California’s Drought After Big Storms
The current situation with California’s drought is discussed in our source article by Tara Lohan published in “Water Deeply” on Jan. 24. California’s water year officially began in October, and it got off to a good start, with above-average precipitation in Northern California. And then in January, things got even wetter as a series of heavily moisture-laden storms known as atmospheric rivers struck the state.
After more than five years of drought, what does this mean for California? Is the state finally out of the woods?
Not officially over
Officially the drought is not over. While many news stories reporting on recent storms in California have declared California’s drought over, officially it is not – the decision to declare that falls to the governor, who announced a Drought State of Emergency on Jan. 17, 2014. A number of factors go into declaring the drought over, said Doug Carlson of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), including the amount of water accumulating in the snowpack, the amount of water in reservoirs and the health of groundwater.
“We say generally that as long as there are drought impacts being felt anywhere, you have to consider the drought is still underway,” he said.
The area of drought is shrinking. The U.S. Drought Monitor’s figures from Jan. 17 show changes in the area of drought. Right now, 58 percent of the state is experiencing some level of drought, down from 97 percent this time last year [down to 38% as of 21FEB]. Most significantly, this time last year 43 percent of the state was designated as being in “exceptional drought” – the most severe drought designation. It included large swathes of the San Joaquin Valley, the most productive farming area for the state. But now that number has fallen to just over 2 percent of the state, concentrated in the Santa Barbara County area.
It’s raining and snowing a lot. Most major reservoirs across the state are doing well. Of biggest concern is Cachuma reservoir, the largest reservoir serving Santa Barbara County; that is at 11 percent of capacity [up to 42 percent as of 2/22/2016]. Rain and snow for the Sierra Nevada both look good. The snow water equivalents in the Sierra are 193 percent of average for this time of year [221% as of 28FEB] and 104 percent of the April 1 average. Although a key to a robust water year will be making sure that warm temperatures do not prematurely melt the snow before it’s needed in late spring and summer.
Groundwater is still a problem
One of California’s biggest problems is groundwater over pumping – something that won’t be solved in a single year. In areas where groundwater is vastly overdrawn, it will take more than just rain, but also investments in water management that includes “conservation, stormwater capture, recycling, desalination, water transfers, diversion, conveyance and storage,” said Lauren Bisnett, an information officer for DWR’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Program.“Groundwater challenges, such as land subsidence, water quality and seawater intrusion have been decades in the making and it will take more than a few storms to alleviate these issues and bring basins into sustainable balance.”
California is working on a long-term strategy for making groundwater management more sustainable, which includes implementation of the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, but it will be decades before it is fully in effect across the state.
U.C. Davis professor Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences, said that it will take decades for the state to recover from many of the drought’s impacts.
“Certainly the groundwater in the southern Central Valley (south of the Delta) will remain low in many areas for years or even decades. Dome groundwater in this region might never recover, as it is so dry down there,” said Lund. “Forest health impacts also could last for many years to decades – if a 30-year-old tree dies, it can take a long time to replace. Many of the depleted native fish were already struggling and could take a long time to recover.”
Similar sentiments were expressed in an opinion piece by Peter Gleick, president-emeritus and chief scientist of the water think tank the Pacific Institute.
“More than 100 million trees have died from drought, temperature stress and insect infestation,” Gleick wrote. “It will take decades for forests to regenerate, and the dead trees and damaged soils will pose forest fire and landslide risks for years.”
Gleick also added that salmon need not just water, but cold water, which means that lots of precipitation may not be enough. “Some urban or agricultural water users will never get all the water they want because formal water rights claims filed with the state are many times larger than California’s natural water availability,” Gleick wrote
This article first appeared in the Rossmoor News, February 15, 2017, author Judith Schumacher-Jennings. Minor update edits and links to referenced articles have been added, when available, for the edification of our readers.