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California’s Drought Enters the ‘What Drought?’ Phase

| March 6, 2014
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Nicasio Reservoir, one of seven lakes supplying the Marin Municipal Water District. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED).

Nicasio Reservoir, one of seven lakes supplying the Marin Municipal Water District. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED).

Last week, Jon Christensen, a journalist/historian/scholar of California and the West who works at UCLA (and formerly at Stanford), tweeted this:

“The Five Stages of Drought in California: Drought. It’s raining. But the drought is not over. What drought? Drought.”

I think we all have an idea what he means. The talk of drought is everywhere, but if you look up and see our greening hills and the water ponding on streets and coursing down rivers and streams, it sure doesn’t look like a drought.

Farmer and sons during dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, in April 1936 (Library of Congress/Arthur Rothstein)

Farmer and sons during dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, in April 1936 (Library of Congress/Arthur Rothstein)

But in California, as elsewhere, there’s more than one kind of drought.

On the one hand, you have meteorological drought, the kind everyone thinks of, a long, pitiless stretch of rainless weather that results in widespread hardship and a calamity like the Dust Bowl. And in fact, California’s 2013 was a little like that, long and dry, with record low rainfall for most of the state during the calendar year. The alarming part was the disappearance of storms at the beginning of 2013, typically the wettest part of the state’s wet season, and their failure to appear again as our current wet season began last October. January 2014 was another record-dry month in many locations, and as February opened, the current season was on track to be the state’s driest ever.

Then, the persistent ridge of high pressure blocking storms from reaching the state finally gave way. Rain and snow began falling; in some places, lots of it. Measurable rain was recorded at Shasta Dam on 19 of the 28 days between Feb. 6 and March 5. A weather station at the top of Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais has recorded 32.38 inches of rain during the same period. That mountain deluge has helped raise Marin Municipal Water District reservoirs from just about half of capacity four weeks ago to three-quarters full now, and the runoff continues.

That all sounds great if you’re worried about water in California. In fact, it sounds so good that you’re tempted to think, just as Christensen says, “What drought?” And As Jeff Mount, the founding director of the Center for Watershed Science at UC Davis, told KQED’s Craig Miller last month, it’s only human to think “what drought?”

“The moment it’s raining, we think it’s always been raining,” Mount said. “When it stops raining, we have what people have referred to as a ‘flood-memory half-life’ or a ‘disaster-memory half-life’ — we forget very, very quickly.”

And that opens up the topic of the other drought we’re facing, the one that’s been building over the last two years of less-than-normal rainfall and has accelerated during the very dry start of the current wet season. Some describe it as hydrological drought, the long-term impact of below-normal precipitation on available water.

You can think of it as a supply drought, and the reality of that crisis is seen in California’s collection of big, mostly empty reservoirs. The sprawling artificial lakes that store water for Central Valley agriculture and for cities and towns throughout the state are collectively at about 40 percent of capacity and just over 60 percent of average levels for this time of year.

Yes, they’ve been rising. In the past month, the immense Lake Shasta, the state’ biggest reservoir, has gone up 15 feet and added enough water to supply half a million homes for a year. Lake Oroville, the No. 2 reservoir and the main storage source for the State Water Project, has added about the same amount of water and is up about 30 feet. The amount of water in Folsom Lake, east of Sacramento, has doubled from its critically low levels over the past four weeks.

Despite the optimistic-sounding news, here’s why the supply drought is nowhere near over: We’re nearing the end of our typical wet season, so the water flowing into the reservoirs now, plus the spring and summer runoff from the very thin Sierra snowpack — just one-third of normal for early March — will have to see us through until the rains begin again. We’d all be happy if that’s in the fall — early in the fall — but as 2013 shows, our climate offers no guarantees.

‘It never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years.’— John Steinbeck, ‘East of Eden’

That’s what has driven state and federal managers to impose unprecedented restrictions on water deliveries to farms and cities this year. It’s the certainty of short supplies now to meet all the state’s agricultural, household, industrial and environmental water needs and uncertainty about when supplies will be replenished.

John Steinbeck’s novel, “East of Eden,” contains an often-quoted passage describing California’s dry and wet cycles and how we respond to them:

I have spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they put a terror on the valley. … The land cracked and the springs dried up and the cattle listlessly nibbled dry twigs. … People would have to haul water in barrels to their farms just for drinking. Some families would sell out for nearly nothing and move away. And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.

Important to remember as you watch the next rainfall: This drought’s not over.

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Category: Environment, Science

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.
  • Diana Dannelly

    Heres an idea. Legislation should only allow Xeriscaping
    (landscaping and gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for
    supplemental water from irrigation) on all front lawns to be required on all new construction and slowly convert all existing front lawns, and common areas on campuses (both educational and corporate). Imagine how much water would be saved on not watering front lawns, which we dont even use anyway.