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If California’s Still in Drought, It’s a Wet One

After plenty of precipitation this winter, the surface water drought in California is over for 2017, but some drought conditions persist in the state and will for decades.

Written by Jay Lund Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Dk snowsurvey 3729 02 02 2017
Members of the California Council on Science and Technology Science Policy Fellows, left to right, Michael Peterson, Julianne McCall and Mikel Shybut assist Frank Gehrke Chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program with the second snow survey of the 2017 snow season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on February 2, 2017.Dale Kolke/California Department of Water Resources

Wet. After five years of drought, most of California finally has become wet. The mountains are exceptionally wet and covered with snow. The state’s reservoirs are fuller than their long-term average (with a few exceptions). Flood control structures are being employed, some for the first time since 2006.

We can now better understand the balance needed for California’s water system – which must operate for many sometimes-conflicting purposes in a climate with wild swings in water availability. Every year, California must take into consideration drought, flood, public and ecosystem health, and economic prosperity (or at least financial solvency).

Where Is California’s Drought Today?

Here are the most recent numbers:

2017 will not be a surface water drought for California. Precipitation and snowpack in much of the state already exceeds that for an entire average water year. And we still have two months to go in California’s wet season.

Despite these wet conditions, California has remnants of drought, some of which will persist for decades. Some Central Coast reservoirs remain very low. Groundwater in the southern part of the Central Valley remains more than 10 million acre-feet (12.5bn cubic meters) below pre-drought levels. Most of the groundwater deficit is in dry parts of the San Joaquin and Tulare basins, which could take decades to recover – with long-lasting effects on local wells. The millions of forest trees which died from the drought will need decades to recover, if the warmer climate allows. Native fish species, already suffering before the drought, are in even worse conditions today.

The chart shows that precipitation for northern California's Sierra Nevada region is more than 200 percent of average for this time of year. (Calif. Dept. of Water Resources)

The chart shows that precipitation for northern California’s Sierra Nevada region is more than 200 percent of average for this time of year. (Calif. Dept. of Water Resources)

Drought Indicator Myths

Given the variety of drought impacts and conditions, many “drought indicators” seem quixotic and distract policy and management discussions.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a common drought indicator, based mostly on soil moisture – designed mostly to indicate drought for rain-fed agriculture. This index is most useful for stress to forests and unirrigated pasture and crops, which are not California’s biggest drought issues. California relies much more on large reservoirs and aquifers, which allow crops and cities to survive California’s otherwise beautiful and devastating dry summers. The U.S. Drought Monitor, while a convenient general public service, is misleading for California’s most common drought issues. National statistics often have such regional problems.

Still less useful, in my mind, is the idea of a “snow deficit” accumulating over drought years. Snowpack in California physically resets to zero each summer as snow melts – accumulating snow deficit over years has no physical meaning – and little management meaning. Real drought deficits do accumulate as aquifer overdraft, reservoir drawdown, dry soil and cumulative impacts to forest and fish populations, which can take years or decades to recover. Less snow last year does not reduce water this year except for reduced storage in reservoirs or aquifers – where water deficits are managed and more properly measured or estimated.

Drought indicators should have physical and management meaning, or are more likely to mislead and confuse. Fortunately, California is more successful with managing droughts than developing drought indicators.

Moving Forward

Although the drought is largely over, California remains a dry place. As a big dry place, some parts of California can be in drought while others are in flood (contrasting Santa Barbara and Sacramento today). Local and regional effectiveness and adaptability are vital for water management in California.

The end of drought does not solve California’s most important water problems. Groundwater sustainability (implementing SGMA), Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta sustainability, effective ecosystem management, and fixing rural drinking water systems remain major problems. Solving these issues involves difficult water accounting, integrated management and finance issues at local and statewide levels.

Progress on these long-term issues is harder and requires more persistence than making progress during the urgency of a drought. But we should reserve “drought” management for unusually dry conditions, or risk losing the public confidence that democratic governments and effective water utility management require.

Leaving the drought, California has a clearer picture of the important work that remains to be accomplished. The next drought (and flood) could be coming soon.

This story originally appeared on California Water Blog, a publication of the U.C. Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. You can read it here.

Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at U.C. Davis.

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