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"It's catastrophic!" Duncan McFetridge flings his arms out. "Look, can't you see the change?"

Several years ago, when I last came here to the Cleveland National Forest outside of Descanso, McFetridge's cabin nestled in a deep-shaded dell. His horse, pony, and mule didn't stray, at least through the heat of the day, from the cool of his coastal live oaks' canopy.

Now the mule stands dazed in the unremitting sun. But it's not the mule we're looking at. We're looking at the skeletons rising 60, 80 feet in the air. McFetridge's oaks. Nearly all dead.

"Welcome to the new normal," says McFetridge. "This is our future, right here.

"You see that ranch?" He points across the valley. Scattered forest grows up small mountains that lead your eye to the sacred peak of Guatay. "They've lost 80 percent of their oaks. It's been a die-off. We get 30 inches of rain up here. Down on the coast you get 10. The trees aren't stupid. Summer rain is why the forest is here. We always used to get summer rain. Now we're getting none. Once this forest went clear to the ocean. Now it's retreating upslope, following the moisture."

Along the bottom of the valley below us, the Sweetwater River is just a green blush of growth. "This used to run all year round, till about five years ago," he says. "We have a drought, and yet people have been water-mining the mountains, pumping water out of places like Mount Laguna day and night [to sell to commercial water companies]. And the effect is absolutely measurable. The water table, the streams have dropped down."

McFetridge is a gangly, clean-jawed woodsman with heavy, overhanging Scottish eyebrows and a light gleaming out from his eyes that swings between engaging humor and righteous passion. He is a sought-out cabinetmaker who specializes in Chinese furniture, but he's most famous for being a pain in the butt for developers, county officials, planners, and pen pushers who want to expand exurbia into the countryside. He's also president of the never-cry-uncle organization Save Our Forests and Ranchlands.

"You just watch the trees struggle, day after day," he says. "And if you're not careful, you stop noticing. Then one day you see your animals sweating in the sun, and you know something big and bad is going on."

Some of the trees that are still alive weep a black goo, a sure sign the bark beetle and root rot are finishing them off.

"I don't want to sound pessimistic," says McFetridge. "But this is starting to look like, what's everybody calling it now? The perfect drought?"

Drought? What drought? If you're a townie, you'd hardly know. If San Diego were Baghdad, we'd be living in the Green Zone, a secure, artificially watered paradise, a gated community sealed off from the real world.

But ever since Saint Al and his slide show, high schools, governmental departments, biology departments, and natural history museums have been looking at the weather, and the weather, at least here, has been obliging. What we're experiencing feels unnatural.

As far back as 2004, the U.S. Geological Survey started calling this drought "comparable to or more severe than the largest-known drought in 500 years." Blame the low rainfall since the early 1990s, plus low snowfall in the Sierras -- which feed the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta -- and also in the Rockies, where the Colorado River is born. All this has created the foundation for a drought so serious that you start thinking, could desertification be next?

Specifically, a big high-pressure system that has installed itself above us has kept the jet stream and the rain it brings to the north. But what caused it to plant itself over us? Global warming -- okay, the Republicans want us to call it the less-threatening "climate change" -- is provoking theories predicting more precipitation in mountains up north but with higher temperatures, meaning less of it turns to snow. Rather than having a snowpack reservoir that melts in summer when we need water most, we could have a rush-off in winter, when we can't stop the water from racing to the sea. San Diego County relies on Northern California and the Colorado River for "up to 90 percent of the region's water," according to the San Diego County Water Authority. We're addicts. We're fine as long as we get our fix of this imported substance.

But -- is everybody abandoning New Jersey? As populations continue to expand in the West, California has had to reduce its intake from the Colorado River. It has forfeited maybe a sixth of what it had been using -- 800,000 acre-feet above its 4.4 million acre-foot allocation -- as the other six Colorado-dependent Western states demanded their fair share. Yes, San Diego gets a consolation prize of 280,000 acre-feet that will come from lining the All-American and Coachella canals with concrete and from deals with Imperial Valley farmers to sell us some of their water instead of growing crops. But statewide that makes up, what, a third? California's still 520,000 acre-feet down.

So all we needed was to hear about the delta smelt, a threatened three-inch fish from the Sacramento Delta that keeps getting sucked into pumps that deliver San Diego County 30 percent of its drinking water.

On August 31, federal judge Oliver Wanger "ordered state and federal water managers to significantly reduce pumping from the Sacramento Delta," according to Copley News Service reports, to protect the three-inch wiggler until a way is worked out to save it by somehow reconfiguring the delta's plumbing system. The ruling could cost Southern California up to 2 million acre-feet of drinking water every year. Typical four-member families use half an acre-foot per year, so that's 4 million families without water. Sixteen million people. Or 8 million people and lots of farmland. John Liarakos of the San Diego County Water Authority reckons we could suffer a shortfall of "between 10 and 30 percent."

Then there are the threats a warming climate can create for people. As temperatures rise, diseases like West Nile virus, dengue fever, malaria, and TB can live happily and circulate readily. For plants it is the opposite. According to plant pathologist Marc Cathey (author of Heat-Zone Gardening), in temperatures above 86 degrees Fahrenheit, some pollen becomes nonviable, tomatoes can't create new fruit, chlorophyll production slows, leaves become susceptible to bug attack, and roots suffer.

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