The California Drought of 2015: March

By Jay Lund

Droughts are strange, and this one is becoming scarier.

February began with a nice few stormy days, but has since looked like this January – very dry. And so far, the March forecast is not wet.

At the beginning of March, the Northern Sierra (Sacramento Valley) Precipitation Index was down to 88% of average to date, although it already almost equals total precipitation for all of 2014 (both good and bad news). For the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare basin (where most water use occurs), precipitation is about half of average for this date – slightly wetter than this time last year.  Snowpack is roughly like last year – among the driest on record.

Will March will be as dry?  Statistically, little can be said. There is little correlation in monthly precipitation during Northern California’s wet season, but droughts are inherently unusual.  The forecast and climate conditions so far look dry.

The best news is a bit more overall reservoir storage than last year at this time (but still about 5 maf below average for this time of year).   The big reservoirs in the Sacramento Valley have 1.3 maf more than last year at this time – this is the good news.  South of the Delta surface storage is about the same overall, but differently distributed.  San Luis reservoir, which serves the west side of the valley and southern California is about 600 taf higher, but the large reservoirs on the San Joaquin River tributaries are about 600 taf lower.

Groundwater storage is probably about 6 maf less than last year.

Without a miracle March, we will have another critically dry year for 2015.  Northern California is likely to be a bit better off than last year, but could be about the same (very dry).  In the southern Central Valley and southern California conditions could easily be as bad or worse than last year.

The state is likely to protect environmental flows more carefully this year, probably a good thing to reduce potential for more endangered species listings after the drought.  The State Water Project has said they expect about 15% deliveries.  The federal Central Valley Project has now announced initial 0% deliveries for regular agricultural water contracts, likely cutbacks (of 25%?) for water right exchange and settlement contractors, and 25% urban deliveries for 2015.  While these percentages might improve in the remaining month of the wet season, there is a good chance that water allocations will be similarly dismal to 2014, with less groundwater available in some parts of the state.


Fortunately, some Northern California reservoirs have more storage than a year ago, while reservoir levels elsewhere are more mixed. Overall, we remain about 6 million acre-feet below average for reservoir storage this time of year.  In the southern Central Valley, west side reservoirs (San Luis) have much more water than last year, but the east side tributaries to the San Joaquin River are very low (Exchequer at 8% of capacity).

Aquifer levels will generally be lower than a year ago in the areas highly dependent on groundwater.

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Source: California Department of Water Resources


Snowpack is truly sad, about 16% of average for this time of year.


The 2014 water year ended at 60 percent of average annual precipitation for Sacramento Valley. For 2015, we’re already about at this total, so 2015 is very likely to be at least a bit wetter than 2014 for the Sacramento Valley.  A very wet March and early April sure would help.

<span style="color: #000000;">For updates, <a style="color: #000000;" href="">click here</a>. <em>Source: California Department of Water Resources</em></span>

For updates, click here. Source: California Department of Water Resources

Both the San Joaquin and Tulare basins are slightly wetter than this time last year.  2015 could be better than 2014, but could also easily be drier.

Source: California Department of Water Resources

For updates, click here. Source: California Department of Water Resources

Source: California Department of Water Resources

For updates, click here. Tulare basin has a shorter record though it has the most water use in California. Source: California Department of Water Resources

The difference between a drought and a wet year in California is just a few storms. We are at two significant storms so far, mostly in the northern state.  There is little time left to make this up, particularly south of the Delta.

Sadly, our standard for 2015 is not  average, but  the miserable conditions of 2014.  That’s how dry it is.

Beware the dries of March.

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

Further Reading

The links above can help keep you up to date. For more data, explore the California Department of Water CDEC web site

Lund, J. “The California Drought of 2015: January” California WaterBlog. Jan. 5, 2015

Lund, J. and J. Mount. “Will California’s drought extend into 2015?California WaterBlog. June 15, 2014

Swain, D. “The Ridiculously Resilient Ridge Returns; typical winter conditions still nowhere to be found in CaliforniaCalifornia Weather Blog. Feb. 16, 2015

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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20 Responses to The California Drought of 2015: March

  1. Michael Fritts says:

    We need to start using the billions of dollars for water infrastructure ,by building a state to state Fresh water pipeline . There are states flooding that can send water to dry lakes and reservoirs. If oil companies can build pipelines so can water companies. Lets get started. Also turbines can be inside the pipelines for powering the pumps to pump the water. This will employ a lot of people. Call it the National Fresh Water Pipeline.

    • jaylund says:

      This idea often pops up. I wonder what it would take …

      The cost of oil is now a bit above $50/barrel. In California water units this would be about $400,000 per acre-ft. In this drought year, some water in California will be sold for $1,000/acre-ft or more, and more would be willing to buy at $300-500/acre ft. A 500-1,000 fold increase in California water prices is likely to be needed before water users become willing to pay for cross-country pipelines, as we do for oil and natural gas.

      • Tom Nirschl says:

        Compared to oil and natural gas transport costs, yes, presently outrageously expensive. In California and other western states, when you consider the lost economic opportunity cost (agricultural production, lost tax revenues, peripheral expansion of other industries indirectly dependent on water, etc.) over several years and decades, seemingly far reaching solutions need to be carefully considered on a large scale, for their long term cost (how to we pay for this) & benefit. This would include this fresh water pipeline idea, large scale expansion of desalination, rainwater runoff recapturing, continued conservation measures, recycling, etc. Much like Eisenhower’s national highway plan of the 1950’s and 1960’s, we need to take the long view and prepare our state and other water needy regions of the country for the next 25 to 100 years.

  2. gymnosperm says:

    I think we now have a new definition of drought in California. The new definition is how full the reservoirs are, or more generally whatever is inconvenient for 30 million people.

    I follow the San Francisco dataset as it is significantly longer and although it is a single point, San Francisco is sort of magically poised between the desert/monsoon and rainforest/cyclonic regimes.

    The five driest years in the dataset are the skinny lines. The fatter lines are the last three years and 2014-15 so far. While the last three years have definitely been below normal, last year, 2013-14, for all our moaning was only the thirteenth driest year since 1849 in San Francisco. This year is normal so far.

    When you look at the seasonal totals it is interesting that the SF dataset does not show the PDO resonance of the northwest. Overall it has been a pretty flat 166 years with 1-2-3 drought years followed by a rebound.

    Based on this shaky premise and the continuing presence of warm water off the coast, and summoning my inner shaman reluctantly, I predicted last September that 2014-15 would be a near normal year.

    So far so good.

    • tomg says:

      I give that long odds! So SF is “normal” and everywhere else is drying up and blowing away? SF is on the edge in more ways than one(a place where the trees get their water from the fog) and seems to have little association with CA weather and rainfall over all, but ironically was the first city to rely on water from the Sierra. For 90%+ of the state, it’s all about Sierra snowpack and rain.

      • gymnosperm says:

        Yes, and rain is what we are measuring. Whether or not my WAG prediction bears out is irrelevant. SF rainfall is currently normal and my own eyes see nothing drying up and blowing away. These eyes see an extremely variable climate that has existed since the LGM and probably similarly during prior interglacials. The point is that all the whining and blaming phantom atmospheric gasses is equally irrelevant. We chose to live here and we’re going to have to suck it up and deal with it.

  3. I’m beginning to think that everyone should stopped referring to this as a “drought” and begin to accept the fact that the dry weather California is experiencing is a permanent condition, although hopefully not quite this extreme.

  4. tomg says:

    I wanted to thank Mr. Lund for pulling these graphs and info in one place; I wish the major print media would do likewise.

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  6. Mike says:

    I’m getting tired of the local meteorologist on the local LA news channels rooting for a mild storm so as not to cause debris flow in the “Burn Areas”. Reporters camp out there throughout the rain event talking about “so far so good, only light rain”. The truth is we need a steady downpour for 3+ days. And if it cause mudslides, so be it. If these residence are so scared of this they should move to the lowlands.

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  9. Tom says:

    Can you answer a question please, and make a blog specific to that if you have a little time?
    How much water is left in the California Aquifers? (not the resevoirs, rivers, and snow pack) and reminding people that, as far as I know, California aquifers currently make up 65% of total water use in CA. How much is left, what percentage of that is used each year, and also, most importantly, how long would the drinkable portion of the aquifers last if that was the sole source, used at roughly the current rates of water usage in California.
    There is a lack of clear statements and information about the aquifers specifically, and it would be great if there was a blog, specific to these questions.
    Thanks ! I love your blog!


    • Tom says:

      I shouldn’t have used the word ‘drinkable’.
      I meant ‘usable’ generally. Sorry.
      Although, parsing both these would be interesting, as separate issues and as a whole, ie. total California water use.

      • Tom says:

        Edit button would help avoid these revisions –> but, the point is, there is a lot of confusion, because no-one seems to talk specifically about the aquifers. As an analogy, if my local electricity gets cut off, but I have a massive powerplant on my land, generating my own electricity, do I really care about the local utility going down? Or, if I realize that my own powerplant has paltry production for the overall needs, I should be concerned.

    • jaylund says:

      This is a good question. Alas, the state and local areas haven’t yet mustered data to assess groundwater quantities with much precision. But there are three bits of good news here: 1) with the new groundwater legislation, the state and local regions will have much more incentives to do this, the newer state and federal models of the Central Valley give us an improving basis for making such assessments, and 2) groundwater tends to have quite large quantities, so its failure is pretty slow, being reflected more in the failure of wells, and drilling new ones, over a period of decades. IT is a problem for this drought, but not yet a broad catastrophe.

      • Tom says:

        That is good to know. Thanks for the response. This may give California time to transition into a 22nd century state, with all the efficiences and infrastructure that will be needed in the future. This wake-up call could help pressure for significant change that could be a model for the world.

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  12. Brian Browne says:

    A serious discussion is required on pricing. Ascending tier pricing and other non-economic pricing gimmicks, lead to economic inefficiencies, also know as dead weight. Proposition 218 has it right – marginal cost pricing. The recent San Juan Capistrano decision even mention the phrase “marginal cost.”

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