Out With the Old Drought and In With the New?

By Jay Lund

We are just a few months into this year’s wet season, and progress has been great.  Statewide, California is about 800,000 acre ft below average surface water storage for this time of year.  California’s water year began with surface storage about 3 million acre ft (3 full Folsom Reservoirs) less than historical averages for October 1.  This was already a great improvement from the previous year’s being 8 maf below average in January 2016.

While we are still in early days for this water year (October 2016-September 2017), California precipitation is above average for this time of year, 178% of average in Sacramento Valley, 145% in San Joaquin Valley, and 127% in Tulare Basin.  Southern California is further behind, but has gotten some good storms in recent weeks.  Overall snowpack is 72% of average for this time of year (perhaps reflecting warmer conditions).  If no more precipitation fell in northern California, with more than 3 months left in the wet season, total precipitation would be a bit less than the 2015 water year.

But drought remains in some parts of California.  The Santa Barbara area is at great risk now, with its Lake Cachuma still at 8% of capacity and 11% of average storage for this time of year.  But continued wetness in southern California might resolve this.

Fish and forests throughout the state, and groundwater south of Delta will have lingering effects from previous years of drought if most of California continues to be wet.

If this year continues to be mostly wet, water shortages are still likely for some parts of California.  The drought and growing demands have left some parts of California, particularly the southern Central Valley, in an largely permanent structural drought.  Here, there is more water demand than water available.  This condition developed from growing water demands for increasingly profitable agriculture and for growing cities encountering reduced ability to import water from the Delta due to endangered species and Delta water quality.  This gap will worsen as restrictions ending groundwater overdraft come to bear (to provide more drought security for profitable agriculture) and as environmental flow requirements increase.

Overall, drought conditions continue to lessen in most of California, but it is still early days.  Even with continued wet conditions the drought could worsen in some areas, such as Santa Barbara, even as it disappears from other areas.  And the previous years of drought will have a long tail of impacts in many areas, and innovations from the drought, such as groundwater management, need to be with us for a long time.

Some lessons from this drought?

You Can’t Always Get What You Want – A Mick Jagger Theory of Drought Management

The banality of California’s ‘1,200-year’ drought

Improving mandatory State cutbacks of urban water use for a 5th year of drought

Jay Lund is Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis.

Two notes of celebration for 2016!

First, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com ends 2016 having surpassed 800,000 views since 2011, with almost 8,500 subscribers.  Thanks to everyone!  We hope our short essays are useful, or at least entertaining.

Second, UC Davis now has a professional master’s degree program in Environmental Policy and Management, geared especially for students with science or engineering backgrounds seeking leadership careers in policy and management.  This program has been too long in coming, but has a bright future at the world’s strongest overall environmental campus.  For more information, see: https://epm.ucdavis.edu/


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7 Responses to Out With the Old Drought and In With the New?

  1. Pingback: California Water and Drought News for December 28, 2016

  2. Pingback: BLOG ROUND-UP: Out with the old drought, in with the new, Water Fix EIR/EIS, Tunnel construction in 2018?, Mainstream media, ‘Robust’ San Joaquin salmon runs; and more … | MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | Water news

  3. Nicholas Clark says:

    That is some good news for the new year. Thanks for the article.

    The statement that “[the] drought and growing demands have left…the southern Central Valley, in a largely permanent structural drought…” where “there is more water demand than water available…” due to “growing water demands for increasingly profitable agriculture and for growing cities” leaves me curious about the relative demand of the Southern CA region on state water for urban uses. Can we have some clarity?

    Finally, I think it would be prudent to develop the assertion that the surface water “[demand-supply] gap will worsen as restrictions ending groundwater overdraft come to bear (to provide more drought security for profitable agriculture) and as environmental flow requirements increase.” In particular, the implication that the gap will increase as “drought security for profitable agriculture” increased due to SGMA execution is contradictory. More importantly, I think that we should be conscientious that the execution of the law in itself cannot provide drought security for agriculture. Rather, the manifestation of drought security for agriculture seems seems likely to arise from systemic changes in agriculture, e.g. changes in cropping patterns and water transfer agreements among basins and irrigation districts.

  4. rtj1211 says:

    Is a long term programme in place to try and restore woodlands/forests to the headwaters of the major rivers? The more trees you have, the more humus you create. When the rain comes, the trees break up the rain, the humus has far greater absorption capacity and hence, done well, over many years, you can start to reduced the rate of run off during winter storms. There may be grasses that are suitable too.

    If you look at how the land was before colonisation, you may have an indication of what to return it to. Oh and maybe you might learn from those that managed it well, how to restore the damage your forebears caused….

  5. Anna says:

    There are people currently advocating for and against building dams to capture the water that the Sierra snowpack will not reliably be storing for us in future as California continues to warm (see ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_117AER.pdf ). Can you please do a post about whether we can meet our water needs in future without more reservoir storage, and if so, what methods and forms of storage are practical?

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