Each October 1st, California’s hydrologically-minded mark the beginning of a new water year. Don’t expect a party. Maybe bet on a hangover: The state’s reservoirs are underfilled, its mountains were undersnowed, and its over-tapped aquifers are sporting a record number of new wells. For auld lang syne, my dear, let’s talk water.
The new water year doesn’t mark anything specific. No historic flood, no important legislation, no alignment of the Sun, planets, or Moon. Nope, October 1st is just a day in the vague trough separating California’s wet and dry seasons.
You can think of those seasons in terms of supply and demand. During supply season—roughly, November through February, maybe March—storms roll in from the Pacific Ocean. These supply the mountains with snowpack, the reservoirs with water, and the aquifers with recharge. Or, that’s what everyone hopes will happen. Demand season peaks during the summer, and is a little more reliable: Twenty-seven million acres of crops demand irrigation. And all year long, 40 million residents demand hydration, while 190,000 miles of river demand flow to keep the banks green and the fish alive.
Drought happens when supply outpaces demand. (A quick note on terminology here: Hydrologically, drought has a more nuanced, specific definition—including things like soil moisture—than supply over demand. I’m using drought in the way most people use it: When water shortages prompt things like almond-shaming, grass-browning, and bus ads telling you to cut back on your shower time. Using either definition, California is still in a drought.) But drought is not a binary thing. This year, California is running a water deficit, but it is not as deep in the red as it has been. The reservoirs, snow pack, and river levels are all looking better than they have in more than four years.
In early 2016, Californians and members of the state’s drought-obsessed diaspora were giddy over El Niño. This year’s event was one of the largest on record. Serious scientists called the damn thing “Godzilla.” And yes, it dropped a lot of water—though, on Northern California, not SoCal as predicted. Even with that boost, however, California’s total annual precipitation for 2016 was right around average. El Niño wasn’t the drought-buster everyone thought it would be. “We need to emphasize that El Niño is still a very strong predictor of what will happen in California, but nothing is guaranteed,” says Emily Becker, a contract research scientist with NOAA. All of which is to say: Long-term predictions are tough.
El Niño wasn’t the drought-buster everyone thought it would be.
El Niño didn’t save the state, but it also wasn’t a dud. “In California and a great deal of the West, most precipitation falls as snow in the mountains,” says Leon Szeptycki (that’s Shep-tik-ski), executive director of Stanford University’s Water in the West program. The snow melts and refills the reservoirs, which are constantly tapped to supply cities, farms, and natural water flow. The Sierra Nevadas are bare right now, but that’s normal for the end of summer. The best time to measure snowpack is April 1st, when the last of the big Pacific storms have already passed and summer heat hasn’t started melting the high Sierra.
Phillips Station is a snow-measuring site just south of Lake Tahoe, about 7,000 feet above sea level. The April 1st average there is 56 inches of snow. On April 1, 2015, governor Jerry Brown stood at Phillips Station on bare earth and declared that all California cities must cut back water use by 25 percent. Snow pack in the Sierra was just 5 percent of the historical average. A year later, the mountains looked much better—snowpack was 86 percent of average on April 1, 2016.
I probably don’t need to remind you what the reservoirs looked like last year. (In case you do need a reminder…) The total water supply in the state’s reservoirs on October 1, 2015 was 11.9 million acre-feet. Remember that? And do you feel the same sense of doom this year? Hopefully not, because right now the reservoirs have 17.8 million acre-feet—82 percent of the historical average.
86 percent, 82 percent, snowpack and reservoirs are still running deficits, but given the situation California was in last year, things are looking up. Feel good? Good. Hang on to that good feeling for just a bit longer, because it won’t last. Time to talk about the groundwater situation.
Groundwater is basically a water bank, a stopgap for farmers and towns that get left dry when there’s not enough water flowing out of the mountains. Good news first: California is blessed with relatively porous soil. “The benefit of that is most of the aquifers people use in this state are fairly easy to recharge,” says Szeptycki. With good rain and dedicated efforts, the aquifers will refill easily—unlike say, the hardpanned and overdrawn Ogallala that runs from north Texas to Nebraska.
Bad news: California’s aquifers ain’t infinite. And four years of drought have driven more people to drill deeper wells. And while the state does its best to monitor groundwater levels, nobody knows exactly how much water the aquifers hold. Which is to say, measuring how soon they go empty is a little like trying to assign a value to the pit of dread in your stomach whenever you think about the rate at which water is getting sucked out of the ground.
2016’s relative wetness prompted state officials to rescind the limits on city use. So, hooray for green lawns, Hollywood showers, and swan diving into almond-filled pool a la Scrooge McDuck?
Not quite. Forecasting what will happen this winter is impossible, but state planners have some indication about what’s to come. The biggest concern is with snowpack. Many scientists believe California will continue getting less and less snow each year. That’s because climate change is making the winters warmer: This year the average temperature in the Sierras was 32.1 degrees, slightly above the freezing point of water. So even in a wet year more precipitation is going to fall as rain and run off into the rivers. The only way the state could engineer a storage solution—comparable, that is, to snowpack—for all that water would be building a 400-mile-long trough along the western slope of the mountains (don’t @ me, all you wannabe David Browers).
Reservoir storage is another problem. This time, it’s policy. Let’s say California has a really wet December, enough to top off every reservoir. By law, many of those reservoirs must be drained to a certain safe level, to act as flood control in case another storm comes along. The flood control rules are strict, but some people in the state are working on getting the guidelines updated so reservoir managers can hold excess water if the weekly forecast looks dry.
Aaaaaand back to groundwater. Deep breaths. Just like last time: Good news first. Last year—after over a century of no-rules subsurface slurping—the state finally passed a law promising to regulate groundwater. Bad news, the full regulation doesn’t kick in for another 20 years. Why so long? Well, more than a century of groundwater free-for-all means the state needs to build the regulatory architecture from scratch.
And the law sets a pretty low bar. The eventual goal is to maintain groundwater at the same level it was in 2015. “Problem we’re facing, 2015 occurred in the middle of a drought,” says Szeptycki. The aquifers were—are—pretty low. And what happens if the aquifers go dry between then and now? Well, farmers are still stuck dealing with the state’s wonky water allocation laws. Basically, every water rights holder has a piece of paper stamped with a date determining seniority. If all the water runs out before your date comes up, time to drill. Groundwater drilling is at a record high.
Good news. You people need good news. Problem is, there’s not much. California has decent reservoir levels, had decent snowpack. But nobody knows whether this winter will be a wet one. Like I said, this stuff is impossible to forecast. At least we’re probably not due for a La Niña (typically indicative of dry weather). And besides the snow problem, the reservoir issue, and the groundwater catastrophe, the state is still saddled with a tangle of water laws that are a case study in tragedy of the commons. Some farmers still want to blame water problems on fish. Some rich people are still acting like jerks.
So what do you do? Blame the rich? Blame the fish? Join the water armageddon death cult, and (palm-slapping your copy of Cadillac Desert for emphasis) blame the century and a half of local, state, and federal water mismanagement? Go ahead. Won’t solve anything. Here’s another way: Keep track of what you have, keep an eye on what’s coming, and never trust the forecast to save you. Happy new year.
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