California Droughts

September 10, 2016

How often do you think about how much water you're using or wasting as you stand under a shower and let it drown your hair? If you live in New England, chances are that you it doesn’t even cross your mind. If you live in California, this reality is different.

Over the last decade, California has experienced an unprecedented drought. Statewide precipitation in California was lower from 2012 through 2014 than during any other three consecutive years in its recorded history. This condition was exacerbated by the fact that 2014 and 2015 were the two warmest years in the state over the last 121 years. In February 2009, for the first time in California's history, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the statewide water shortage. In January 2014, Governor Brown proclaimed a second state of emergency related to the drought, and asked all California residents to voluntarily reduce their water consumption by 20 percent. As the drought persisted, the governor issued three executive orders between April 2014 and April 2015. His third executive order directed, for the first time in state history, the imposition of mandatory restrictions on water usage in cities and towns that would result in a 25% reduction overall. This year has brought a measure of relief. In March, Californians conserved 24.3% more water compared to the amount they used during March 2013. That was twice as much as the water they saved in February. Statewide cumulative savings from June 2015 to March 2016 equaled 23.9% compared to the same months in 2013 through 2014.

“While some parts [of California] saw rain and snow, other parts, specifically the Central Valley and Southern California, didn’t; and yet, all Californians stepped up again to conserve water, because they know they can and that it is good for California,” said State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “Twenty ­four percent in March is a stunningly welcoming number. As we head into the warmer summer months, we need to keep conserving. We may not need the same levels of conservation as last year, but we still need to keep all we can in our reservoirs and groundwater basins in case this winter is just a punctuation mark in a longer drought. It’s not time yet for a drought’s over party. That said, March brought us much needed rain and snow—still less than average but huge compared to the worst in 500 years, which is where we were last year. We’ve gotten a bit of a reprieve, but not a hall pass. Now we are figuring out how to appropriately adjust to a better but not ideal situation.”

While this past winter’s storms brought welcomed snow and rain to parts of California, experts believe that the drought is far from over. In the words of Julien Emile­ Geay, an associate professor of earth sciences at the University of Southern California, 2016’s El Niño was just “a band­aid on a gaping wound.” Several more years of steady rain and snow will be necessary before California can safely declare that its drought is over. In the meantime, all Californians need to acknowledge the reality of the state’s (and planet’s) climate change, and continue their water conservation efforts.