President Obama has discovered the Higgs boson of global warming, the missing 18 minutes of climate change, the evidence that settles all disputes, the piece of information so clear and unambiguous that it must put all the denialists on the run:
Southern California has a shortage of water.
The satellite images viewed by President Obama before a meeting with eight Western governors were stark, showing how snowpack in California’s mountains had shrunk by 86 percent in a single year.
“It was a ‘Houston, we have a problem’ moment,” recalled White House counselor John D. Podesta, one of two aides who briefed the president that February day. Obama mentioned the images several times as he warned the governors that political leaders had no choice but to cope with global warming’s impact.
After years of putting other policy priorities first — and dismaying many liberal allies in the process — Obama is now getting into the weeds on climate change and considers it one of the key components of his legacy, according to aides and advisers.
Post reporter Juliet Eilperin is certainly game. No speculation about the president’s desperation to change the conversation to any topic — rising inequality, the L.A. Clipppers’ ownership, John Boehner’s skin color, anything — other than the stagnating economy or the more-hated-than-ever Affordable Care Act. No nasty insinuations about Obama’s increasingly clueless attempts to create a viable issue for the Democrats to run on in the midterm elections. The global-warming pivot can only be the result of inconvenient truth. She points to Hurricane Sandy and the rise of fracking as the president’s Damascus-road moments.
Even under the new dispensation of the Obama era, in which every year is Year Zero and every day is Groundhog Day, the case of the missing snowpack stands out as especially ahistoric. Aren’t global warmists supposed to be the ones who are always warning the rest of us that we need to take the long view into account? Global-warming belief is all about subjecting your five senses to intellects vaster, cooler, and less sympathetic. Global-warming orthodoxy insists that you not be fooled by one-off events like a grueling and seemingly endless winter, record growth in polar ice caps, or a boatload of global-warming experts getting shipwrecked in the ice in the height of summertime.
But now, a steep one-year drop in California precipitation — a phenomenon far older than California itself — is enough to convince the president of the United States that he’s finally found his issue. The logic seems to amount to: “Eighty-six percent in just one year? My God, aren’t there, like, 300-and-some days in a year? That’s a way long time!”
So here’s some actual perspective. The Sierra Mountains snowpack has definitely been low this winter. According to Placer County and Nevada County data from the California Department of Water Resources’ Data Exchange Center, the depth of the snowpack in April was just 41.5 inches, less than half of the average depth of 109.6 inches over the last 50 years. Its equivalent in water inches was a mere 16.5, just a little more than a third of the average precipitation of 48.3 inches since 1964.
That’s tough news for Tahoe snowboarders — and any fair-minded person would have to agree that the Sierra range is among the most agreeable winter-sports regions on the planet. It’s also hard on Angelenos, Central Valley farmers, and others who depend on a substantial Sierra snowfall for their water needs.
But all of these people have seen this movie before, many times. This year’s low snow level isn’t even a 50-year record. That title belongs to April 1999, when the snowpack came in at an anemic 37.4 inches and the water equivalent was a godawful 11.8 inches. April snowpack was below 70 inches 12 times in the last 50 years, below 60 inches six times, and below 50 inches three times.
More important, the ten-year average is completely in line with the 50-year average. Since 2004, snowpack has averaged 99.6 inches, and water equivalent has averaged 41.3 inches — both slightly lower than but well in line with the longer-period average. Just three years ago, the Sierras saw the third-highest snowpack of the last half-century — 199.7 inches in April.
Nor are snowpack panics a new or even unusual phenomenon. The Golden State media were gripped by drought mania as recently as 2007, when the snowpack came in at 60.5 inches and the head of the DWR was the unfortunately named Les Snow. (Maybe Obama can get to the bottom of that one next.) By most accounts, Sierra snowfall has been remarkably consistent for at least 130 years.
Maybe the president who identified 57 U.S. states and named the Jedi mind-meld has some alternative universe in mind again, one where Huck and Jim braved comedy and adventure while rafting down the mighty Los Angeles River. But the rest of us don’t have the luxury of indulging outright fiction. It’s got to be new territory in bamboozlement to pretend a California drought proves anything other than that California (and in fact all of the United States west of the Rockies) has relatively low precipitation. It’s a tribute to human ingenuity that Southern California has nevertheless been developed into one of the world’s most pleasant geographical regions. Only Obama could try to twist that into a problem, and only the Washington Post could take him seriously.