Is California back in drought? The unusually warm, dry start to this winter – along with intense wildfires in Southern California – has many Californians experiencing “drought deja vu.”
Despite this uneasy feeling, we are not in drought. The state’s reservoirs – the traditional measure of vulnerability during drought – are in good shape thanks to last year’s near-record precipitation. And for a change, more water was stored in the state’s underground water basins this past year than was taken out.
Eleven of the last 17 years have been relatively dry. This same period is also the warmest in recorded history.
But the broader trends are a concern. Eleven of the last 17 years have been relatively dry. This same period is also the warmest in recorded history, suggesting that a long-term pattern of warm and dry conditions has set up in California. And a stubborn high-pressure area has parked over the eastern Pacific this winter. During several years of the latest drought, this “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” consistently steered winter storms away from California.
So it might be prudent to act as if this is the beginning of the next drought.
In recent years, the PPIC Water Policy Center has reported extensively on the impact of drought and recommended ways to improve drought preparation and response. Many of these recommendations require years of pre-drought effort – or help from the California Legislature or Congress. But actions that can be implemented with less planning can be adopted right away.
One of the most useful actions local water suppliers and state agencies can take now is to prepare drought contingency plans that address critical or difficult actions. Too often during the latest drought, water managers were forced to make decisions on the fly, such as waiting for supply emergencies before identifying alternative sources and actions. Good drought contingency plans will improve drought response.
Here are some short-term priority areas for drought planning that we think can help prepare for possible drought:
• Urban and suburban utilities should explain to customers early and often why additional revenues are needed to cover the fixed costs of providing water when water sales decline. While the utilities generally did a good job supplying water and encouraging conservation during the latest drought, many also ran into financial challenges as their customers bought less water. Utilities need better fiscal planning for dry times.
• Groundwater sustainability agencies – newly formed in response to the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act – should develop actions to avoid or mitigate the effects of excessive groundwater pumping if conditions remain dry. Farm supplies of surface water are typically hit hard during drought, forcing many farmers to increase reliance on groundwater pumping. But in some places, this can lead to undesirable outcomes, including dry domestic wells, damage to roads and irrigation canals, and increased costs to pump water when water tables fall.
• State and federal fish and wildlife agencies should identify key threats to freshwater ecosystems and establish priority actions to minimize effects on native species during drought. Ad hoc responses to address the environmental effects of drought caused harm to many of the state’s most at-risk species – including all runs of salmon and many other native fishes – and increased controversy over use of water to protect them. Drought contingency plans can help reduce the harm caused by warm, dry conditions and reduce conflicts with other water users.
Droughts are different from most natural disasters that strike California. Unlike fires, floods and earthquakes, they tend to unfold slowly, building in impact with time. And at the beginning of every drought there is hope that rains will arrive so that difficult choices can be avoided.
But hope is not a good drought strategy, so California needs to plan today as if drought is right around the corner. Even if the hoped for rain appears, this planning will be useful when – inevitably – the next drought arrives.
Jeffrey Mount is a senior fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center and Ellen Hanak is the center’s director. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.