Aerial views of Sacramento area flooding
After five years, is the drought over? The feds seem to think so, at least as far as Sacramento and most of Northern California are concerned.
Thanks to an unusually wet winter, the closely watched U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday that 42 percent of California now is considered free of drought. That includes Northern California from the Bay Area to the Oregon border. When the “water year” began in October, only 17 percent of the state was drought free, and a year ago the figure was 3 percent.
Several other experts agreed that considerable progress has been made in alleviating the drought.
Gov. Jerry Brown, however, sees the rain gauge half empty.
Despite the heavy rainstorms of the past week, Brown’s administration stressed Thursday that because the state’s water needs are inextricably linked, the drought can’t be considered over as long as the southern half of the state remains seriously depleted.
“Drought conditions persist in a majority of the state, and the governor’s emergency drought declaration is a statewide declaration,” said spokeswoman Nancy Vogel of the Natural Resources Agency. Vogel added that the Drought Monitor “doesn’t give the full picture in California” and overlooks chronic problems such as the rampant pumping of groundwater in recent years. “They take a short-term view of how drought is defined.”
In scientific terms, California’s drought began more than five years ago, when the state endured the first of a series of severely dry winters. In terms of official state policy, it began in January 2014, when Brown issued his first drought emergency proclamation. A year later, he used his authority to impose significant cutbacks in urban water use and other conservation measures. There’s no official standard for declaring the drought over, Vogel said. And as long as it’s in place, the governor retains broad power over water use.
The Drought Monitor’s update Thursday touched off a debate over the effects of this winter’s precipitation. State officials argue that the cumulative years of dry weather in much of California have left impacts too great to overcome with a few weeks of rain and snow.
“In some of these areas, the (water) deficits are so large,” said state climatologist Michael Anderson of the California Department of Water Resources. “On the whole, we gained ground ... but did it solve all our problems? No.”
Officials with the Drought Monitor, which is updated weekly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, said their analysis squares with the facts on the ground. The monitor’s results are based on precipitation volumes, depth of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, water levels in the key reservoirs, groundwater conditions and strength of river flows.
David Miskus, a senior meteorologist at the U.S. Climate Prediction Center, said that most of California’s major reservoirs hold above-average amounts of water, that Sierra snowpack levels are well above normal and that the Northern Sierra is on pace for its wettest water year in recorded history. Miskus prepared the drought monitor analysis this week.
“Overall, a very good picture in California,” Miskus said. “From L.A. northward, there are improvements.”
The monitor doesn’t claim California’s water problems have ended. Several counties such as Sacramento, while drought-free, are still considered “abnormally dry.” Drought persists in much of Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, which are home to 26 million people.
With so much of the state still dry, Michelle Mead of the National Weather Service in Sacramento said it’s too early to declare victory. “Keep in mind it’s a whole state picture,” she said.
That’s because California’s plumbing is interwoven. Northern California needs enough water not only for its own needs but to buoy the arid southern half of the state.
Vogel and others noted that the rains can stop abruptly, cutting short a wet season that’s supposed to run into April. “It’s early in the water season, and we know from experience that storms can cease,” Vogel said.
Even so, many experts say there’s no question the state’s water situation has improved as a whole because of the storms.
A substantial amount of the Northern California storm runoff is being captured by huge pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of California’s north-to-south water delivery network. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s pumps are running at full capacity. The larger and more powerful State Water Project pumps, though somewhat limited because of concerns over the effects on migrating fish, are expected to reach full capacity by the weekend, said Ted Thomas, a spokesman for the state Department of Water Resources.
Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, said: “We’re well on our way to being out of this drought.” Even normally dry Southern California is getting decent rainfall this winter, with Los Angeles receiving almost four-tenths of an inch Wednesday.
Around 40 percent of Southern California’s water supply comes from local sources. The rest comes mostly from the Colorado River and Northern California.
Deven Upadhyay of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California said the local rains that have fallen in the south state have started to boost local reservoirs and groundwater recharge centers. Combined with a strong start to Northern California’s winter and above-average snowpack in the vast area that supplies the Colorado River, he’s optimistic that 2016 could allow Southern California to erase some of its water deficit.
“We’re just starting to turn the tide,” he said. “We had multiple years where we were pulling out of storage and we had storage declines, and it’s going to take us a while to chip away at that and get more water back into reserves and into groundwater basins. It doesn’t happen instantaneously, but this is certainly a good trend for us.”
Patzert also cautioned, however, that California’s water problems are an ever-present issue. Over the long haul, “it’s a 17-year drought, with one or two good wet years thrown in,” he said. “Drought and water issues are always lurking over the horizon.”
To that end, the head of the State Water Resources Control Board pledged to continue a campaign to make conservation a way of life. Although the board has relaxed its urban conservation rules this year, Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said she hopes “this drought has been big enough to make a dent in the drought-denial cycle.”
The drought is clearly a major calamity in some parts of the state. Vogel said Santa Barbara’s main water source, Lake Cachuma, is just 8 percent full.
“Santa Barbara County is still within extreme conditions, as far as the drought is concerned,” said Ray Stokes of the Central Coast Water Authority, which serves the region.