California Drought: what is currently happening?

The state of California has been in a serious drought the past three years; 2012 to 2015 were the driest consecutive years according to the California Department of Water Resources. California has had serious droughts in the past, but in 2007 to 2009 a statewide proclamation of emergency was put into effect. This was the first time there was a state of emergency proclaimed, and the second time was between 2012-2015.

The most recent drought is also unique because it has been the driest consecutive period of time in the state of California, and new high climate records have been set in this time. The years 2014 and 2015 were the warmest and second warmest years in 121 years of climate records, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

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Photo Courtesy: Golden Gate Weather Services

Is the drought over?

Since the drought has continued on for a few years, people are asking, “When will the drought be over and how will we know it is over?”

There has been rain recently, but according to the California Nevada River Forcast Center by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Los Angeles’ rainfall has been 6.83 inches from October 1, 2015 to April 27, 2016. The normal amount of rainfall for this time of year should be 14.22 inches. The normal amount of rainfall is an average from 1981 to 2010 recordings.

According to a study by NASA, California has a a 20 inch debt of rain. This debt of rain comes from the state’s 13 inch deficit between 2012 and 2014, and the 7 inch deficit from the 2014 to 2015 wet season. This debt is close to the average amount of rainfall the state usually receives in a year.

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California January 2013 compared to January 2014 Photo Courtesy: NASA

“Drought has happened here before. It will happen again, and some research groups have presented evidence it will happen more frequently as the planet warms,” head of the NASA study, Andrey Savtchenko said in a NASA press release, “But, even if the climate doesn’t change, are our demands for fresh water sustainable?”

Since the 1980’s, the state of California has grown in agriculture, population, and industry, thus creating a higher demand for water.

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Average Precipitation, September 2011 through September 2014 Photo Courtesy: California Department of Water Resources

El Niño

State Climatologist Michael Anderson said in a press release from the State of California, “California cannot count on potential El Niño conditions to halt or reverse drought conditions.  Historical weather data shows us that at best, there is a 50/50 chance of having a wetter winter. Unfortunately, due to shifting climate patterns, we cannot even be that sure.”

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Drought Conditions in December 2014 Photo Courtesy:


This quote shows that one cannot count on El Niño to end the drought.

El Niño is the third strongest in the past 65 years for the months of May and June, according to NASA.

According to NASA, “El Niño contributes only six percent to California’s precipitation variability and is one factor among other, more random effects that influence how much rainfall the state receives. While it’s more likely El Niño increases precipitation in California, it’s still possible it will have no, or even a drying, effect.”

How will we know the drought it over?

Even though 2016 has been the wettest year since the drought began in 2012, a few months of rain cannot make up for years of a drought.

The California Department of Water Resources stated, “Ending a drought means having enough precipitation and runoff throughout the state to mitigate the impacts we’ve experienced.”

It may take some time to reach this point.

2016 Drought Contingency Plan

The Drought Contingency Plan for this year will be placed in effect from February 2016 to November 2016, assuming the dry conditions will still persist in this time.

Forcasts for 2016 appear to be wetter than average conditions, but this plan is still being placed in effect if these conditions do not continue.

According to the Central Valley Project and State Water Project 2016 Drought Contingency Plan, “If 2016 precipitation results in another dry year, the State and Federal Agencies will need to make difficult decisions to balance reservoir storage to meet water supply needs, such as essential health and safety needs for urban water users, cold water and appropriate flows for fish, and adequate water quality in the Delta.”

The goals of this plan are to ensure human health and safety needs for fresh water, and to “Manage the intrusion of salt water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta) through operations of the CVP (Central Valley Project) and SWP (State Water Project)” according to The Drought Contingency Plan.

This plan is connecting with the December 15, 2015 State Water Board Order.

These plans focus on the changed requirements of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project to meet water quality in the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta).

Current State

According to a press release by the California Water Boards, “Californians came just shy of meeting Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s 25 percent water conservation mandate for the nine months since mandatory urban conservation began.”

California has saved 23.9 percent of water from June 2015 to February 2016 compared to these same months in 2013.

“Twenty-four percent savings shows enormous effort and a recognition that everyone’s effort matters,Californians rose to the occasion, reducing irrigation, fixing leaks, taking shorter showers, and saving our precious water resources in all sorts of ways.” said State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus in the same California Water Boards press release.

There has been almost 1.19 million acre-feet of water conserved from June 2015 through February 2016. California has reached 96 percent of the savings goal of 1.24 million acre-feet of water, according to the California Water Boards.

The conservation rate statewide dropped from 17.1 percent in January to 12 percent in February. This could be because February 2016 was one of the driest and warmest Februaries since the drought started years before.

Typically people use less water in the winter because they are not using as much water for plants outdoors, so there is more water to conserve.

“We are in better shape than last year, but are still below average in most of California. We need to keep up our efforts to conserve the water we’ve gotten. We can better tune up and adjust our emergency rules once we see our final rain and snowpack tallies in the next few weeks,” said Chair Marcus in the press release.

The State Water Board’s Office of Enforcement has worked with water suppliers that have not met their conservation standards.

The board has issued: 98 warning letters,  118 notices of violation,  12 conservation orders,  Four Administrative Civil Liability Complaints and seven alternative compliance order, all since June 2015, according to the California Water Board report.

The state is anticipating conserving more water in the future to help deal with the issue of the drought. There was an extended emergency regulation that will be in effect until October 2016, and potentially revised then.

The state continues to conserve high amounts of water as they have since June 2015.

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California Water Conservation Photo Courtesy: California Water Boards


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