A Deep Dive Into California’s Recurring Drought Problem
Feel it yet? That dire sense of déjà vu? It probably depends on your livelihood or interests. If you’re a Bay Area boulevardier or the type once described in singles ads as a lover of long walks on the beach, you’re no doubt delighted by the unceasing blue skies and unseasonably pleasant temperatures. But it’s another matter if you’re a farmer, salmon fisherman, water agency manager, skier or whitewater kayaker. Your income—or at least, your sense of well-being— is directly determined by what falls from the sky.
Or doesn’t fall. Which has been pretty much the case this year, just as it was in the all too recent drought of 2013 – 2016. Sure, last winter’s precipitation was a record breaker, dumping gigatons of snow in the Sierra Nevada and sluicing so much water downstream that we almost lost Oroville Dam. But now the perfect weather is making us recall our recent parched past, when we watched our lawns wither, irrigated the roses with salvaged gray water, and made do with five minute showers. So, are we about to teeter back into the bad old days?
Maybe. Climatologists researching California’s rainfall records have determined that it’s statistically impossible to predict precipitation from one month to the next. But longer trends may well be detected, or at least handicapped. The Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service recently observed that much of the West is experiencing the “persistent ridging” (i.e., presence of strong, storm-rebuffing high-pressure systems) that characterized the recent drought. Moreover, say federal meteorologists, California’s rainy season seems unable to get off the blocks, despite early and promising precipitation across the northernmost part of the state. The Center predicts drought development across much of the Southwest; still, government meteorologists anticipate that areas north of the Bay Area will experience “greater potential for precipitation” by the time the wet season winds up.
And even if that bothersome high-pressure ridge stays anchored over California, we should be in pretty good shape for a while.
When viewed from the geologic time scale, the recent drought, as well as the other devastating droughts of 1987 and 1976, could well be the norm.
“I’m not extraordinarily worried about the near term,” says Peter Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute. “We had an extremely wet winter last year and our reservoirs are full, so we’ll start out [the dry season] in pretty good shape. Also, our responses over the last five years [such as water restrictions on urban users] show that we can handle shortages to some degree.”
Unhappily, what really saved us during the recent drought was overpumping of groundwater, says Gleick, who earned his Doctorate and Master’s in energy and resources at Berkeley.
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