Not out of the woods yet
Only weeks after a series of atmospheric rivers deluged California, the state once again witnessed powerful winter weather that delivered heaps of rain and snow, including fresh powder at elevations as low as 1,500 feet.
But as worsening climate extremes and water supply challenges continue to bedevil the state, officials cautioned residents late last month not to assume that the recent moisture signaled an end to the drought. The entire state remains under a drought emergency declaration that Gov. Gavin Newsom issued in 2021, with millions of residents still under strict watering restrictions.
“I want to be clear that these storms — and the likely rain and snow we may get over the next few weeks — did not, nor will they fully, end the drought, at least not yet,” said Yana Garcia, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. “We’re in better shape than we were two months ago, but we’re not out of the woods.”
Indeed, the state’s wet season typically runs until April, and despite the impending storm, there remains much uncertainty about what the coming months may hold. Most of February was notably dry, with only 0.85 inches of precipitation falling statewide in the wake of January’s flooding.
Experts said it will take more than a series of storms to make up for years of deficits. Some said declaring the drought over now — or possibly ever — would be a mistake.
“We’re now in a situation in California where there’s never really enough water anymore to do all of the things that everyone wants, and to declare the drought over, or the emergency over, I think would send the wrong signal,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute. “I think people should still be cautious and careful and efficient, and I think water agencies should be pushing for continued improvements in water use.”
Part of the challenge is that surface conditions — including reservoir levels and snowpack — aren’t the only factors in California’s water supply. Groundwater, or the state’s system of underground aquifers, remains perilously low, particularly in the Central Valley where climate change and overpumping have left it dangerously depleted.
What’s more, Southern California’s other major water source, the Colorado River, didn’t benefit as much from January’s storms and is dipping toward record lows. Federal officials have ordered California and six other states to dramatically cut diversions from the river, which has long served as a water lifeline for the West.
But even surface conditions are changing under the state’s evolving climate, which is trending toward long-term heat and dryness while being punctuated by bouts of extreme precipitation. Snowpack is regularly melting earlier than in years past, and the state’s water managers are increasingly tasked with preparing for drought and flood events at the same time.
“We have been working day in and day out to adjust to a changing reality,” said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot. “We know that extreme weather is getting more extreme as a result of climate change. In October, we finished one of the driest three-year periods in our state’s history, and then just last month, we experienced what is probably the wettest three weeks in our history.”
Gleick said there is often a measurable “rebound effect” after state officials remove drought orders, as former Gov. Jerry Brown did in 2017 following a similar series of storms. Though some Californians may have made permanent changes, such as removing their lawns or upgrading to water-efficient appliances, many behavioral changes are more ephemeral. People may go back to watering their grass, taking long showers or wasting water, Gleick said.
He also noted that there is a difference between a hydrologic drought and a political one, with Newsom’s drought emergency declaration giving the state authority to assist local areas with water supply challenges. While some actions can and should be taken locally, “there’s still things that the state needs to be doing in terms of funding, in terms of setting targets for efficiency improvements, in terms of changing the way that we operate the reservoirs, and in terms of how we allocate water on the State Water Project,” he said.
Declaring the drought over now would be “premature hydrologically and politically,” he added.