18 Dec

To most Winnipeggers, California is a balmy paradise of palm trees, beaches, and celebrities. When it’s snowing and below zero during long winters here, the dream of a place where you can wear shorts and flipflops year-round sounds fabulous.

But after four decades of living that dream, I recently returned to my birthplace of Winnipeg. And I returned in the worst part of the year, winter.When I mention that I’ve recently relocated from California to Winnipeg, people are incredulous. I keep mentioning it because I enjoy seeing the bemused looks on their scarf-wrapped faces. You moved from a place that’s warm year-round? Back here, to Winterpeg?

But the California dream, at least to me, feels increasingly nightmarish. Drought that leaves future water supplies a gigantic question mark. Fires that have destroyed groves of old-growth Sequoias and redwoods. Floods that have buried homes and washed away highways. High housing costs that have forced thousands into massive homeless encampments. And it’s warm all right. Lately, too warm.

When I drive through Winnipeg, I see a manageable-sized community with reasonable housing costs, and a government that at least attempts to look after its populace, downtown crime and healthcare issues notwithstanding. And when I look at the snow, I see not something to shovel, but water. 

Flying out of Los Angeles in early December, I looked down on the region of 20 million people surrounded by dead vegetation and shrunken reservoirs, and wondered where government officials would find water to sustain the metropolis. The region has always been a desert, and would have remained so were it not for the L.A. Department of Water and Power’s scheme to suck water from nearby Owens Lake, build an aqueduct running the length of the state to siphon water from the Delta and Sierra snowpack, and engineer an arrangement to pull water from the Colorado River.

But due to climate change and a megadrought called the worst in 1,200 years, all those engineering marvels are no longer enough. The Colorado-River-fed Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the largest reservoirs in the United States, are now three-quarters empty. Drought and decades of water taken to quench farms and cities in seven states and Mexico have left the system depleted. 

Last summer, the falling water levels uncovered victims of mob hits in Lake Mead outside Las Vegas. And there’s now barely enough water to power the turbines in the Hoover Dam, which supplies electricity to 1.3 million people. Officials worry that in just two years, the dam will reach “dead pool” levels, meaning no water would flow to Arizona, California, or Mexico.

Of course, with the recent chain of atmospheric rivers, the state is now awash in water—too much of it. What didn’t wash into the ocean flooded valuable agricultural land, caused roads to crumble, and hillsides to give way—resulting in more than $1 billion in damage, adding to the state’s $22-billion deficit.

Drought is nothing new in California. During all my years there, I got used to water restrictions and dry vegetation. But then the rain would come, and for a year or so, streams would be running, hillsides green, and water restrictions lifted.

But there seemed to be no end to this drought. Before the recent rains, 97 percent of the state was in some level of drought conditions. And even with all these dire warnings, people still lived their lives, enjoying the metropolis’ abundant cultural, entertainment, and career options. Living the dream, showering, flushing, and turning on their taps. When Los Angeles imposed water restrictions last summer, water use actually went up.

Fires are also not new in California. There have always been brush fires—usually in the fall when the Santa Ana winds blow—but the mega-fires that have raged in mountains up and down the state in recent years are larger, hotter, and more destructive. The Camp Fire, the state’s most deadly, killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 18,000 structures in November 2018. That same year, the Mendocino fire became the state’s largest, destroying more than 1 million acres of forest. In the last decade, nearly one-quarter of the state’s forests have burned.

And it’s not just drought and fire, but the high expense of living there, what some call “the weather tax.” Barely half of California residents are able to own their own homes, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Last year, the average monthly rent for a Los Angeles apartment soared to nearly $2,800 (about $3,700 CDN).

After a century of people flooding to the Golden State for jobs, warm weather, and opportunities, the trend is now reversing. According to Move Buddha, for every 51 people in 2022 who moved to California, 100 people left. Since 2015, the state’s population has declined by more than 400,000, equivalent to more than half the city of Winnipeg.

Among my friends, leaving the state has been a constant topic of discussion. The big question, where to go? Texas and Florida are affordable. But you’d have to contend with oppressive heat, hurricanes, and questionable politics. The Northwest—Idaho, Oregon, and Washington—have long been attractive options for exiting Californians. But they’re no longer affordable, and also drought-stricken. And with the massive fires, living anywhere near a forest seems like folly.

Some Californians are moving to Portugal, taking their yoga mats and latte-love with them. But there are already too many of them there, causing resentment among the locals. Some, like me, are returning to childhood homes where—gasp!—it actually snows.

I feel immensely lucky to be Canadian. When I left Winnipeg during a severe recession, jobs and opportunities were scarce. I met someone in Los Angeles, got married, and sustained myself with a career in journalism and marketing. All these decades—more than half my lifetime—I’ve missed my family, my homeland, changing seasons, lakes and rivers. And so, despite the snow and cold, moving back seemed like my best option for moving forward.

It wasn’t easy to leave decades of friends and throw out all those extra flip flops and summer clothes. But with the water situation, I felt like I had no choice. There’s also sea-level rise to contend with. People living along the shore are already sandbagging to protect their oceanfront homes. Some communities are already discussing how to relocate homes away from the ocean’s edge. And yes, this is all really happening.

There’s no escape from climate-change-induced extreme weather. Last year’s record snowfall and rain demonstrated that Winnipeg is not exempt. If you’re considering migrating, all you can do is pick your poison: hurricanes and tornadoes, drought and heat and fire, rising sea levels and flooding. Or cold temperatures and snow.

Gaia Vince, an honorary senior research fellow at University College London’s Anthropocene Institute, paints a startling portrait of our future in her book Nomad Century.  If the world’s temperature increases by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100—a possible, but not worst-case scenario—billions of people will be forced to leave their homes.

Africa, Australia, the United States, Southern Europe, and even the Amazon will be rendered inhospitable deserts useful only for solar energy production. The vast majority of humanity will live in high-latitude areas of Canada, Siberia, Scandinavia, and Alaska, and the low latitude areas of New Zealand, Tasmania, Western Antarctica, and Patagonia, where agriculture will be possible. And you read that right: northern Canada and Antarctica serving as future agricultural breadbaskets.

I feel lucky to have gotten out. It wasn’t easy to move me, my dog and cat, and all my belongings. But I’m setting down new roots here in Winnipeg. I’ve stopped by Canadian Tire for an ice chipper and door mats, and my family has gifted me with a shovel, snowblower, and pet-friendly ice melt. I have shelter, a winter coat, boots, mitts, and even ski pants, something I would have never worn in my more fashion-conscious days. I’m living a new kind of dream. Looking forward not back. There’s snow that in a few months will melt and turn to water to support ecosystems, agriculture, and people. And I’m already thinking about the vegetable garden I’ll plant in the spring, the rain that will arrive to help it grow.

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