, that don’t have the skills, or the mindset, are as good as done for in the coming bottleneck. People that are living in abject poverty already, will barely notice any difference. Stop with the USA vs everyone else already. People in both of our countries Davy, are not prepared at all for what is coming.
    This isn’t a fucking competition.

  5. apneaman on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 3:27 pm 

    Nothing is safe from the rapacious apes. Were like insatiable Hoovers sucking up everything we can. Who knows at exactly what point our stupidity will cause the dominos to start tumbling. Not soon enough IMO. We shit all over everything. Ruined the most unique thing in the universe – a living planet. Well, nature made us and will unmake us too. Soon all the barrel counting and inter tribal dick measuring will mean nothing. It all boils down to the cancer yeast fighting over the last of the sugar – same as it ever was. Go hug your kids while you can.

    Cacti facing extinction, study warns

    “The assessment reported that the illegal trade of live plants and seeds for the horticultural industry and private collections, as well as their unsustainable harvesting, affected 47% of threatened species.”

  6. apneaman on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 3:36 pm 

    Hooray! hooray! for the melting arctic. Now we can buy even cheaper Chinese crap for the kids in a lame attempt to compensate them for the horrors they will be facing. Thanks daddy, thanks grandpa. Thanks for looking out for me.

    Chinese ship cuts through Artic for record round trip

  7. BC on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 3:37 pm 

    MrNo, I like your idea, too. Probably a lot more cost effective. 🙂

    “Capitalism” is a system that has evolved, and it’s still evolving. What “it” is today is not what “it” was in the past and nor will “it” be in the future.

    What we have today is “hyper-financialization”, which in effect has loaded up financial claims held by the top 0.001-1% against virtually all value-added output the economy can produce in perpetuity. So, growth of real GDP per capita after net financial flows is no longer possible.

    Thus, I’m not sure what one would call that kind of system, which has elements of feudalism/manorialism.

    “It” is in other respects a de facto steady-state system currently maintaining at the highly complex, high-tech, high-entropy condition that we currently experience, at least in the West and parts of Asia.

    As net energy per capita of the value-added output declines, so, too, will entropy, which also means a decline in wasted heat energy transfer (vital to the energy-inefficient, global, mass-consumer economy) from the lower-entropy ecological system to “the economy”. The decline in entropy for “the economy” will reduce its dynamism, innovation, incentives, and growth, resulting in an increase in entropy for the planetary ecological system WRT to “the economy”.

    IOW, our high-entropy economy has reached its planetary log-limit bound of planetary exergy. The decline in (un)economic entropy means a decline in growth of exergy necessary for further growth of “the economy” per capita, i.e., decline in exergy to zero.

    Not only can we not keep increasing global economic entropy, we can’t maintain the current high-entropy state given the size of “the economy” versus the availability of planetary low-entropy resources required for the necessary waste of net energy per capita and scale of exergy needed to sustain real GDP per capita.

    In this context, the imperative should be the conscious, overt increase in net energy efficiency per capita to scale while REDISTRIBUTING the gains of more efficiently produced DOMESTIC value-added output per capita at a socially acceptable minimum level of material consumption and well-being in an attempt to maintain higher entropy at the necessary exergy to scale.

    This reflects one of many of the disadvantages we face in being ruled by rapacious rentier speculators, and lawyers and ministerial intellectuals beholding to the former, rather than by scientists, engineers, hackers, gearheads, permacultural agriculturalists, techno-savvy artists, futuristic architects, ecologists, ecological economists, systems theory thinkers, and the like.

    Moreover, being under the religious, socio-cultural zeitgeist still based on the whimsical sociopathy of Stone- and Iron-Age, angry, jealous, violent, genocidal, tribal desert sky gods does not help, either. 🙁

  8. Davy on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 3:43 pm 

    Fuck it Greg, I am done but I will say this the more I am on this site the more I hate the rest of the world that wants me dead and looks forward to a fantasy of a prosperous remaining world picking over the bones. We are coming to the point of no hope. It is time for the world to mouth a gun and die. Good riddance.

  9. apneaman on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 3:49 pm 

    Danger of methane explosions on Yamal Peninsula, scientists warn

    More craters expected to form due to such eruptions as permafrost melts – and they ARE caused by global warming releasing methane gas

  10. Rodster on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 4:09 pm 

    As Gail Tverberg likes to use the illustration of “Leonardo’s Stick Toy”. It shows how interconnected the entire world has become with regards to banking, finance and economies. Leonardos Stick Toy brings the point home that if you remove just one stick, you risk the entire toy collapsing. That’s how interconnected we are globally. If Chile cant sell their goods to the US then Chile is in trouble. We are seeing this play out already around the World.

    China is contracting and not buying resources from Australia and now Australia is feeling the pain.

    When the system collapses and comes crashing down there could temporarily be some Nations who could get thru it initially but they too will collapse just like the rest.

    As has been pointed out, we have totally fucked up this planet and TPTB have the foot to the floor trying to keep hamster running faster and faster. It won’t work. So not only has greed, control and power put us in the spot we are in but we have essentially destroyed Earth’s biosphere as well.

    I seriously doubt humans will be on this planet beyond 2100 barring devine intervention.

  11. apneaman on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 4:13 pm 

    60 mn people in sub-Saharan Africa risk famine: Red Cross

    “IFRC warned that a series of climatic shocks in 2014 and 2015 had decimated harvests and left many people in Gambia, Mauritania, Malawi, Namibia, Senegal and Zimbabwe dependent on food aid to survive”

  12. apneaman on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 4:16 pm 

    It’s official: Every state in America is too fat

    “The geography of obesity in the United States has taken an alarming turn for the worse in just a generation.

    In 1990, the country would have been considered relatively healthy when it comes to weight. Sure, there were plenty of people who were overweight and obese. But the problem was relatively limited with not a single one of our 50 states having a prevalence equal to or greater than 15 percent.

    Today, all of them do — and new numbers released this week show the problem has been getting worse, not better despite many millions spent on national campaigns by the likes of public health officials, the American Heart Association, and first lady Michelle Obama to get Americans to eat better and exercise more.”

  13. BC on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 4:26 pm 

    GregT, WRT your reference to suicides, it is often said that “suicide is not a solution”, but the fact is that it IS the “ultimate solution” to abject, insurmountable humiliation, despair, reproach, banishment, financial loss, etc.

    Moreover, cultures throughout world history provide as a socially acceptable norm the reclaiming or retaining of one’s dignity and honor, or that of family or tribe, or demonstrating one’s supreme loyalty, by committing suicide.

    Also, formal, ritualistic suicide historically was not infrequently an obligation, even a privilege, of high-status members of the tribe/society.

    Finally, it is also said, correctly, that each of us is born dying, and, specifically, that men commit myriad forms of suicide for women and other men on a daily basis.

    Given the impending prospective horrors of the bottleneck we collectively face as individuals and as a species, I’m Zen- or Bushido-like WRT suicide as “the ultimate solution” for those who perceive its efficacy and normality. I would only advocate in the strongest terms possible that each of us be permitted the choice and the efficient, non-violent means to achieve the solution.

    If we have no choice in having been born, it seems egregiously sadistic to impose living in abject pain, humiliation, and despair absent a socially acceptable, peaceful, non-violent means to escape the sadistic suffering of life.

    Rather than morose and depressing, having the individual choice to exit efficiently, peacefully, and painlessly (rather than violently and messily in despair, fear, etc.) this veil of tears can be a powerfully liberating, life-affirming privilege in the context of the short time we inhabit this time-space dimension we refer to as “life”.

  14. Davy on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 4:27 pm 

    Ape man, in 5 years there will likely be few fat people in the U.S. Once the economy and climate are disturbed enough food insecurity and hunger will remake America (Canada too you guys need a diet and deodorant as well). That is reasonable isn’t it?

  15. MrNoItAll on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 4:49 pm 

    BC — Nobody makes a dime on suicide, except maybe the undertaker, and it isn’t like the undertaker won’t eventually make that dime if he just waits long enough. However, there are vast fortunes to made on prolonging the suffering and wasted wrecks of what were once human beings in the thousands of nursing homes and hospitals where medical professionals labor diligently, tirelessly and with utmost dedication to squeezing out every single last feeble heartbeat in their patients. That being the case, it is no surprise that the social mores of western civilization have been molded to regard suicide as a grave sin and completely unacceptable social behavior. What is intense suffering, humiliation, degradation and hopelessness when there’s a fortune to be made!?

  16. BC on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 4:52 pm

    Note that the metaphor of morbidly obese, immobile humans goes well beyond the literal manifestation of same in the US and elsewhere. Rather, the implications is for the economy as a whole WRT the planet AND the obscene, overwhelmingly disproportionate share of net energy and resources per capita secured by the top 0.001-1% to 10% at the expense of the bottom 90%+ AND the planet’s ecological system.

    The bottom 99% of all of the human ape population on the finite planet Earth can not afford to support the decadent, energy-inefficient affluence WRT income, energy and resource consumption, and space per capita of the top 0.001-1%.

    This is not a moral issue per se but a thermodynamic, exergetic reality.

    But can morality/ethics, economics, politics, and thermodynamics be separated in reality? Should they be?

    Most here know the obvious answer to the obvious rhetorical question. 🙂

  17. Davy on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 5:01 pm 

    Suicide will increasingly become part of our die off culture. Old Native American would go off to die as needed for the betterment of the tribe. Pain and suffering without hope is a legitimate reason to end ones life. This will especially be true when we are a culture surrounded by death.

    This is nothing new. Just visit some of Africa’s recent die offs. What will be new is this will be global and all inclusive. We have the potential for global society suicide in war. This is a horrible subject but one that should be discussed.

  18. BC on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 5:08 pm 

    MrNo, you nailed it.

    And here’s what “health care” (HC) spending is doing to final sales (FS):

    That is, the differential change rate of HC spending to FS is at the level of the past two recessions in 2008 and 2001.

    US HC is making the US economy ill, if not terminally so.

    50-65% to 80% of HC is spent on the sickest 5-10% to 20% of the population, the overwhelming majority of whom are aging into and past middle age with chronic conditions resulting from unhealthy diets, alcohol abuse, smoking, and lack of exercise, 60-65% of whom are female living past age 65.

    Were we to ACTUALLY have a “health care” system, we could reduce spending by AT LEAST half, if not 65-80%, and “health care” spending would be well below the current 18-19% of GDP, $10,000 per capita (for 80-90% healthy people), $26,000 per household (at $52,000 median household income), and 50% equivalent of private wages and salaries.

    Wherever readers live, when you see a new hospital, clinic, or “health” care-related commercial offices being constructed, grab for your wallet and despair, because it means even higher costs of medical insurance and out-of-pocket costs for the 80% of healthy people who rarely need to consume “health” care services.

    It is a COLOSSAL scam, and the system needs to be disrupted, gutted from top to bottom, and education, prevention, and rationing to prevail over frivilous, prohibitively costly “services”.

  19. apneaman on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 5:08 pm 

    Yes many Canadians are fat too. just not “people of walmart” fat….yet. Stinky too, but not me. I do not need deodorant, never use it. It’s a gene thing – ABCC11.

    Your body needs to burn approx 3500 Calories to lose 1 lb of body fat, so it would not surprise me in the least bit if a bunch of “people of walmart” last the longest. Evolution laughs last.

    A year without food

    “Back in June of 1965, a Scotsman weighing 207 kilograms, described as “grossly obese” and hereafter known only as Mr A B, turned up at the Department of Medicine at the Royal Infirmary in Dundee.

    He was sick of being fat and wanted to lose weight by eating nothing and living off his body fat. He told the hospital staff he was going to fast flat out, whatever they said, so they may as well monitor him along the way.

    He ended up fasting for one year and 17 days — that’s right, he ate no food at all for over a year. He lived entirely off his copious body fat, in the end losing about 125 kilograms of weight.”

  20. Davy on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 5:12 pm 

    A little bit off subject but you military loving guys will enjoy this. I am out on the farm now putting up fence for a goat grazing system. I am in a MOA so I see all make and model of military aircraft. Just had two A10’s buzz me at low altitude. I gave them the thumbs up! How about that for flag waiving.

  21. GregT on Tue, 6th Oct 2015 6:22 pm 

    As a pilot, I must admit that the Warthog is a pretty amazing piece of machinery. On the other hand, as a human being I find it sickening that we spend so much of our time, energy, and resources, manufacturing hardware to kill other human beings. Which reminded me of this story:

    WTF is DHS going to do with 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition? Even more of a WTF; Hollow point ammunition. Even the military uses full metal jacket rounds. Are there that many deer in the US? What else do they plan on killing I wonder?

    Time for a national conversation is right. The US government is beyond out of control, not only in almost every other country in the world, but at home as well.

  22. Dredd on Wed, 7th Oct 2015 10:31 am

  23. apneaman on Wed, 7th Oct 2015 12:49 pm 

    Indonesia On Fire

    “The number of Americans who occasionally think about Indonesia is only slightly higher than the number of Americans who can find it on a world map, but I’m asking you to think about this southeast Asian country now. Indonesia’s annual fire peat-burning season is unusually severe this year. Here’s what caught my eye, from Yahoo Finance (October 2, 2015).

    Jakarta (AFP) – The forest fires blanketing Southeast Asia in choking haze are on track to become among the worst on record, NASA has warned, with a prolonged dry season hampering efforts to curb a crisis that has persisted for nearly two decades…

    The fires smolder beneath the surface of carbon-rich peatlands, feeding off vast quantities of fuel, making them extremely difficult to curb as millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions are released into the atmosphere.

    The NASA-linked Global Fire Emissions Database has estimated around 600 million tonnes of greenhouse gases have been released as a result of this year’s fires – roughly equivalent to Germany’s entire annual output.”

  24. apneaman on Wed, 7th Oct 2015 1:05 pm 

    We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Graph — Global Sea Level Rise Just Went off the Chart

  25. ghung on Wed, 7th Oct 2015 1:14 pm 

    Relax, Ap, we can always rescale the graph, ad infinitum.

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