The drought is not over and dry California winters are a new normal
A month ago, when California received a record bounty of rain and snow in December, headlines across the state asked different versions of the same hopeful question:
Is the drought finally over?
Now that we’ve reached the end of the driest January on record in Fresno’s history – barely a trace of rain – and no significant precipitation in the February forecast, it’s time to throw that whole premise out the window. .
Because obviously, the drought is not over. But more than that, it’s time to stop using that word to describe our current climate pattern. “Drought” implies a temporary situation. This is how things are and will be. Flurries of precipitation followed by months of dry weather are the new normal. And the sooner we start to accept this reality, the better.
California started 2022 with a robust snowpack measured at 160% of the state average. In the Southern Sierra, which includes the San Joaquin River watershed and those to the south, the number was 170%.
Talk about a short-lived celebration. After our arid January, the statewide average is down to 99% of normal (as of Friday) and decreasing day by day. And if we don’t get snow by April 1, the official end of the rainy season, we’d be at 58% of normal for the year.
Oops, I caught up. These numbers represent the old normal. By this I mean the normal containing the 20th century, a generally wet period in the state’s history during which our water storage and conveyance systems were built.
It all worked because winter storms produced a heavy Sierra snowpack that reliably melted each spring and summer to fill reservoirs and provide enough water to meet ever-increasing demand. Those days are over. Now and for the foreseeable future, our water will happen randomly.
Leading climatologists have a term for the new California weather. They call it “climate whiplash” in reference to the rise of wild oscillations between extreme events.
How wild? Think intense drought interspersed with record showers. Or destructive forest fires followed closely by equally destructive floods. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
Ask the residents of Montecito, an unincorporated community outside of Santa Barbara. In December 2017, a devastating wildfire swept through the area. Weeks later, torrential rains hit the same scorched ground, causing flooding and debris slides that killed 23 people.
More roadblocks not the solution
Rather than arriving in fairly equal amounts in December, January, and February, California’s rain and snow fall unpredictably. There are years like this where we get pounded early and then the tap suddenly turns off. There are years like 2021, where we hardly get any precipitation. And there are years like 2018, when months of dry weather were interrupted by freak snowstorms in March.
As part of the warmer new normal, water that remained stored in the mountains as snow now melts earlier and faster, or falls as rain instead, and begins to fill our reservoirs months before than the demand reaches. Studies show that these extreme, often untimely, wet events have increased in magnitude over the past 50 years.
For some, the simple answer would be to build more dams. But no matter how many dams we build, it still wouldn’t be enough to capture what the Sierra has stored on its own. Furthermore, dams are an expensive and inefficient way of storing water – another vestige of a 20th century mindset that also needs updating.
Judging by the signs I see along Highways 99 and 152, many farmers in the central San Joaquin Valley (as well as local politicians who fill pockets in their pockets) would strongly disagree. Never mind. Good luck convincing the rest of the state to fund half-baked projects like Temperance Flat Dam that would hold virtually no water except in the wettest years.
Because California has endured previous droughts, the belief that we will endure this one too is an easy trap to fall into. Unfortunately, this way of thinking will get us nowhere but deeper into the hole.
Residential water restrictions such as watering sidewalks and driveways, washing cars without a shut-off nozzle, and irrigating lawns and gardens after rain should be permanent rather than temporary measures. More cities need to purify the water they use and then reuse it. And, yes, some agricultural land needs to be fallow – especially in places that are unsustainable without draining every last drop of groundwater.
But above all, it is our collective state of mind that must be changed. California does not experience a temporary period of below average precipitation, ie drought. That’s the way things are.