How Will We Know When the Drought is Over?
This is the crucial question in the back of many minds as winter, at last, delivers real storms to drought-plagued California.
As Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News informs us, it’s not an easy question to answer.
“Other disasters are easier to understand,” he writes. “Everyone knows when a forest fire is contained, an earthquake stops shaking or a tornado has passed. But with California droughts, there isn’t widespread agreement among scientists and water managers about what signifies the finish line.”
That’s partly because, in this first place, declaring a drought is a subjective thing. It’s not based on any hard and fast water supply or snowpack measurements. Instead, it’s based on a collection of environmental and economic factors interpreted by policy makers.
“As they say, all politics is local. And all droughts are local,” Jeanine Jones, a top drought manager at the California Department of Water Resources, tells Rogers. “The impacts are in the eye of the beholder.”
The Department of Water Resources, apparently, will consider the drought over if winter ends with the Sierra Nevada snowpack at 150 percent of average.
Others will consider it over if the state’s water-storage reservoirs are full. But that may be merely because it will be hard to convince the public, under those conditions, that the drought is still on.
Mike Anderson, a DWR climatologist, researched years when other major droughts were widely considered to have ended: 1938, 1978 and 1993. In each case, the Sierra snowpack – source of one-third of California’s water supply – was roughly 150 percent of the historic average. And a key measure of precipitation in important Northern California watersheds also was between 130 percent and 150 percent of normal.
Anderson’s conclusion: if California has 150 percent snowpack by April and 150 percent of normal precipitation in the north, that should be enough to fill the biggest reservoirs and probably end the drought.
Others emphasize that the state’s struggles with water scarcity may never end.
“California suffers from what I call ‘chronic water scarcity.’ We simply don’t have enough water to do all the things that we want to do,” said Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and a UC Irvine professor of Earth systems science.
Rare Interview with Anonymous Water Blogger
For seven years, Californians obsessed with water have followed the anonymous blogger at OnThePublicRecord.org. With a perch inside California’s water bureaucracy, the blogger has offered a strikingly unvarnished look at how water policy really works in California. Or perhaps more accurately, how it really doesn’t work.
Peter King of the Los Angeles Times today gives us a rare interview with the blogger, whose anonymity he agreed to protect.
The article is a bit of a disappointment, because we don’t actually hear much from the blogger. King, instead, quotes extensively from prior blog posts. I suspect this is because the blogger remained very circumspect – say nothing interesting, and certainly nothing personal – to remain anonymous. This doesn’t make for a good news article.
All we really know about the blogger is that she is a woman who works for the state of California. These things she has revealed herself over the years.
“People’s assumptions that I’m a man,” she tells King, “have helped me stay undercover, which I have appreciated.”
We don’t know if her opinions have influenced policy, but she is widely read, because her posts are shared extensively on social media and in email conversations.
“I frequently think my role is to speak the taboo, so that others can offer more moderate versions,” she told King.
Among the taboo subjects she has addressed are such thing as controlling what crops are planted in order to manage water demand, and the reality that population growth in California is a major contributor to water stress. Politicians and bureaucrats know these things, too, but they have never come up as serious matters to consider in regulation.
Whether her writing affects policy or not is hardly the point. Perhaps the highest value of On the Public Record is that it offers consistent and blunt affirmation that government is not going to solve our water problems unless we all stay informed and press for smart decisions.
Top image: Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, checks the weight of the snowpack sample on a scale held by John King, of the DWR, as they conduct the first manual snow survey of the season at Phillips Station near Echo Summit, California, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)