Over the Hill

We need to take the threat of drought seriously

Phil Dirkx
Phil Dirkx

Lately, I hear more people saying the “D” word — “drought.” They take the current drought threat seriously. But many others still say, “What nice sunny weather.”

We need gloomy, cloudy, rainy days. Since last July 1 my hometown, Paso Robles, received only about a half-inch of rain. The exact amount measured at the Paso Robles Water Works on the western end of the 13th Street Bridge was 0.57 inch.

That’s far less than the 4.97 inches we got in the first six months of the previous rain season. But that previous season also fizzled out with a 12-month total of just 7.18 inches. Rain seasons run from July 1 of one year through June 30 of the next. The average rain-season total at the Water Works is 14.33 inches.

I think most of us take water for granted. When I turn on a faucet or the washing machine I never think about the city’s water system. I just assume water will be there.

But the North County has a history of scant rainfall. Back in 1776, Father Pedro Font noticed it. He was the chaplain and geographer for an expedition led by Lt. Col. Juan Bautista de Anza. It went from Arizona to San Francisco Bay to explore that region and settle it.

On March 4, 1776, they camped at La Asuncion in what is now Atascadero. The following morning they forded what we now call the Salinas River. Font wrote, “It had little water in it since there had been very little rain this year.”

That evening they camped along the San Antonio River near the location of the present dam. Font wrote they saw “very little grass, because it has not rained and the soil, which is a bit rough and thick although not bad, is dry.”

What would Anza and Font say today if they drove on the 101 freeway through the North County? Font might write about seeing dry dirt bristling with the dead stubs of last year’s grass but no new green growth.

He would also report the area has two incorporated cities with a combined population of 60,000. And he’d mention the area’s unincorporated communities, the widespread rural population and the thousands of acres of irrigated agriculture.

Font and Anza might also wonder why the Salinas River is actually drier today than it was in March of 1776. They wouldn’t know that a dam was built in 1942 on the river to create Santa Margarita Lake and divert river water to San Luis Obispo.

They’d probably also wonder how the North County will survive what could become the region’s most severe drought on record. I hope our current city and county leaders are also thinking about that threat and making realistic preparations to cope with it.