Behind the Headline: The UK votes to leave the EU

Brexit image from The Millennium Report

The vote is in: 51.9% of British voters approved leaving the European Union, a vote that has shocked the world and shaken the world’s economy. Already, the value of the pound sterling has fallen, there is talk of thousands of people in the UK losing jobs, and doomsayers predict the European Union falling apart as others decide to follow Britain’s path. In the run-up to the vote, most economic experts, big businesses, and politicians from around the world urged British voters to stay in the EU, with the most notable exception being U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. In response to the news, British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation, saying he will leave office in October.

So what, exactly, happened here? What happens now? And how will it affect you? It’s time once again to go Behind the Headline.

What is the European Union, and why was Britain a member?

I’ve talked about the European Union on Cat Flag before, so I’ll be brief: The European Union is a unique political entity covering 28 European countries that functions in some ways like an international organization made up of sovereign nations (members have their own militaries, embassies, passports, seats at the United Nations, and Olympic teams), and in other ways like a national government whose members are federal states (the European Union can pass laws that can override the laws of its own members, citizens of its members are also citizens of the EU, and people and goods can pass freely across its members’ borders with each other while the EU controls immigration and trade with the outside world). Many, but not all, EU members have agreed to use the euro as their common currency and to eliminate all border checkpoints between each other so people can cross from country to country the same way Americans can drive or fly from state to state.

The European Union evolved gradually over the decades into its modern form, originating in post-WWII trade and economic treaties that were designed to try to make a third devastating war in Europe impossible. It wasn’t even called “The European Union” until the 1990s; prior to that, it had been called the “European Communities”. Two simultaneous trends shaped the organization at this time – first, members gave the Union more and more power, and second, the Union admitted more and more members.

It was in this context that the United Kingdom joined in 1973, at a time when the European Communities were still a primarily economic and trade union that looked very different from today’s EU. It was primarily for economic reasons that the British joined; they were struggling economically, and hoped free trade with Europe could provide a big boost. This fact has long played a huge role in Britain’s relationship to the EU. To the British, EU membership was always about what was in it for them, and they never fully committed to complete integration into Europe as other members had. The British refused to adopt the euro, refused to throw open their borders to the same extreme degree as the rest of the Union, and repeatedly got into fights with the EU leadership and other EU members over the EU’s powers. Public approval of the EU has consistently been lower in the UK than most other member countries.

Still, there have always been pro-EU voices in Britain as well. While the vote to leave was close overall, 62% of Scottish voters had cast their ballots in favor of keeping the UK in the EU. British farmers have long been dependent on agricultural subsidies from the EU, and poverty-stricken parts of the UK such as Cornwall have been receiving economic investments from the EU for years. More than a million British citizens live, work, or own property in Europe. The most popular personality on YouTube, Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie, is a Swedish national who lives in the UK and is able to do so because of the EU’s freedom-of-movement laws. The “Brexit”, as the British voters’ decision to leave has been called in the media, has put all of this in possible jeopardy. Already, many British voices are calling for a do-over because of these facts.

Why did the UK vote to leave?

That’s an easy question to ask, but a hard one to answer. The most common answer the political analysts seem to turn to is immigration. Even though the British had managed to get opt-outs of some of the EU’s open-border policies, at the end of the day, while it remained a part of the EU the British government had to give up control of its immigration policy to the Union’s decision-makers in Brussels. Furthermore, any person who was an EU citizen could freely visit and move to the British Isles. Thanks to the UK’s welfare laws, once somebody got in the UK, he or she could count on government-subsidized housing, taxpayer-funded health care, and government aid to pay for living expenses. Immigration has been a perennial issue in British politics for decades, with some arguing that the British Isles just aren’t big enough and don’t have enough jobs or resources to support too many immigrants, and some of the more extreme anti-immigration voices have been accused by critics of being racist or xenophobic. When you consider the haphazard way the European Union responded to the Syrian refugee crisis, it comes as no surprise that British voters may have felt the UK would be better off deciding for itself what its immigration policy is.

On the other hand, the European Union was in a crisis long before there was any talk of Syrian refugees in the news. Remember when the European Union faced a massive economic emergency in the wake of the Greek debt crisis? Or how Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, and Cyprus also faced financial crises of their own at the same time? The economies of many of those countries are still weak, with unemployment reaching 24% in Greece, 20% in Spain, and 15% in Croatia as of February. Since EU members are required to send part of their tax revenue to the European Union, and 30% of the EU’s budget is spent on those regions that have lower incomes and weaker economies, British taxpayers have effectively been seeing their pounds spent on these other countries over the years.

Then there’s this analysis in the New Yorker, which looks at the demographic breakdowns of British voters who cast ballots for “Leave the EU” or “Remain in the EU”, and finds that the “Remain” voters tended to be well-educated, young, and well-off while working-class voters generally tended to vote “Leave”. The author of that piece suspects that working-class anger at Britain’s politicians, who have long been known to be more pro-EU than the general British public, helped tip the scales. I admit, though, that I am not an expert on British politics, so make of that as you will.

Is the UK the first country to leave the EU?

No.

In 1982, Greenland, a large arctic island with a population of just over 55,000 living under Danish rule just northeast of Canada, voted to leave the federation, largely due to the island’s inhabitants wanting control of Greenland’s fishing regulations rather than being forced to abide by Brussels’s fishing rules. In 1985, the Greenland Treaty formally ended the island’s membership, and since then the island has been largely self-governing. As Denmark is still part of the EU, Greenlanders are EU citizens, but EU law does not apply there.

So what happens now?

Exit sign image by Alton

In 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force, and one of the things that it did was create a mechanism by which members could leave. First, a member country would submit some sort of notification to the EU that it intended to leave, and then the EU would negotiate an agreement with that country on what the future relationship of that country to the EU would be after it leaves. For example, a country might want to leave the EU but still have free trade with it, still have a working relationship with it on military matters and security policy, and so on.

There is a two-year deadline from the date of notification to reach an agreement, unless the EU and the country in question should agree to extend that deadline. If no agreement is reached, the country’s membership just up and terminates on the deadline date, and the EU treats the country just like any other foreign country. A country that leaves the EU can rejoin later, but would not receive any special treatment in its application.

In response to the vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron had initially said he would leave it to his successor to formally notify the EU, thus delaying the withdrawal process. The idea behind this would be to give Britain more time to negotiate an exit that would allow the UK to retain access to trade with Europe. However, EU leaders have told the British government to start the process right away and not delay, going so far as to say that “notification” need not be a formal written document; as one official told Reuters, “He can just say it.”

Why so hasty? Well, the United Kingdom, a country that is home to more than 65 million people as well as one of the world’s most important financial centers, has a much bigger impact on the EU than Greenland. People are already speculating in the media about which country might be tempted to leave next, and there are a number of upcoming national elections in several EU members that are facing political shake-ups in the wake of the euro crisis and Syrian refugee crisis. Better to rip the band-aid off quickly, the thinking goes, so the economy and diplomatic relations can re-stabilize and find a “new normal”. If the exit process is delayed too much, it could make things even shakier for far longer.

How does this affect me?

Obviously, if there’s one thing markets don’t like, it’s uncertainty. We’re already starting to feel the economic shocks from the vote, but I expect that will probably stabilize once we have a clearer picture of what is going to happen in the coming years between Britain and Europe. Still, not great news for anybody’s 401(k) plans.

Obviously, the vote also complicates diplomatic relations between the UK and the United States, and likely will for some time, though I doubt our two countries’ long-standing alliance will be diminished. We are both members of NATO, after all.

But what about you, dear Cat Flagger, sitting here reading this? Well, it looks like a vacation to the British Isles just got cheaper, as a weaker pound makes it easier for Americans to afford British prices. This article from BBC News lists several more ways Americans will be directly affected by the Brexit, from the possibility that British investors might want to get into the American real estate market to the strong likelihood that popular TV shows made in Britain such as Doctor Who and Game of Thrones will take a huge hit in the wallet.

In the longer term, I expect international travel in Europe to become more complicated. Anyone travelling from Britain to anywhere else in Europe, or vice-versa, will likely have to abide by new rules and controls, and may even need to get visas. If other countries follow Britain’s lead, that’s even more border controls that weren’t there before a traveler would have to deal with. Trade will also likely be affected in the long-term, as the United States had been in the middle of negotiating a huge trade agreement with the EU that now looks like it may not happen. Expect the cost of goods imported from Europe to go up if the companies that ship them over here have to pay more in tariffs.

For now, we can only wait and see, as it will likely be a while – possibly months – before we get a clearer picture of what a post-Brexit Europe will look like. However, I am optimistic that once we have started to get that clearer picture, things will start to improve. I believe that people are adaptable, and are very good at finding the right path once they know what map it is they are looking at.

Reasons to be Optimistic about 2016

You have to admit, the news has been very depressing lately. In less than a month, we’ve seen terrorist attacks and multiple mass shootings, plus another controversial police shooting sparking even more protests. Western nations are getting more and more involved in a very complicated Middle Eastern conflict, tensions with Russia are still very high, and my home state of California is still in severe drought conditions, a fact that has caused major losses for our vital agriculture industry.

Laying it all out like that paints a pretty bleak picture, doesn’t it? What it’s easy to forget about shocking headlines, though, is that they are news precisely because they are shocking. Many of the everyday triumphs that make our world a better place don’t get headlines because they happen so gradually that they don’t get noticed. Well, today I’ve decided to celebrate the easily-forgotten ways that our world is actually getting better, in order to show that there are actually many reasons to be optimistic about the new year!

Crime is on the decline

Police Tape image by Tex Texin

In spite of Gallup polls showing that Americans think crime is on the rise and society is getting more dangerous, the actual crime statistics are showing the exact opposite. Violent crime in the United States has been declining almost every year since 1992. Property crime has recently been at its lowest since the 1960s. We are all actually far safer from crime today than we were 20 years ago.

Here’s a table breaking down the crime rates of all the major crimes since 1960. As you can see, the rate of homicide in 2014 was the lowest ever recorded.

The crazy part is that nobody actually knows why fewer and fewer crimes are being committed now than in the past. There are a few theories floating around, though. One suggests that crime spiked in the 1980s due to the rise of crack cocaine and the gang wars that raged over controlling the cocaine trade; according to this theory, as later generations rejected crack due to its horrific side-effects, crimes linked to the drug declined as well. Another theory holds that technology has proven to be the best weapon against crime, as more people carry credit or debit cards and fewer carry cash, and newer, more sophisticated security systems make it harder to break into houses or cars. Still others have proposed that the aging of the baby boomer generation has played a role in the decline, or that police crackdowns have been more effective.

Whatever the reason, it’s good to know that our streets are getting safer.

…and so is poverty

Slum image by Jonathan McIntosh

This isn’t to say poverty isn’t still a major problem. According to the World Bank, 702.1 million people worldwide are living without enough food, safe drinking water, shelter, or access to health care, sanitation, or education.

Yet poverty around the world has been declining every generation since 1820. In 1990, the United Nations pledged to cut the number of people living in poverty in half by 2015. Not only did they succeed, they beat their own deadline by five years, passing that threshold in 2010. The World Bank now predicts that the rate of extreme poverty worldwide will be less than 10% of the total human population, for the first time ever in all of human history.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that the lion’s share of this decline is taking place in Asia and Latin America, where economic development has been booming for years. People in these parts of the world have more jobs, infrastructure is being built, and a middle class is growing. In Africa, meanwhile, the poverty rate may be declining, but at a much lower rate. More than 40% of sub-Saharan Africans are still classified as living in “absolute poverty”.

Meanwhile, poverty in the United States actually rose during the Great Recession, with a current rate of around 15%. While this is much lower than the poverty rate of the early 1960s, it is still higher than normal for us. So it looks like there is still work to be done.

We are actually living in one of the most peaceful times in human history

Peace sign image from Wikipedia

In spite of the raging conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and other hot spots around the globe, by any statistical measure peace is winning out over war globally.

There have technically been no wars between countries since 2008, when Russia invaded the neighboring country of Georgia. That war only lasted five days and ended with a negotiated agreement between the two countries. You could argue that the War in the Ukraine is also a war between countries, though technically it is a civil war between the Ukrainian government and rebel troops that Russia vocally insists (in spite of all evidence to the contrary) are not just Russian soldiers wearing different uniforms.

All of the rest of the current ongoing wars are civil wars or wars against terrorist groups, and while both of these can be horrific and brutal, in general they tend to cause fewer casualties than wars between nations. Indeed, deaths as a result of armed conflict have been in decline since the 1980s, and genocides and other forms of mass killings are far rarer than they used to be. It seems that people are just not as willing as they used to be to shoot or bomb each other.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers. Three reasons the world isn’t so bad after all. Here’s hoping all of you have a peaceful holiday season and an optimistic 2016!

Copyright and the Courts: Four Recent Headlines (and What they Mean)

The world-famous Copyright logo, image from the Wikimedia Commons

You have probably seen recent headlines about Volkswagen lying to consumers and emissions regulators about how fuel-efficient and eco-friendly their diesel engines actually are. The cars were installed with special software in their on-board computers that would detect when the vehicle was being tested, and then feed false data to the device testing the car’s emissions. Worse still, Volkswagen had been doing this since 2009! Why did it take so long for anyone to catch on?

According to Kit Walsh of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the answer is copyright law.

The software in most newer cars (as well as many other machines) is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This means that the programming that tells the computers in the machine what to do is the intellectual property of the manufacturer. Not only that, but if that software is encrypted to hide the software’s code from any peering eyes – and, thanks to the risk of industrial espionage and piracy, the code on these cars is almost always encrypted – the DMCA makes it illegal to break the encryption.

This is good for the manufacturer and bad for spies and pirates. However, the Volkswagen scandal shows where having a single, blanket ban can actually harm the public good. For years, nobody was willing to risk looking at the code inside Volkswagen’s cars, even though many advocacy groups and even U.S. government officials were suspicious of the company’s claims that its diesel engines were some of the most environmentally friendly in the world. If anyone tried to look at the code in Volkswagen’s cars, they would be breaking the law. It wasn’t until a West Virginia laboratory decided to go ahead and risk it that somebody finally had a look at that code and made the discovery.

This is just one example of how copyright law directly affects each and every one of us in our day-to-day lives. It is expected that soon Volkswagen will be forced to issue a recall of all affected models, and if that happens, anyone who drives a diesel Volkswagen would need to find out how they are affected and what their options are.

This is just one of several headlines in the news recently about copyright law. In case you hadn’t figured it out by now, I tend to follow this stuff pretty closely. Here are a few more copyright-related headlines in the past few weeks you might have missed:

The “Happy Birthday” song isn’t copyrighted after all!

Birthday Cake image from Normanack

Remember when I told you about how Warner Music Group owned the copyright to the “Happy Birthday” song?

Well, that is no longer the case. In fact, according to a recent federal court ruling, it was never legally the case.

As you may recall, the tune for “Happy Birthday to You” was taken from “Good Morning to You”, a song written by two sisters in 1893. That tune has been in the public domain for years. However, the lyrics for “Happy Birthday to You” were copyrighted in 1935. Or so everyone thought.

According to the court ruling, the 1935 copyright registration was for a piano arrangement, not the lyrics themselves. Furthermore, the paperwork was filed incorrectly, and on top of that, there is plenty of proof that the song existed long before the copyright registration in 1935, with versions published as early as 1901. Lastly, there is no evidence that the original sisters who wrote “Good Morning to You” ever wrote the “Happy Birthday” variant, and even if they had, there is no evidence that they gave the copyright to the company that ultimately filed that 1935 registration that Warner Music Group depends on to assert ownership of the song.

Thus, the court ruled that “Happy Birthday to You” has been in the public domain for all of these years. Now, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are demanding Warner Music Group refund all of the millions of dollars in royalties they have been collecting from the song for decades.

So, now that I can do this without fear of being sued…

Happy Birthday to You

Happy Birthday to You

Happy Birthday dear friends,

Happy Birthday to You!

Cars can be copyrighted

Batmobile photo by Jennifer Graylock

Let me tell you a tale of a humble auto mechanic who wanted to make some money off of somebody else’s brand recognition. Mark Towle of Temecula, California modified cars so that they looked like the Batmobile. DC Comics, makers of the Batman comics and owners of all intellectual property associated with the character, sued Towle.

Towle argued that you can’t copyright a vehicle because it is a useful object. He also argued that he was basing his cars off of the Batman TV shows and movies, so DC Comics couldn’t sue him. On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Towle had no idea what he was talking about.

In the court’s ruling, they found that the Batmobile is a “distinct character” that was worthy of copyright protection. The fact that it is a car is irrelevant. Also irrelevant, according to the courts, is the fact that Towle based his vehicles on the movies and TV shows. DC Comics still owns the “underlying” copyrights to anything Batman-related. They didn’t give up those copyrights when authorizing film adaptations of their comics; indeed, the contracts DC signed specifically ensure that DC still owns the copyrights to the characters in the films.

I suppose this is very bad news to anyone who is hoping to design and build an invisible jet.

The curious case of the “monkey selfie”

The famous monkey selfie

When photographer David Slater left a camera out beside a troop of macaques in Indonesia in 2011, one of the female macaques picked the device up and started playing with it. It ended up taking several photographs, including the famous “monkey selfie” above.

Slater assumed that he still held the copyright to the photographs; it was his camera, after all. However, this claim was soon disputed by several websites, including Wikipedia. Eventually, the U.S. Copyright Office ruled that the photograph was not Slater’s creation, it was the macaque’s creation, and “To qualify as a work of ‘authorship’ a work must be created by a human being. Works that do not satisfy this requirement are not copyrightable.”

That would have been the end of it, except on Wednesday a new wrinkle was added to this tale. PETA filed a lawsuit claiming that the macaque should be legally recognized as the ‘author’ of the photographs and that the copyrights belong to her. They even filed the lawsuit under the monkey’s name.

For his part, Slater told the Washington Post “PETA are deluded in this stunt,” and New York University law professor Chris Sprigman told Slate “The fact is, copyright’s not there to reward people for their labor—it’s to incentivize people to create new books or poems.” He adds that a macaque has no real incentive to create anything.

Still, the PETA lawsuit brings up some interesting ideas, according to MSNBC’s Christopher Buccafusco: “If a computer programmer writes computer code that creates an artificial intelligence capable of writing music, who owns the copyright in the resulting song: the programmer, the A.I., both, or neither?”

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, my latest “blogging about copyright” fix. What can I say? My interests are what they are. I hope you all enjoyed, at least.

Behind the Headline: America’s Never-Ending Presidential Elections

2012 Election map by Gage Skidmore

2012 Election map by Gage Skidmore

It’s presidential election season here in the good old U.S. of A. Already, 23 candidates have thrown their hat into the ring to run for the most powerful position in America. We’ve already had the first presidential debate, the statisticians are hard at work taking opinion polls of American voters and publishing their results, and the candidates have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fund their campaigns.

Did I mention the election isn’t until November of 2016?

The United States has – by far – the LONGEST election cycle of all the world’s democracies. Most countries’ campaigns for office begin and end over a matter of weeks or months. Canada is currently in the middle of its longest election cycle ever – 78 days. Germany’s longest election cycle was 114 days. In the United Kingdom, people complained last year about a “long campaign” that lasted 139 days. Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced his candidacy for the White House 596 days before the election will actually take place.

To put that in perspective, a baby conceived today will not only have already been born, but will be nearly six months old when Election Day arrives. So, why are our elections here in the United States just so darn long? Especially when you consider:

It seems on the surface like long elections are bad for candidates, as it means they have to spend more time and money campaigning to capture a smaller voter base. However, it turns out that there are several contributing factors to America’s ridiculously long campaigns, each one pushing for longer and longer campaigns and making it hard to reverse the trend.

Factor #1: Primaries

Ballot box image from the Smithsonian Institution

Much like the madness of Black Friday, the overly-long U.S. presidential campaign cycle came on gradually, over time. George Washington didn’t even have to run for president at all, he was just sort of proclaimed president by unanimous consent (the only president to have that distinction). Later, when political parties started to become a thing, party leaders would get together at a national convention and decide who their candidate would be in the big contest. Often, this involved shady backroom deals, especially as late 19th-century American politics became dominated by ruthless political machines that bought votes and put forth candidates they could control. To counteract this, reformers began pushing for political parties in the United States to instead choose their candidates through primary elections, a sort of pre-election election to choose who would run for office in the final contest in November.

Today, both the Democrats and Republicans choose their presidential candidate through a system of primaries held on a state-by-state basis. Instead of every Republican and Democrat in America voting all at once, each state decides for itself when it will hold its primary. This can be a problem for states that vote late in the game, since it means that by the time their voters get a say in which candidate they want, it is entirely possible (even likely) that one candidate will already have won enough support to move on to the November prize. This gives each state an incentive to move its primary as early as possible, to vote ahead of everybody else. Iowa and New Hampshire have even written it into their laws that their primaries are held before anybody else’s. This has pushed the primaries earlier and earlier every year; in 2012, Iowans voted on January 3!

Both the Democrats and Republicans decided that from 2016 onward, most states would be barred from holding the primaries before March. However, exceptions were granted for four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Why them? Because… um… reasons. (No, really – in an interview with Fox News, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee explained the exception by saying “It is years and years and years of history, and that’s a debate, too. It is what it is.”)

Factor #2: First mover advantage

Early bird image by OpenClipartVectors

In 1960, John F. Kennedy shocked Americans by announcing he was running for president in January. This gave him media attention, and soon he had an advantage over his rivals when it came time for the primaries, since his name was already on everyone’s lips. The message was clear: announce early, get your name out there, get attention. In 1991, Bill Clinton announced his candidacy in October, just over a year before the 1992 election. In 1999, George W. Bush announced his own candidacy in June.

Again, this trend of announcing earlier and earlier is a gradual thing that snuck up on us over time. It simply behooves candidates to get their names out there as early as possible to build momentum, garner attention, and put your name in voter’s minds as they have to wade through the list of candidates on primary election day. The 2016 election may be more than a year away, but considering how many candidates have already announced that they are running, anybody who tries to enter the contest now would have no chance of winning, since they would be at a disadvantage in fundraising, gaining media attention, and building a support base.

Factor #3: The media

News image by Gerd Altmann

This brings us to the final factor pushing us to the never-ending campaign: the news. For years, news coverage of election-related headlines has come earlier and earlier. Speculation and horse-race polling get views and clicks, and as we’ve covered before, this is what the advertisers who keep the lights on are looking for. Besides, if candidates are making announcements, giving speeches, and holding debates, that is newsworthy stuff. What, is the news media not supposed to cover that? Of course they will.

Still, political pundits and analysts build their careers upon talking about who is probably or possibly going to make what move and why. Did you know that news sites were talking about the 2016 election before the results of the 2012 election had even been counted? This article from the USA Today discusses the chances of Vice-President Joe Biden running for president in 2016 – on Election Day in 2012! This article from Salon talks about a gambling firm’s predicted odds of various possible candidates running for office in 2016 – two days before the 2012 ballots were even cast! This means that the news media has been talking about next year’s election continuously for the past three years!

Sheesh! Under that kind of media pressure, is it any wonder candidates want to announce early?

Thus, it seems, we are stuck with election cycles that run nearly two years for the foreseeable future, unless and until these trends start to reverse. I guess we’re all simply going to have to put up with it for a long, long while.

Behind the Headline: California’s Record Drought

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 - before the drought -  and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 – before the drought – and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Today it rained on California’s Central Coast. In San Luis Obispo, I was holed up in a library while there was a heavy downpour at about 10:00 in the morning. To us Californians, any rain of any kind is an answer to prayer right now, as our state is currently suffering from what is being called the worst drought in recorded history.

Already, Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered the state’s first ever mandatory cuts to water usage with the aim of reducing California’s water usage by 25%. The measures he enacted include:

  • Replacing water-hungry grass lawns with more drought-tolerant landscaping options across California, through local government programs encouraging residents to make the switch-over.
  • Requiring cut-backs on water use at colleges and universities, golf courses, cemeteries, and public roads. The little decorative grassy bits in the concrete meridians of some roads? Those will not get any more water at all.
  • Creating a rebate program for people to trade in old appliances for new, more water-efficient models.
  • Restricting water usage at newly-built residential neighborhoods, such as requiring the use of drip irrigation systems, and cracking down on anyone living in established residential areas who are in violation of rules regarding sinks, toilets, and landscaping.
  • Providing assistance for families that need to relocate from areas that have run out of water completely, such as might happen if an area dependent on well-water runs dry.

Further details of how the plan will work are to be announced by the State Water Resources Control Board at some point this week. Already, there are criticisms of the current water conservation plan. This editorial suggests that instead of laying down the hammer on water use, the state could make it more expensive to use too much water with higher taxes. Still others say the restrictions don’t go far enough, arguing that the state’s 26 million acres of farmland should be forced to restrict their water use, too.

Why is this happening? How is it going to affect you? It’s time once again to go Behind the Headline.

So, is this California’s worst drought ever?

California Drought Map by the United States government

No.

This is the worst drought in California’s recorded history, and that’s an important caveat to keep in mind. Of all the indigenous civilizations that existed in California prior to European contact, none of them developed a system of writing, so the oldest historical records we have about the state were written by the Spanish in the 18th century.

Thanks to the hard work of archaeologists and paleontologists who have studied tree rings and other evidence, we now know that there have been far worse droughts in California’s history. They have learned that California has experienced a number of “megadroughts” that have lasted as long as 10-20 years. In 850 A.D., a drought began that lasted 240 years, and in 1140 A.D., another drought struck that lasted 180 years!

Even within recorded history, California has had worse droughts if all you are going by is annual rainfall. A 30-year drought, lasting roughly from 1910 to 1940, saw many years of very low rainfall, including the driest on record so far, 1924, when the entire state saw only 9.23 inches of precipitation.

What makes the current drought so bad isn’t the weather, it’s the people. When those ancient megadroughts hit the state, the only people in California were societies that survived on hunting and gathering. There were 2.3 million Californians in 1910, and there were 6.9 million in 1940. Today, there are nearly 39 million of us, according to the U.S. Census Bureau! That’s 12% of the entire population of the United States.

That’s 39 million people drawing on the same water supply, and that means when a drought hits, that water supply is depleted very quickly. Hence, we are seeing proposals for more desalinization plants that would extract drinkable water from the vast Pacific Ocean right off our coast. Desalinization is an expensive option, but if this drought lasts as long as some of the droughts in California’s history, it might end up as an option many coastal communities pursue.

So California just needs more rain?

Rain alone is not enough to break this drought. What California needs is SNOW.

You're... joking, right? Right?

You’re… joking, right? Right?

I know, California is known for year-round sunshine, beaches, and not having a true winter, but up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, feet of snow can accumulate. These mountains hold the national record for most snow in one month (390 inches, or 32.5 feet) and greatest snow depth recorded (451 inches, or 37.6 feet), as well as second-most snowfall in a single day (67 inches, or 5.6 feet). As winter turns to spring, all of that mountain snow will melt and feed the state’s rivers and lakes.

That’s why it’s so significant that California’s snowfall this year was only 6% of what we normally get. That is the biggest cause of the drought, and the biggest reason all of the state’s lakes and rivers are drying up.

Well, at least this is as bad as it gets, right?

I hate to be a pessimist, but this actually could get worse, at least according to this article from National Geographic. To quench California’s mighty thirst, the state is drawing more and more of its water from underground pockets of water called “aquifers” that emerge in gravelly and sandy soil. Aquifers close to the surface get replenished with runoff from lakes and streams, but the deeper you dig for water, the less likely that the water you pump going to be replaced. Some of the deepest aquifers can’t be refilled at all, so when that water runs out, it’s gone forever.

Yet, in response to the drought, groundwater from these aquifers now makes up 60% of the water Californians are consuming. There are almost no restrictions in California law on sucking up this water and selling it. Not only that, but as the water is used up, the ground above it sinks, since there is less mass supporting it. All of this has the potential to radically reshape California’s landscape, both in the figurative sense of people abandoning areas dependent on dried-up aquifers, and in the literal sense of sinking land.

I don’t live in California. Why should I care?

One word: Agriculture.

Tractor image by Thomas McSparron

Did you eat a salad today? Odds are pretty strong that the lettuce you ate came from California. The cheese on your pizza could easily have come from a California dairy. California olives, grapes, and citrus are eaten nationwide, and we produce 90% of all American wines. California is the second-largest rice-growing state in the U.S., and exports a third of its crop to Japan. Yes, you read that right, California supplies rice to Japan.

Agriculture is responsible for 80% of California’s water consumption. That means California’s water crisis could easily lead to higher prices on your groceries. As the water supply dwindles, it gets more expensive, and farmers have to raise their prices. Even worse, many farms will simply get so water-starved that they have to shut down, reducing the supply of many crops and making the remaining farms’ crops more expensive because global demand for food won’t have changed. Already, some California rice farms are closing. As the drought wears on, the price you pay at the grocery store for your food will get higher and higher.

What can I do about this?

If you live in California, you can visit this website with more than 100 tips and tricks to saving water. You can find even more tips here. The less water we all use, the longer the water supply we have will last us.

For those of you not in California, it couldn’t hurt to write your local representatives in Congress and ask what they plan to do about the water crisis. Even if all you do is keep us in your prayers, we would very much appreciate it.