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Nearly 75% of California Still in Drought

January 2017
by Andrew Adams

San Rafael, Calif.—While California soaked up a string of much-needed winter storms in December, it’s still unclear if this winter will bring enough rain to break the state’s longstanding drought.


The storms culminated Dec. 15 when Napa, Calif., received 2.13 inches of rain, and the Santa Rosa area (Sonoma County) recorded 2.5 inches in just one day. The heavy rains pushed most of the state well past the historical averages to date and filled many reservoirs to average or above average, but the storms did not deliver much snow to the Sierra Nevada.


Since the start of the water year on July 1, Ukiah (Mendocino County, Calif.) saw 15.82 inches and is 126% of average. The Central Coast city of Paso Robles, Calif., has received 3.4 inches and is 106% of average, and Monterey, Calif., has recorded 5.27 inches and is 92% of average, according to Weather Underground.


The storms filled nearly all of the state’s major reservoirs to their averages for this time of year. On Dec. 18, Lake Shasta was at 72% total capacity, or 118% of its average, Lake Folsom was at 57% total capacity and 117% of average, and the San Luis Reservoir was 56% of total capacity and 86% of its average. Other reservoirs like Lake Oroville (Butte County) and New Melones (Sierra Foothills) remained far below average.


While the downpours have been most welcome, there has not been as much snow, and the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is critical to California’s total water supply. “We are getting some precipitation in the northern part of the state, but not as much snowpack development as we would like,” said Michael Anderson, climatologist with the California Department of Water Resources.


“Drought in California is now more of a regional issue based on a locality’s water supply portfolio and the demands they have for that supply,” he said, noting the less-than-average snowpack and that Oroville Reservoir was 300,000 acre-feet below average.


Looking ahead, Anderson said “La Niña-ish” conditions and unsettled high pressure will bring a mix of rain and cold and dry weather, which makes it uncertain if this winter is on track to break the drought statewide. “We will have to wait and see how the rest of this winter plays out to see how drought conditions are impacted regionally,” he said.

State officials are still urging residents to conserve, as about three-fourths of the entire state remains in drought conditions. Emergency conservation regulations may remain in effect until January, according to the State Water Resources Control Board. The latest map by the U.S. Drought Monitor had almost all of the Central Coast and southern San Joaquin Valley suffering in exceptional drought.


Also in December, the water board announced that California residents’ monthly conservation was 19.5%, which was less than the same time last year, and the board stressed the importance of remaining vigilant on conserving water. From June 2015 through October 2016, Californians have saved 2.26 million acre-feet of water. “With climate change playing an increasingly disruptive role, we need to save where we can, when we can. Coupled with (water) recycling, storm water recapture and other measures, it will extend our local water resilience,” the board’s chair Felicia Marcus said in a statement.


Last winter many hoped that a monster El Niño effect would break the drought. The winter rains of 2015 and 2016 helped, but they didn’t come close to ending the statewide drought. This year, the focus is on the potential effects of La Niña.


In his most recent forecast, Dr. Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University reported the consensus of forecasters predicting weak La Niña conditions through February with warm and dry conditions in the southern half of the United States, and wet and cool weather in the north. Jones, however, predicts conditions in the north Pacific may have more of an impact.


“Given the magnitude of the cooling in the north Pacific and a weak La Niña, I would expect a relatively cool and wet Pacific Northwest and a moderately dry and warm southern California extending across the desert southwest,” he writes. “If the cool waters extend all the way to the West Coast and become entrenched, a very wet winter will likely unfold, followed by a cold and late spring.”


The drought forced many growers in California’s inland region to rely more on groundwater, and that has caused levels to drop. The state Department of Water Resources found that 10% of wells dropped by more than 50 feet between 2011 to 2015, and 40% of wells decreased between 10 and 50 feet. Most of these wells were in the San Joaquin Valley, and those with the largest decreases were in the southern half of the valley.


Federal lawmakers voted to provide some relief for farmers who have sought to gain even more water from the northern half of the state.

On Dec. 10, Congress approved a wide-ranging water infrastructure bill that allocated $558 million for drought relief efforts in California. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California was one of the authors of the bill, to which president Barack Obama added his signature Dec. 16. Boxer later tried to kill the bill because of a rider added by her California counterpart in the Senate, Diane Feinstein, who brokered a deal that sends more water to farms in southern California and paves the way for the construction of new dams and reservoirs.

According to the Associated Press and other reports, Boxer felt the rider circumvented the Endangered Species Act by diverting water and could severely damage the West Coast’s commercial fishing industry. In a statement released by her office, Feinstein called the $12 billion bill “a big win for California’s aging infrastructure, flood protection and ecosystem restoration.”

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