Replenished, but not Rectified: California’s Drought Picture and Water Management Looking Forward

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

In case you haven’t noticed, it rained a lot recently.

While weather scientists anticipated that El Niño would bring relief to the California drought in 2016, it largely turned out to be a bust. Some parts of the state received rain, especially in the Central Valley, but warmer temperatures led to an early melt of an already below-average snowpack. Climate experts warned that La Niña would be weak, meaning it would continue or worsen the drought across the state and much of the southern United States.

However, an abnormally short and uneventful La Niña ended earlier this month – and what winter brought instead was an unprecedented amount of rain and snowfall across the state. Much of the state, especially up north, is on pace to have the wettest winter in years – if not ever in recorded history. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a year ago 99% of the state was in drought, with nearly 82% of the state being in severe, extreme or exceptional drought. Now, only 38% of the state is in drought, and none of the state is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. Parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are still officially listed as being in serious drought, but that may come to change after recent storms.

How did we manage such a drastic turnaround?

Despite last year’s pessimistic projections, we’ve been blasted by a series of atmospheric rivers, narrow regions or corridors of water vapor in the atmosphere. These ‘rivers’ move with the weather, and are present somewhere on the planet at any given time, accounting for up to half of annual precipitation on the west coast of the United States. What we’ve seen are aptly named “Pineapple Express” atmospheric rivers, which bring moisture from the tropics near Hawaii up to the California coast.

So, is the drought over?

For all intents and purposes, much of the state is out of the drought – but by no means are we out of the woods just yet. The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) chose to extend emergency drought regulations until May, which traditionally marks the end of the rainy season – and for good reason. While our water delivery systems may be full again, much of the state is still experiencing groundwater shortages. Groundwater, the water found in the spaces between soil, sand and rock underground, “provides approximately 30 to 46 percent of the State’s total water supply, depending on wet or dry years, and serves as a critical buffer against drought and climate change,” according to the California Department of Water Resources. As more rain comes, we can be hopeful that our stressed groundwater systems will recharge.

While prudence on behalf of the SWRCB is wise going forward, the state now faces other water management issues following the recent downpours. This month, nearly 200,000 were evacuated near Oroville, CA when the nearby Oroville Dam was at severe risk of failing after both its main and emergency spillways (paths from the lake to the river below) were damaged. The city of San Jose also suffered major flooding this past week, leading to the evacuation of 14,000 residents. City and Santa Clara Valley Water District officials ultimately acknowledged that they failed to properly warn residents about the flood risk. Researchers are now looking into the question if the drought had increased flood risk above typical levels.

What needs to be done?

The rains have brought drought relief, but they also raise serious questions about how water and associated infrastructure are managed in California and the rest of the west. As climate change is predicted to lead to more severe droughts and flood events, we must prepare to better monitor and improve our water infrastructure to handle these events.

The influx of rain also requires us to revisit how water is being used across the state. For instance, the agricultural sector in California plays a large role in national food supply, and as of 2015 accounted for 80 percent of the state’s water usage, but groundwater pumping is only slowly beginning to be monitored under the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The complex history of water rights in California has led to a situation in which farmers have senior rights to water while urban users have junior rights. This means that when the state starts to impose drought regulations, those with junior water rights are the first to face those sanctions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that farmers haven’t tried to reduce their water use – they have, but what it does mean is that going forward the state must more carefully weigh water rights with the actual circumstances surrounding water scarcity to make sure that the right cuts to water use are made in the right places.

Both urban and agricultural users of water must use water more efficiently– especially as cities continue grow. While Governor Brown mandated that 50 million square feet of lawn and turf be replaced with drought-tolerant landscapes, the state still must continue to explore other opportunities to cut water use. California residents must also do their part to conserve water in homes and businesses.

Ultimately, the state must be proactive – because it may not be long before the rain goes away again.