When it comes to the California drought that has been plaguing the state for the last three years, it’s been difficult not to feel at least a little optimistic recently. A flurry of storms have moved through the state, dropping more rain that some communities have seen in a year and giving some much needed relief to dry plants, parched earth, and frazzled nerves. Indeed for many people it is even starting to feel like a normal winter again instead of the abnormally dry seasons we’ve seen in recent memory, a fact that’s only encouraged by the news that another large storm is due in this week that will drop up to 5 inches of rain and several inches of snow in some locations.
Does this mean that our water worries are finally over? Unfortunately, not even close.
Despite the significant morale boost the last few weeks of rain have given California, they have not ended the drought in one fell swoop. Several years of weak precipitation, high temperatures, and heavy demand have combined to create a serious, lasting problem for California’s water supply, and it is one that will not be easily fixed by our first heavy rain. The state’s reservoirs are still at dangerously low levels, with Lake Shasta at 25% full, Lake Oroville at 29% full, and Folsom Lake at 33%.
While rainstorms certainly help these lakes refill some of their lost storage, another critical problem is the severe depletion of groundwater that has come as a result of increasing demand with lowered supply. Many wells throughout the state have run dry as communities rely more and more heavily on their groundwater supplies, dropping the water table in some towns by as far as 104 feet in just two years. Refilling these water tables will take significant amounts of rain, so much so that climate scientists have stated that it would take winter precipitation to be at 150% of normal to end the drought in just one year.
Just in case there was still any doubt as to the severity of this drought, just as the rains were beginning a new scientific report was released that added a somber note to the relief. The study was published in the journal of the American Geophysical Union and authored by researchers at the University of Minnesota, and using data from tree rings in central and southern California it found that the current three year drought is the worst that California has suffered in the last 1,200 years.
The study found a host of surprising facts, such as the relative frequency with which California suffers dry periods, but the most startling of all is certainly that the state has not suffered a three year period as dry and as warm as this one in the last millennium. The tree rings of blue oaks store information not only on how old the trees are but also on the wetness or dryness of each year, and when compared with historical data reaching back to 800 A.D. the results were sobering. This findings of this study have painted a stark picture of just how bad the water conditions have become in California, and serve as a reminder to those who may have become complacent that just because some rain has fallen does not mean that we can stop our conservation efforts.
Hand in hand with the findings of the University of Minnesota’s study, a report from the State Water Resource Control Board on water use numbers from the month of October has shown that after a promising upswing in water conservation usage has begun to increase once again. The numbers show that while urban water use had decreased by 6.7% from the October of the previous year, the rate of consumption was drastically down from the 10.3% savings in September and 11.6% in August. While the amounts of water saved varied from region to region – with the Bay Area saving 15.5% and Los Angeles only at 1.4% – the overall numbers were not encouraging, especially given that October is generally a cooler month that does not call for as much water usage as a hot period such as August.
There are several possible explanations for this trend, including a warmer-than-normal October and “drought fatigue” that has many consumers growing tired of the constant calls to cut back their water usage. When people are first encouraged to conserve in the face of a serious shortage they comply with enthusiasm, but after months and indeed years of cutting back they may lose the urgency of their actions. This problem is only compounded when a strong storm moves though the state and makes many people think that the drought is over or almost over, when in fact it is still a severe problem that must be contested with daily conservation.
California has made great strides in reducing its water use and moving forward into a sustainable water future. It’s no easy task to rethink the way an entire state uses one of its most precious resources, but the work that’s been done so far points to a hopeful outcome. It’s impossible to say how much rain this winter will bring, and that means that we must keep on the track that we have successfully started to ensure that there is enough water for all Californians no matter how many storms we see. Rain or shine, water conservation is key.