Is California Pulling Out of the Drought

Holly Zynda
Published: January 9, 2017

A lone houseboat beside an almost dry section of the Shasta Lake reservoir, which was pictured here at less than 20% capacity on May 25, 2015.
(MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Aridity plays a major role in the Californian landscape. The Mojave Desert, encompassing much of the southeast portion of California, is the driest place in North America, and especially with the overall warming of the climate, even the wetter northern part of the state often faces uncertain snowpack and rainfall. While major climatological variations exist within the Golden State’s diverse geography, water scarcity is a statewide issue. The parched west has been experiencing its most intense period of dryness in 500 years. Governor Jerry Brown declared the drought a state of emergency in early 2014. In April 2015, he imposed restrictions to cut water usage by 25%.

But following last winter’s wetter and snowier conditions, policy makers are cautiously hopeful. After half a decade of historic dryness, is California beginning to pull out of its drought with recent rains and early snow?

Both rain and snow are important to California’s hydration, but mountain snowpack plays a particularly crucial role. Snow acts like a storage system for water, melting as the temperature rises. During the warmer months, snow runoff feeds California’s streams and helps fill its aqueducts. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is the primary source of water from snowpack in California. However in 2015, it reached its lowest point in modern history.

California’s Mediterranean climate is considered one of its selling points, after all — ironically, perhaps, given the strife its often-rainless conditions can induce — and for many, a life in the Golden State remains an ideal. The huge population — 38.06 million in 2016 — places intense stress on a delicate region. Large populations require more water, depleting ground reserves.

California’s severe lack of precipitation may have resulted from the high-pressure system of a La Niña pattern in 2011. La Niña frequently leads to dry conditions in the southwest portion of the state.

Many Californians pinned their hopes to the El Niño system the state experienced last winter. La Niña’s warmer, wetter sibling was expected to deliver more snow and rain, hopefully relieving the thirsty land.

While the state did receive heavy rainfall in many regions, the output did not come close to matching record El Niño conditions. In fact, the snowpack did increase, though it still reached only about 60 percent of its average in late April and began melting quickly. And, it looks like we are headed into another La Niña period without having reaped the full rewards of our recent El Niño.

Some of California’s reservoirs — Shasta, Don Pedro, Millerton Lake — are currently fuller than their historical mid-fall average. Others, however, remain drastically low.   

After more than a year of strict water-usage measures, policy makers cautiously removed water-use restrictions, and the state of emergency ended. Yet California remains far from saturated.

Scientists have looked to the past in order to predict the state’s future. An analysis of tree rings and other natural materials, for example, revealed that California has experienced multiple decades’-long droughts over the past thousand years. As global temperatures rise, the threat of such megadroughts is a serious concern.

And despite the limited water available in California, even during a non-drought year, the state’s population continues to increase by an average of one percent every year and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.     

"We're in a new era," Governor Brown said while announcing last year’s water restrictions. "The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day, that's going to be a thing of the past."

Although the current drought has experienced some recent relief, water conservation remains vital moving forward.

Holly Zynda is a copy editor, proofreader and writer with a lifelong passion for the written word. She owns and operates Owl Intermedia, a content production and editing company, and has provided writing and editing services for companies ranging from GoPro and Reputation.com to The California Environmental Protection Agency and Genentech.

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