The Great Drought

As this article is being written, the Cambria area is in the fourth year of a devastating drought. The state of California has classified the drought in this area as “exceptional”, the most severe of its five categories. Cambrians have reduced their water consumption by nearly half and a dirty vehicle has become a badge of honor.

But, from a historical perspective, this drought is a minor occurrence. Climate records have only been kept for about 150 years and, during this period, the two worst droughts lasted six years. These were the  “Dust Bowl’ drought of the 1930s and the devastating drought of 1987-1992. Studies of tree rings and sediment deposits at the bottoms of lakes and oceans have revealed that, before records were kept,  the area has experienced little or no rainfall for periods of 100 years and more.

But, length of time and amount of rainfall that does or does not fall are not the only ways to measure the severity of a drought. One might consider instead the historical impact on the area. Viewed this way, the Great Drought of 1862-64 is easily the most significant in history.

Ironically, this drought was preceded by what was the worst flood since climate records have been kept. Farmers and ranchers had prayed for rain in the years preceding the great floods of 1861-62, because almost two decades leading up to that year had been exceptionally dry. But in December 1861, the farmers’ prayers were answered with a vengeance. Sixty-six inches of rain fell in Los Angeles that year, more than four times the normal amount. Thirty-five inches fell in the 30 days between December 24, 1861, and January 23, 1862. The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, a combined region 250 to 300 miles long and an average of at least twenty miles wide, or probably three to three and a half million acres, was totally under water.

The Central Valley of California was flooded in 1862

The Central Valley of California was flooded in 1862

Heavy rains had prompted the area’s cattlemen, buoyed with confidence by abundant, water-soaked pastures, to overstock their ranches. Many of them probably borrowed money to do so, gambling on continued favorable weather to produce profitable beef, hide and tallow sales later on. The Great Drought began in the fall of 1862, and lasted until the winter of 1864-65. The rainfall for 1862-63 season did not exceed four inches, and that of 1863-64 was even less. In the fall of 1863 a few showers fell, but not enough to start the grass. No more fell until March. Virtually all of the herds of cattle and sheep were destroyed. These two rainless years killed as many as 300,000 head of cattle and 100,000 sheep. The great drought of 1862-64 put an end to cattle raising as the preeminent industry of California. Most of the land in California was occupied by ranchos, Mexican land grants, so the dry years completely altered life across the state.  It brought financial ruin to many and led to the breakup of the great ranchos, changing the entire California landscape.

The current drought may seem like the worst ever, after generating rising water bills, penalties and extensive media attention. But while it has indeed changed lifestyles and harmed the economy, the impact has been small compared with the financial ruin and change in the landscape caused by the drought of 1862-64, considered by historians to be the granddaddy of all California droughts. California has had worse droughts in terms of rainfall, but, in terms of economic loss, the so-called Great Drought was the most devastating because none of our statewide water storage facilities and distribution systems was in place at that time. When the rains stopped in 1862, there were no reservoirs to store water, no deep wells and no pipelines.

If there were much greater droughts before climate records were kept, why didn’t they have such a profound effect? The answer, in a word, is infrastructure. When this area was populated by Native Americans with limited personal and tribal possessions, a severe drought did not have such a radical effect on their civilization. Rather, they simply moved to a more favorable location on a temporary or, in some cases, permanent basis. When the great flood of 1861-62 began, several tribes in the affected area were observed to pack up and move to higher ground. This was not an option during the Great Drought nor is it an option now.

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