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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.

But the big roots of 300-year-old trees? Duncan McFetridge's oaks and others suffering in the Cleveland National Forest get none of the Sacramento water. And trees are thirsty creatures. They say that a mature oak tree needs 300 to 500 gallons of water a day. But you have to wonder: these trees must have endured droughts like this before, and now they must have more capable roots than ever before. How is it they're succumbing?

Orrin Davis, whose company Butler Drilling has been drilling water wells in the mountains east of San Diego since the 1960s, says oaks are vulnerable to changes in the water table. "Back in the '70s, '80s, you'd have to drill down an average of 400 feet to reach water. Today, it's 800 to 900 feet. I've had to go to 1400 feet. In my 40 years, this is one of the longest droughts. As far as I'm concerned, this drought has been going since the early, mid-'90s."

It's been tough times for Warren Stormthunder, a certified arborist, a kind of tree doctor, from Alpine, who has been trying to help McFetridge out.

"Lately I've been the undertaker," he says. "I just take those oaks down when they're dead. When the bark cracks, you know they're done for."

He says the die-off has been going on for years. "If it's true that this is the worst drought for 500 years, these are drought conditions these oak trees have never experienced. And I would estimate Duncan's oaks were 300 to 400 years old, the bigger ones."

He says when trees are under stress from lack of water, it's like having a weakened immune system. Other things, like the bark beetle, show up and kill the tree. "On a tree that's properly hydrated, when the beetle drills in, the water pressure just pushes it right back out. Plus there's tannic acid they don't like. So it's the beetle and fungal root rot that can finish them off."

Human activity can push oaks over the edge too. People trying to help by watering the oaks in the heat of summer, for instance. "You never water oaks in summer." That, Stormthunder says, can cause root rot. "Some root rot can come into play when houses [with watered gardens] get built nearby or roots get cut for foundations," he says. "But that doesn't account for the hundreds upon hundreds of oaks that have been dying in the backcountry. In Pine Valley and Descanso, they have lost probably two-thirds of the mature oaks over five or six years."

And then there are San Diego's ancient sugar pines. The often-centuries-old sugar pines are the largest pine trees in the world. They're a little-known pride of San Diego. At least one has a trunk nine feet in diameter. The sugar pines are largely gone, victims of drought-induced fire. "They got established 800 years ago, when it was a wet cycle," says Stormthunder. "To get them reestablished -- and it takes 100 years for them to reach maturity -- we'd have to be in a pretty wet cycle for the first couple of hundred years."

Crows Invade San Diego

Hear those crows cawing from the telephone poles? They never used to venture south of Carlsbad. Now they're forming tribes, displacing pigeons in the thousands throughout the county. The worrying question is why, after being happy with a traditional territory from British Columbia to Carlsbad, the American crow is migrating south.

And perhaps it's all the dead logs around, but Duncan McFetridge has noticed an invasion of squirrels. "Everybody's talking about the squirrels. There's a tremendous influx of these ground squirrels. They attract the predators, believe me. The other day I was on the top of the hill, resting in a chair, and I opened my eyes and there was a bobcat, about 20 feet away. He hadn't seen me. I keep water on the top of the hill, so that's also part of the reason he turns up in these dry times. But squirrels must be his breakfast, lunch, and dinner."

And guess what just arrived, according to Philip Unitt, curator of the Department of Birds and Mammals at the Natural History Museum. "In the last month we have seen two birds appear for the first time ever in San Diego County, both of them tropical ocean birds," he says.

One was a bridled tern, which normally lives between Nayarit, Mexico, and Central America.

The other was a Newell's shearwater, a threatened species that nests only in Hawaii. "They normally migrate from Hawaii south to feed in the equatorial countercurrent," he says, "so this is way from their normal pattern."

Unitt says the shearwater made its debut in Del Mar -- its northernmost-known appearance ever -- in a pretty rough howdy-do: A crew was working at night on the stabilization of the bluff in Del Mar where the railroad runs when a strange bird started dive-bombing a crewmember who had a helmet headlamp. The bird crashed, the victim picked it up, and he ended up taking it to the wildlife rehabilitators.

"Meryl Faulkner, the primary seabird specialist for Project Wildlife, brought it to me, still very much alive," says Unitt. "I looked at it and said, 'Holy shit, this is a Newell's shearwater, never before landed in California.' And it's still alive in Meryl Faulkner's hot tub in rehabilitation."

How is this happening?

"Let's put it this way," Unitt says. "We're moving into a new phase of history. We've had such a succession of dry years in a row, and the increase of the temperatures is indisputable. As the oceans become warmer, tropical ocean birds, being among the most mobile, would be expected to be among the ones responding first. The brown booby was almost unknown on the coast of California. Now there's a colony of about 30 of them nesting on Los Coronados islands."

Indeed, birds, he says, can be great indicators of a warming environment. "We noticed that the Lincoln sparrow and the house wren both are starting to winter in San Diego [rather than farther south]," he says. "They were just at low elevations before, and then we found them in some years in higher elevations, which traditionally would have had quite a bit of snow in the winter."

After the 2002 drought -- till then, the dryest winter on record -- the numbers of a lot of bird species dropped off. "In some cases quite dramatically," he says. Especially in this last year, because now we've had two successive years of drought. "But some birds, like the mockingbird, which is the ultimate opportunist, were able to take advantage of the many drought-induced fires in the county, including the 2003 Cedar." That fire burned a quarter-million acres, so mockingbirds had plenty of terrain to exploit. "But there were quite a number of birds which were affected dreadfully by the fires. And their recovery after the fire has been retarded because of the drought. Birds like the California thrasher and the wrentit. Their numbers are down over the last two or three years.

"So if [as some say] the fires marked a shift to a dryer climate, then the reductions we see in those species that were sensitive to [the fires] could represent a permanent cutting back of their range and numbers." In a couple of cases, he says, local extinction is possible. "For example, the saw-whet owl. It is a species of the coniferous forest. San Diego was the southern tip of its range. And if they were wiped out of the Cuyamaca Mountains, then their range will end up retracting back toward the north."

But generally, he says, even though it's not yet time to panic, when things get dry, some birds simply stop reproducing. "I had a colleague studying chaparral birds like the rufous-crowned sparrow, the spotted towhee, the California towhee, and the wrentit. After that extremely dry winter of 2002, they basically did not nest at all. They didn't even try."

On the other hand, some species have benefited and taken advantage of the irrigated urban treescapes we have created -- the crow, Cooper's hawk, peregrine falcon, and Nuttall's woodpecker, which traditionally inhabits oak groves. Now the woodpecker's taken to town trees, such as avocados.

And if -- worst-case scenario -- repeated fires, drought, and high temperatures continue for, say, the next ten years and we become more of a desert city, Unitt can see other desert opportunists like the black-throated sparrow moving in.

What should we do to mitigate this, to help the county's birds, to retain a temperate climate? "Above all, people should be careful with fire," says Unitt. "It was very clear from our studies that in the firestorms of 2003, a lot of them didn't fly away or couldn't fly away. Especially with those fires which spread at night. That catches birds even more unaware."

Tiny Fish Causes Colossal Water Crisis

So what is the San Diego County Water Authority doing about this coming drought?

At least until the end of August, shifting deckchairs on the Titanic. An August 7 press release announcing the authority's five-year Blueprint for Water Conservation summarized the plans. "Motivating more homeowners and businesses to install low-water-use landscapes, expanding incentives for purchasing 'smart' irrigation controllers and other water-saving devices, and reducing overwatering via a sophisticated, web-based 'water budget' program are cornerstones of the San Diego County Water Authority's new five-year Blueprint for Water Conservation," said their press release. "The Blueprint is designed to help the Water Authority and its member agencies meet a 2010 conservation savings goal of 80,000 acre-feet, up from 51,000 acre-feet in 2006. To stay on course to meet the region's growing needs, the Water Authority must save 80,000 acre-feet by 2010, 94,000 acre-feet by 2020, and 108,000 acre-feet by 2030."

Then came the bombshell caused by the three-inch fish. "Federal judge orders massive cut in water supply deliveries from the Bay Delta," said the water authority's August 31 press release. "California faces unprecedented water crisis as early as 2008."

Suddenly, the San Diego County Water Authority stopped worrying about "smart" irrigation controllers and started worrying about survival. Not the delta smelt's survival but San Diego's. "Those cutbacks will be the largest curtailments ever ordered," the authority wrote. "The cutbacks are expected to last a year or more."

"We are clearly facing a serious water crisis throughout California," said Fern Steiner, chair of the water authority's board of directors, in the August 31 press release. "The water supply impacts of this court decision to San Diego County will be significant, and supply shortages and mandatory water use restrictions are a very real possibility. This decision comes on the heels of the historic dry conditions we are experiencing throughout California, which are already impacting water supplies."

San Diego's water authority kowtows to the L.A.-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies most of our Colorado River water and all of our delta water -- 76 percent of our total supply. The Metropolitan Water District (MWD), according to the water authority's press release, "could impose mandatory water supply reductions in deliveries to its member agencies, including the San Diego County Water Authority. MWD has already advised agricultural customers...to expect a 30 percent cut in those supplies beginning January 1, 2008. The final impact of the court action will not be known until the end of the upcoming 2007-2008 winter season, which will determine how much Sierra snow pack -- and water supply -- may be available next year, and how much of that supply will be curtailed because of the pumping restrictions."

The water authority assured San Diego customers that since the 1987-1992 drought, it "has invested in maximizing storage, local supply development, the Coachella and All-American canal lining projects, the water transfer from Imperial Irrigation District, conservation, and recycling." And better days are to come. "This year the water transfer and the canal linings will provide 71,500 acre-feet of reliable water. By 2011, the water transfer and canal lining projects will provide nearly 158,000 acre-feet of water. By 2021, they will provide 277,700 acre-feet annually."

Plus, said the water authority, the long-delayed seawater desalination plant in Carlsbad could be just the beginning. "The Water Authority is also exploring other potential options for a seawater desalination plant in the county." And, if you can just wait 13 years, "The Water Authority is projecting that as a result of investments by its member agencies, groundwater production will triple from 14,956 acre-feet in 2006 to 52,300 acre-feet in 2020. Similarly, recycled water usage is expected to triple from 14,828 acre-feet in 2006 to 52,300 acre-feet in 2020."

The water authority promised to send its lobbyists to Sacramento to fight to prevent the judge's ruling from becoming permanent and urged everyone to reduce usage by 20 gallons per day.

If you ask guys who've put time into the big questions -- How come this is happening? And is it going to go on happening? -- their answers are fascinating in a scary sort of way.

"I call it the dry, incendiary summer of 2007," says William C. Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "Mother Nature is converging with human nature. With population growth and the decline in the water, there are the elements in the equation which you could call the perfect drought."

Patzert's known as "the water guy" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Others call him "the blob guy" because he's the person who has been bringing us the satellite pictures of El Niño since the late '90s: the Pacific Ocean seen from above with orange and yellow blobs indicating the puddle of warm water drifting east from Indonesia, squishing against Peru, and oozing up to bug California.

Patzert bases his prophecies on what he calls PDOs, Pacific decadal oscillations. Pacific decadal oscillation theory, he says, gives us the big, long-term picture. "This is the stage on which El Niño and La Niña play, and it lasts for about 50 years," he says, "25 each. It's a pattern in the Pacific that goes from Asia to the Americas, and the Aleutians to Antarctica. When you look back at tree-ring records, for instance, these cycles -- El Niños, La Niñas, PDOs -- have been around for thousands of years. They're a natural part of our weather. Right now we're in what I call the negative phase of this Pacific decadal oscillation. When you look from the late 1940s to the mid-'70s, we tended to be a lot dryer then too. We had about 80 percent of our normal rainfall. Then we went into the '80s and the '90s, and they tended to be wetter than normal. So we got a little spoiled. So it's more like the 1950s to the '60s to the mid-'70s now. We checked 300 [measuring stations] around the state of California, and what we discovered is that in 50 years the average temperature has risen 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit, the snowpack arrives one week later, and it melts one week earlier than before."

Not only that, he says, but in that time the nation's population has doubled, California's has grown by a factor of four, and San Diego's has grown by a factor of six. "And right now, out there off California, a La Niña sits with cooler waters at the equator. That means one thing: another dry year for San Diego. I call her the Demon Diva of Drought."

The Dryest Two Years

on Record

"We have been thinking about what we're going to do for over a year now," says John Liarakos, the San Diego County Water Authority's spokesman. They have come up with a three-phase plan. "Right now we're in phase one of the drought plan, basically calling for increased voluntary water conservation. You probably heard about the 20-gallon challenge. Phase two is finding short-term additional sources of water: spot transfers, water purchases, that sort of thing. Phase three is mandatory reduction. And that's when we go to our member agencies, like the City of San Diego, and say, 'We can only give you X percent of what you need. Now you need to figure out what you're going to do.' Only the member agencies can actually put restrictions in place."

Liarakos says the water authority has stashed enough water for this year and next. On the other hand, he says, this is not a drought to trifle with. "The past two years have been the dryest since record-keeping started back in 1801, when Thomas Jefferson was president," he says. "The Sierra Nevada snow is at 30 percent, and the Colorado River is into the eighth year of its drought." In fiscal 2006, the water authority used 687,000 acre-feet to slake San Diego County's thirst. By 2030, we'll have a million more people, totaling around 3.8 million. And if you believe Sacramento will give back that water the judge just took away from Southlanders, think again.

Did You Know You Live on a Heat Island?

From the February 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

  • Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed preindustrial values.
  • The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2005 (379 parts per million) exceeds by far the natural range of the last 650,000 years (180 to 300 ppm).
  • The amount of methane in the atmosphere in 2005 (1774 ppb) exceeds by far the natural range of the last 650,000 years (320 to 790 ppb).
  • The primary source of the increase in carbon dioxide is fossil fuel use, but land-use changes also make a contribution.
  • Eleven of the past 12 years rank among the top 12 warmest years in the instrumental record (since 1850).
  • Warming in the last 100 years (1906-2005) has caused about a 0.74 degree Centigrade (1.332 degree Fahrenheit) increase in global average temperature. This is up from the 0.6 degree Centigrade (1.08 degree Fahrenheit) increase in the 100 years prior to the Third Assessment Report (1901-2000).
  • Observations since 1961 show that the ocean has been absorbing more than 80 percent of the heat added to the climate system and that ocean temperatures have increased to depths of at least 9800 feet.
  • Average Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the second half of the 20th Century were very likely higher than during any other 50-year period in the last 500 years and likely the highest in at least the past 1300 years.

From the University of Washington: "The atmosphere is warming faster in subtropical areas, around 30 degrees north and south latitude, than it is elsewhere." And that's us, the so-called horse latitudes. University of Washington scientists "examining more than 25 years of satellite data also found that each hemisphere's jet stream has moved toward the pole by about 1 degree of latitude, or 70 miles." Translation? A widening of the tropics, an expansion of "some of the world's driest regions."

From National Geographic News, April 5, 2007: "U.S. Southwest Drought Could Be Start of New Dust Bowl" -- "The unprecedented drought that has gripped the southwestern United States isn't almost over, researchers say, it may have only just begun. That's the consensus of all but 1 of 19 climate models used as the basis for this week's upcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), according to a new analysis."

National Geographic quotes Richard Seager, a senior research scientist with the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and coauthors as predicting that "the levels of aridity of the recent multiyear drought... [will] become the new climatology of the American Southwest."

From NPR's Morning Edition, March 16, 2007: Howard Herzog, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, says that "the world puts out more than 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. On average, that's 4 tons for every man, woman, and child on the planet."

From the Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2007: Increasing urban density can accelerate regions' warming by creating ever-hotter "heat islands," according to Ali Modarres, a professor of urban geography, in an op-ed piece. "This is principally caused by the construction materials -- brick, concrete, asphalt, stone and other substances -- used most often in building central cities. Because these materials retain heat and cool slowly, they raise the ambient air temperature and make central cities a few degrees warmer than rural and suburban areas. For instance, the temperature difference between Phoenix and its outlying areas can be upward of 10 degrees."

And, Modarres suggests, energy use increases with rising temperatures. He quotes a study of Los Angeles by the Heat Island Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "It estimated that 'the demand for electric power rises nearly 2% for every degree Fahrenheit the daily maximum temperature rises.' "

As affirmed by Senator Dianne Feinstein and many others, the United States, with only 4 percent of the world's population, debouches 25 percent of mankind's greenhouse gases, more than any country, though China and India are in hot pursuit.

Local scientists, it turns out, have not been ignoring this issue.

Our Raindrops Aren't Heavy Enough to Fall

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a scientist at the UCSD-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is a pioneer in the study of global dimming. He believes this phenomenon may have provoked the drought that hit Ethiopia in 1984 and may have significance for Southern California.

Dimming happens when pollution, and especially particulate emissions -- soot and other tiny solids -- are sent skyward, where, with droplets of water surrounding them, they reflect sunlight back into space, preventing some light from reaching Earth. A two-mile-thick layer of particulate pollution can cut sunshine by as much as 10 percent. The upside is that these exhaust fumes are helping to contain global warming. The downside may be, Ramanathan believes, that the diminished sun, especially in the '70s and '80s, when this type of pollution was at its height, was not strong enough to draw the tropical monsoon rainbelt north with it as it moved to its summer position. Result: the monsoon stayed south, failing for years to reach places like Ethiopia. If Ramanathan is right, the particulate clouds from factory chimneys and the tailpipes of European and North American cars may have contributed to the deaths of a million people in Africa and the suffering of 50 million more.

Could the same dimming effect be preventing rains from hitting San Diego?

"It's very difficult to say," he replies, just before leaving for a conference in Europe. "Our work [related to Ethiopia] linking the reduction of sunlight at the ocean's surface from this brown cloud took almost ten years of observations and modeling. I think what's happening in Southern California -- there are three things going on at the same time. First there's what's called the Pacific decadal oscillation. It's a natural phenomenon. You see, the basic mechanism is, rainfall over the land is very sensitive to what's happening with ocean temperatures. So when the ocean temperature starts oscillating, that's going to impact the wind pattern and change the [patterns] of the rainfall. The second is that our rainfall is moderated by El Niño, and then the third, of course, is the global warming. One expects, as the planet warms, more rain to be in the extratropics and some drying in the subtropics."

The "extratropics" is the area north of 40 degrees latitude. That's around Eureka. Translation: more rain from Eureka northward, "some drying" in San Diego.

"And then the [fourth] focus is the air pollution. It impacts rainfall in a number of ways: one by the dimming, and the second is, when there are more particulates in the air, they nucleate more cloud drops, and as a result, these drops don't have a chance to become big drops, i.e., [heavy enough to] fall on our head."

So the small drops reflect more heat and light back to the sun and just stay up in the atmosphere?

"That's right. Normally, what happens is that first, cloud drops form from particulates. You need some particles in the air such as pollen to form drops. And then these drops sort of hit each other and they become bigger drops and then they fall as rain. What happens is that you need some particles, but if you have too many -- just like in anything, too much of anything is not good -- too many of these particles is not good because they have a copious number of small drops, and they're not able to become these bigger guys which can fall on our heads. There are groups that are studying it off of California, and they're finding interesting results.

"But I think it's a bit dangerous to take any one thing and point to 'this is what is causing [the drought].' Think about this persistent drought we have: invariably it takes multiple causes."

It's no slam dunk, in other words, that global dimming here, caused by our own pollution -- and smog blowing across from Asia -- will have the same drought-causing effect on Southern California that it likely did on Ethiopia. But it's possible. The jury, he says, is still out.

"The thing is, just like the pollution in the brown clouds over the Indian Ocean comes from south Asia, our own pollution of course goes over the Atlantic Ocean, causes dimming. And likewise, on the West Coast, pollution goes into the Pacific Ocean. But the thing to remember is that our pollution problems in the developed nations, in the U.S. and Europe, were worse in the '60s and '70s. And then slowly we are cleaning up. It's possible it may have had some impact in the past. The dimming is still happening over the U.S. too, because we still have our pollution. I don't have to tell you, you just have to drive a little bit north and see Los Angeles. So this dimming is happening everywhere. Then the question is, if [drought] is primarily due to this pollution, we should have had severe cases in the '50s and '60s and '70s, and then it should be abating a little bit. And my suspicion is that hasn't happened."

While our particle-type pollution is diminishing, East Asia's is mushrooming. Is San Diego's climate being impacted by that?

"We are just getting started on that. We did a major experiment this spring in which we took an aircraft and followed these dust and pollution plumes all the way from the western Pacific Ocean, close to Japan, and flew into the U.S. and tracked copious amounts of pollution crossing the Pacific Ocean. But it's too soon, we are too premature in our understanding for me to make any sort of connection yet. Our experiments [lasted] just for about three to four weeks."

He says he and "over ten groups" are still analyzing the data. "It takes about six months to a year. But most 'brown clouds' contain black carbon, soot, and sulfates, nitrates, and a host of compounds. But it's not very different from if you sample the brown cloud of Los Angeles pollution. Fossil fuel combustion and biomass burning, like forests burning -- all of them put huge amounts of soot particles in the air."

How seriously is global dimming affecting "natural" weather patterns?

"It's a major problem," he says, "a major issue in terms of the water budget of the planet."

In 50 years, could we be looking at a radically dryer California? Could the Sonoran Desert creep right over us?

"We can't say anything definite in this business, but that's certainly one of the possibilities, and we should certainly be preparing ourselves. Every county, every state has to prepare for a spectrum of possibilities. The global climate is changing. It's warming. And we're just trying to comprehend what the local issues are."

What we have done with our lands, says Patzert, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has exacerbated the problem. We have paved riverbeds with concrete; we have paved over much of the land. Rain can't soak in and make its way down into aquifers. Cars and gas stations contribute oil derivatives that spoil the purity of aquifer water. Dams keep rivers from depositing sand for our beaches. Coastlines recede. Nature's cycle is interrupted.

In fact, globally, Patzert, who looks at the Earth daily through his satellite cameras, feels gloomy. "It's the three P's," he says. "Population, pollution, poverty. But the single most critical element is population. Already China's, India's, Africa's lands are too degraded. Globally, it's the Grim Reaper. Locally, it's just a question of how much we can slow the degradation down."

Whew. So here we are, headed for a quarter-century of dryness, just when the population is set to add a million in San Diego County alone. Global warming could send more salt water from an expanding ocean into county aquifers, many of which are below sea level to start with. And if things get much warmer, our natural water "bank," the annual Sierra Nevada snowpack, could also come down as rain that runs off immediately, causing winter floods and summer droughts. And as this crisis looms, we still throw water about. "On average," says Patzert, "in Southern California, we overwater our gardens and our lawns by six feet." In other words, if you enclosed your garden with a six-foot wall and filled it, that's how much excess water we sprinkle and spray on our own little patch of nature every year.

But attitudes are changing. A typical family that once used an acre-foot of water per year now uses half an acre-foot. We're not at the stage of, say, some Middle Eastern countries whose golf courses feature "browns" -- oiled sand -- instead of greens, but Torrey Pines and La Costa golf courses are serviced with recycled water now. Industrial use of water continues to be in heavy demand -- X-ray machines can use up to a million gallons of water a year -- but some high-tech companies are looking at options that 20 years ago were not considered serious, like water recycling and gray-water use. We're committing resources to making those happen.

Even the Chaparral Is Dying

Lieutenant Craig Williams and I sit on a bench outside the Campo Diner in the 85-degree heat of late afternoon. There's a little hot breeze flurrying around our feet. Air's crackling dry. You can imagine a fire starting spontaneously in the grasses and chaparral across the road. "We never have the budget to be totally ready," he says. He's the public affairs officer of Campo Fire and Rescue. "But we make do very well with volunteers."

A couple of red California Department of Forestry (CDF) trucks with little windows and "Crew" written in white on the side roar past, heading east. "A one-acre burn," says Williams, who's bristling with radios in every pocket. "Our philosophy is hit it while it's small, before it gets confident, established."

"Is this drought the worst ever?" I ask Williams.

"If our chiefs say so, I have to, because they're very experienced," Williams says. "We're lucky with CDF in this area. Most of the people in charge grew up in this area, learned in this area, shipped off, but once they get to staff level they come back. Our battalion chiefs here and our division chief have worked this area their adult careers, 20 or 30 years. Which is nice, when you can go, 'Second dirt road past the third rock going north.' "

He tells me I should speak to division chief Pete Scully to find out what it's like to be on the sharp end of a drought.

"It's hard to think back and remember everything," says Scully, "but I'm pretty comfortable in saying that as far as the fuel conditions -- both living and dead fuels out there -- this is probably the worst that I ever remember. And it's basically due to the unprecedented continued drought that we've been experiencing. It doesn't mean that 50 years ago or 100 years ago they didn't experience the same thing, but in recent history we've never seen anything as prolonged and severe as what we have right now.

"This year, the plants are actually dying. They've got to the point where they can't sustain themselves for lack of water. In some cases, large areas -- five, ten acres of brush -- are absolutely dying. The biggest type we're dealing with in San Diego County is chamise. And then there's buckwheat, California sagebrush, scrub oak, manzanita, snapdragon.... And pretty much across the board, we're seeing dieback."

Could there be another Cedar fire? "If you took all the houses, and more important, the deaths out of the Cedar fire, it wouldn't have been that huge of a deal," he says. "Once the fire escapes initial control and starts to get big, then it basically does what it wants anyway. Our philosophy for 100 years has been keep the small fires small. We're actually about 97 percent effective statewide. It's that 3 percent that gets us."

I wonder aloud if perhaps Chief Scully and his men aren't too successful at preventing underbrush from burning.

"Has the problem been created by fire suppression? I guess you could say to some degree yes. But it's hard to explain to people, 'Well, you live out in the backcountry so we have to let your house burn because we have an unnatural growth going on.' The two can live together. People can live in the wild lands without destroying the wild lands. A 100-foot clearance -- or 200 feet, if you're in a real extreme area; making sure your driveway has 10 feet of clearance, all these things are actually state and local regulations. It's required of people. It's just trying to get the people to do it. And then, when those fires do happen, yeah, they're still big, and we'll try and put them out, do what we can, but what we reduce is the structure loss. A 5000-acre fire is a bad thing because it costs money to suppress and it does some environmental damage. But a 5000-acre fire that burns 100 houses is a catastrophe."

Why Are the Indians' Trees Not Dying?

On the website of the Fire Recovery Network (a citizens' group): "There are 240,000 acres of forests in San Diego; currently our forests hold a high volume of dead trees. The mortality is 43 percent on private land, 45 percent on Federal and state land, and 12 percent on reservations."

Only 12 percent on reservations. Not far up from the Campo Diner, I'm driving through ranches with stressed, overgrazed fields gashed by 20-foot-deep arroyos that rush with floodwater once, maybe twice a year, and then dry out to open wounds for the rest of the year.

At the Campo Reservation, Racquel Morrison and Mike Connolly take me up a dirt road through Diablo Valley. I see, not Duncan McFetridge's gallery of scarecrow dead oaks, but huge, healthy-looking oaks whose branches spread so far they support themselves on the ground. In the gloom inside the skirts, young oaks sprout. It's like an open room, or perhaps a cathedral. And just beyond, a stream runs into a big pond. A snowy egret with a three-foot wingspan lifts off. Small fish dart. And in a drought? "Slow dams," says Connolly. "Mishay sha-wing -- 'sediment holders.' They slow the water down so it spreads outwards, brings the valley's water table up. Before, this central valley was washing away. So we let the land rest five years. Then let the water back through the skin of the earth. Now we have life and water to spare."

On the coast, one tree has developed its own survival technique. "Welcome to a Living Museum," says the plaque. "Home of the Nation's Rarest Pine Tree." From the weather-beaten bluff-top, you can see out over the ocean. A blue-and-white five-car Coaster pencils across the Peñasquitos Lagoon, northbound. I'm standing in what I've been told is the largest intact stand of Torrey pines anywhere. But they are in trouble: genetic trouble. "Their populations are very closely related," says Darren Smith, an environmental scientist with California State Parks. "There's very little genetic diversity among the population. Essentially we have a lot of clones. Back in the turn of the [19th] Century -- wood was scarce -- they were probably whittled down to as few as 20 individual trees. The current population comes from that."

Which is one reason they're vulnerable. "It makes it [hard for them] to adapt to a dryer climate or to different insects or fungi."

The adobe Torrey Pines Lodge that Ellen Browning Scripps created nearly a century ago sits huddled among the trees. Cecil Hornbeck comes out. He picks up a bunch of pine needles and shows me their five grooved arms. "That's how you know they're Torrey pines," he says. "Always five." He's a biochemist-turned-docent. "The shorter they are, the more stress the tree's suffering from the drought. But at least they have the fog here. They catch it in the groove of these needles until it becomes water drops and sends them to its root bed."

I pick up a fistful. The needles are about nine inches long, the low end of their length range.

"You're in the remnants, the last remnants of an ancient coastal forest," says Hornbeck. "Maybe 8000 trees left. They're the rarest trees in this country. Drought or no drought, we have to save them."

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