Water & Drought

February has been bone dry. Has drought returned to California?

There’s not much snow in the Sierra. See how it compares to February in recent years

California’s snowpack is 22 percent of normal as of mid-February in 2018. These satellite images from NASA show how that compares to previous years.
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California’s snowpack is 22 percent of normal as of mid-February in 2018. These satellite images from NASA show how that compares to previous years.

Weather experts spent much of this winter cautiously optimistic. There were still weeks to go in the wet season and the reservoirs were full, thanks to last winter’s near record-breaking rain and snow.

Now, even the professionals are getting more than a little nervous. There have been weeks of hardly any rain. The Sierra Nevada has received record-low amounts of snow. Meanwhile, the calendar is flipping ever closer to California’s blast furnace dry season.

“The outlook isn’t good,” said David Rizzardo, chief of snow surveys with the Department of Water Resources.

California’s Sierra snowpack is a measly 22 percent of average. That’s worse than it was even at this point in 2015, when California ended winter with the thinnest snowpack in recorded history, just 5 percent of average.

It’s only slightly better in the Sacramento Valley.

Sacramento has seen 7.8 inches of rainfall – 50 percent of average. No rain has fallen in the city since Jan 25. The National Weather Service forecasts scattered rain and snow Sunday through Tuesday, but the precipitation amounts are expected to be miniscule.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to the five-year drought last April, but most climatologists and forecasters say drought-like conditions have returned. The U.S. Drought Monitor, which is compiled by multiple federal agencies, says an estimated 45 percent of the state is in moderate to severe drought, covering more than 24 million Californians. The hardest hit areas are Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties.

“We’re in a ‘little D’ drought, or at the beginning of a ‘little D’ drought,” said Michelle Mead of the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

What’s preventing a “big D” drought – where dramatic conservation measures are ordered? It’s partly the state’s reservoirs, most of which are at their historic averages because of last winter’s record rains. “We have a nice cushion,” Mead said.

About 45 percent of California was experiencing some level of drought conditions as of Feb. 6, 2018. That’s according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is compiled by multiple federal agencies.

Still, the return of prolonged dry weather, so soon after the drought officially ended, is sobering. “These days it seems to be hard to get out of that long-term water deficit (even) if we have a wet year now and then,” said Daniel Swain of the UCLA Center for Climate Science. “We have been in an extended period of unusually warm and dry conditions. One might call that a drought.”

In April 2015, during the worst of the last drought, Brown imposed a 25 percent cutback in urban water use. That order was relaxed a year later, and dropped altogether last spring.

Did Brown act too quickly in canceling the drought order? Ellen Hanak, a water expert with the Public Policy Institute of California, doesn’t think so. She said it was increasingly difficult to get Californians to allow their lawns to die following a winter of record rainfall.

“It’s very tricky to say we’re still in a major drought when reservoirs are completely full and they’re being emptied to prevent flooding,” she said.

Some cities still impose limits on water usage. Notably, Sacramento allows just one day a week of outdoor watering in winter. The twice-weekly summer schedule in Sacramento starts in March.

State officials are pushing other conservation measures. Next week the State Water Resources Control Board is expected to permanently ban certain practices that were temporarily forbidden during the drought. They include watering lawns within 48 hours of measurable rainfall, hosing off sidewalks and driveways, and washing cars without using an automatic shut-off nozzle.

Hanak said she expects some communities to impose other water-reducing measures and “do some belt-tightening” this summer.

Rizzardo, the state snow surveys chief, said Californians might want to get used to having weather patterns seesaw from drought to deluge in a very short time.

“This is what the climate people have been warning us about for over a decade now,” Rizzardo said. “One real concern of climate change is just this constant back and forth on the extremes. That makes water management extremely difficult.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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