Indicators of a drought ending in northern California


Sacramento Weir flowing into Yolo Bypass, January 2017, for first time since December 2005, photo: Jay Lund

Jay Lund

Droughts are common in California, a large, generally dry, and hydrologically complex place.  So it is hard to rely on a single index of the end or beginning of a drought.  A single storm is rarely enough to end a drought in California, especially a long drought like the one that seems to be mostly ending now.  Regular hydrologic statistics can be used as indicators of drought, but these do not do justice to how droughts actually end (or begin).

Here are some less formal indicators that the current drought is ending, although in some ways this drought and its impacts will endure for decades to come.

  • Guerneville on the Russian River has flooded. This is usually about the first town to flood in California. Guerneville floods so often that I wonder how it is still there or has not become just a summer camp!
  • Van Sickle Island in the Delta floods. Usually this is the first Delta island to flood.  It has some of the Delta’s lowest and weakest levees, but has mostly ducks for residents.
  • Most reservoirs are full, or at least filled to levels where they are kept partially empty for possible floods.
  • Weirs and bypasses are actively draining the Sacramento Valley. The mighty Fremont Weir has taken control of the Sacramento River, flowing at almost 200,000 cfs.  The Sacramento Weir, completed in 1916, is open for the first time since December 2005.  Awesome!
  • Skiing exists, and seems relatively good. Count the skis racks on cars heading East on Friday afternoons, or heading West at the end of the weekend.  Count the conversations about ski lift lines and ticket price strategies at work on weekdays.
  • My roof leaks and the kids scoff at raking wet leaves. We all have our own personal drought indicators.
  • I feel a need to remind people how dangerous flowing water and floods are.  Don’t wade or drive into moving water, even if it is shallow.  Be careful.

California must now deal with the aftermath of the drought and preparing for the next one, even as some parts of California still suffer from the drought and some areas worry about flooding.  Hopefully southern California, especially poor Lake Cachuma, benefits from storms in the weeks to come.  We live in a complex place.  But it works better if we work at it.

So, back to my roof and putting my kids to work.  Another storm is coming later this week.


Fremont Weir, several feet under water, taking water from Feather and Sacramento Rivers into Yolo Bypass, January 2017. Flow about 180,000 cfs over 2 miles of weir.  Don’t enter if you value your life – very dangerous.

Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.  He came to California just after the 1986 flood and in time for the 1988-92 drought.

Further reading

Sacramento River Flood Control Project Weirs and Flood Relief Structures, by California Department of Water Resources, 2010.

Lund, J.R., “Flood Management in California,” Water, Vol. 4, pp. 157-169; doi:10.3390/w4010157, 2012.

Suddeth, R. and J. Lund “Multi-Purpose Optimization of Reconciliation Ecology for an Engineered Floodplain – Yolo Bypass, California,” San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, Volume 14, Issue 1, 2016.


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6 Responses to Indicators of a drought ending in northern California

  1. <== good resource to see that Rain is at or above normal, just not the storage, for Lake Cachuma area. Looks like water was over drafted or drafting even now.

    Also why even mention Lake Cachuma, 1 day (1/15/2017) of water released from Shasta, Oroville and Folsom was about 164,000 Acre Feet which would almost fill Lake Cachuma. It is such a small reservoir, with problems not addressed by rain fall.

  2. gymnosperm says:

    It’s that attractor thing. Little pockets of lower entropy that act as detents for the system until something bigger bumps them out. The weather so far this year is an early seventies redux. Maybe it dries out the rest of the season, but probably not. Maybe it will be a one-off year, but probably not.

    I personally believed at the time the late seventies drought was a signal. How could the ridiculously resilient ridge act one (for anyone living) not be fundamental?

    I spent Davis Christmas and Easter holidays in the early seventies skiing the Muir Trail in sections and getting pounded. Yet in 1976 we waltzed over Muir Pass carrying our skis.

    Since I’d come to believe a fundamental change had taken place, I was arrogantly dismissive when then very new models predicted this ridge would break down in early 1978. Nah, the ridge will prevail…nope.

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  4. rmmore says:

    We are all grateful for California’s recent drenching. We all know that droughts are cyclical, so no relief is ever permanent. But then there are the catastrophizers.

    The catastrophizers are the ones who mistakenly suppose that continued water conservation is possible only by a refusal of the state to officially rescind California’s alleged current drought status; and that the public must always keep its guard up. It’s reminiscent of the old era in which one had to always be on guard that there possibly was a communist under one’s bed and you would not know for sure unless you remained constantly vigilant (all while supposedly enjoying “the blessings of liberty.”

    My complaint is how the relevant authorities blatantly refuse to provide timely information on the actual implications of the latest precipitation results. They fail to provide relevant data in a way that allows citizens to draw their own inferences.

    For example, why does the Brown administration announce after the recent deluge that groundwater levels are still deficient? Whether or not that is true, and to whatever degree it might be true, why does the State do this without including information about the latest snowpack, ie., the DWR “snow water equivalence” at the Phillips station? The Brown administration are propagandists who want to spoon feed us only that information that tends to support their scare-agenda of continual vigilance.

    The catastrophizers never seem grateful, nor do they acknowledge that the public is intelligent enough to make “subtle” distinctions. They tacitly assume that the State’s attempts continually to manipulate public perception are valid, useful and beneficial.

    They could do much worse than to re-read the fairy tale about the “little boy who cried wolf.”

    We all realize that without the natural environment, we would not exist. Many, out of concern about the drought, call for actions to “save the environment.” We know that we want to sustain the natural environment, in part because we realize that sustaining it is necessary for human society itself to be sustained.

    Regarding any form of resource conservation, the only sustained public awareness coupled with public consensus is that which arises from a deeper, more subtle understanding. The desired awareness coupled with consensus comes from citizens realizing that it is our individual, “life-giving” actions that protect the environment, not cries or mass action calling for “life-saving” measures that are effective only if backed up by the police power. There is not a universal need for coercion for people to do good, and for human society to survive; except under tyranny or totalitarianism.

    Consider: If we are always and ever linked to the natural environment, then we need to understand how the natural environment has sustained itself since time immemorial. It does so because it is a life-giving system. The earth’s biosphere is not sustained because it is a life-saving system, as even a slight familiarity with natural selection and the dynamics of the environmental systems will demonstrate.

    Life-saving is both a wrong frame of reference and ultimately unproductive. Life-saving choices assume that our relationships to the earth and to each other are “I-It” relationships. Life-saving decisions put us at enmity with each other and ultimately with the life-giving nature of our only home, this blessed planet.

    Accordingly, since we are a part of the natural environment, we must try to make life-giving choices.

    But such distinctions, choices, and programs are beyond the cognitive and administrative capacities of government, if only because the State is disrespectful of its citizens, as even a slight acquaintance with agency theory and political history demonstrate.

    That is, the State treats its citizens as subjects, as though they are ineducable, driven only by selfishness and self-interest. The state, as a bureaucracy, will never attain an understanding of this “saving-giving” distinction to guide its policies. A grasp of this distinction only comes at the level of individuals, their consciences and in small groups of people.

    By contrast, one can count on the State to focus ever and always on those unique strengths at which it excels.

    State and local governments unique abilities generally boil down to the following. Their ability A) to impose regulation, and B) their great skill and ability to manipulate or selectively use information. And C) their constitutional monopoly on the use of violence, D) to enforce what they, in their “all-seeing wisdom,” deem to be or suppose to be the ‘public good.’ Whatever their intentions may be for benignly using such powers, exercising them frequently curtails liberty and tends to discourage private initiative.

    Perhaps most destructively, it obscures life-giving vision and limits its emergence.

    These powers and capabilities of government get used mainly because the government possesses them, not because they are the only instruments, much less the most suitable. In its actions to balance competing definitions of the “public interest,” the government tends to act arbitrarily based its lawful power to arbitrate, rather than its political power to persuade.

    There is an enormous literature about the concept of the “public interest” and “public good.” As a rudimentary knowledge of history demonstrates, the alleged “public good” is usually those private claims about the “public interest” that have gained a privileged position in public discourse, yet are made chiefly by private interest groups.

    Is it possible for human society to retain liberty and to flourish without life-giving vision? What is the proper role of government? We ignore such issues at our peril.

    • jaylund says:

      Excessive precipitation runs off with little infiltration. Sadly, the same is true for a torrent of ideas, however good, infiltrating into people’s minds.

  5. Pingback: California Water and Drought News for January 20, 2017

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