So long, California: The next drought remedy?

Past civilizations have migrated because of long-term drought; does California face the same fate?

Gov. Jerry Brown is calling for fines of up to $10,000 for the state’s biggest water wasters. "We've done a lot. We have a long way to go," Brown said. "So maybe you want to think of this as just another installment on a long enterprise to live with a changing climate and with a drought of uncertain duration."

That's definitely the way it looks now.

Harsh new water restrictions are even affecting cemeteries, where caretakers worry that their carefully manicured lawns will soon begin turning brown. (Although that "even" probably shouldn't be there, considering the relative importance of hydrating the deceased vis-à-vis, well, any other priority.)

No one knows when the drought will end. The skies could open up tomorrow. (OK, probably not tomorrow.)  But the longer it goes on and the more scary records it sets, the more the drought feels like the new normal.

California just endured the driest January, and the hottest February, since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began keeping records in 1895. This comes after three years of record heat and low rainfall.

Snowpack accumulation is at a record low: 5% of the historical average.

The drought of the last three years is the worst to hit California in 1,200 years, according to one study.

Desperate thirst makes for desperate solutions, and many people are pushing for the construction of desalination plants to process seawater from the Pacific Ocean. That is, for example, how arid Saudi Arabia gets about half of its water. But desalination plants are expensive and environmentally counterproductive. They dump the extracted salt back into the ocean, where it kills sea life. And they require a lot of electricity to operate, which contributes  to the production of the greenhouse gases driving climate change, which is what helped cause the drought.

Then you have those with more fanciful ideas, such as actor William Shatner’s proposal to raise $30 billion in a Kickstarter campaign to build a pipeline to move water from Seattle to California. 

At a certain point, one has to pose the question no one wants to consider: Should people -- not everyone, but enough people to make a difference -- leave California? Desalination plants work for Saudi Arabia because the kingdom is sparsely populated. California, the most populous state, may have to become less populous in order to live in harmony with the environment under the new climate reality -- one that may feature a sort of perma-drought.

"Civilizations in the past have had to migrate out of areas of drought," said Lynn Wilson, a United Nations climate change expert. "We may have to migrate people out of California."

In the meantime, as my cartoon points out, those with money will never run out of whatever they want or need -- and that includes water.

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