Californians should not be declaring the drought over

California’s winter season has brought an abundance of rain to the state. As a result, storms, floods and excessive snow build up have barraged Californians, but many are hopeful that the influx of rain will help alleviate the drought that has been plaguing the state for five years. However, California citizens should not be so quick to celebrate as an official statement has not been released declaring the drought over.

One way to assess the status of the drought is to analyze the total area of the state that is under severe drought. Last year, around 97 percent of the state was under some degree of drought. This year, that statistic has lowered to 58 percent. In the Bay Area, water storage levels are returning to normal, and the area is certainly a lot less in a stage of drought than it was a year ago. Despite the rains, areas in the Santa Barbara and Tulare County are still considered to be under a severe drought.

However, experts say estimating drought levels in the present and for the future is extremely complicated as water storage levels can quickly change. Although we are mostly out of the drought, it does not necessarily mean we are in the clear for the future.

AP Environmental teacher Heather Johnson compared water storage to a bank account saying, “Even if we are at negative a thousand dollars and we deposit five hundred bucks, we're still in the negative. In this case, we got a lot of rain which brought some of our accounts up to even, and some of now are in the plus range. But to stay in the plus, like if we want to keep money, you have to keep adding it in or not spending as much.”

One way to estimate the level of drought is to evaluate the water level status at key reservoirs across the state, and based on certain levels California is well on the way to entering the “plus” zone. The Shasta Reservoir is at 82 percent capacity, and the Don Pedro Reservoir is at 90 percent capacity. However, the Cachuma Reservoir, which is the primary reservoir for the Santa Barbara County, is only at 11 percent capacity.

Johnson explains that if current rain patterns continue, the water storage levels in California could quickly return to normal. However, estimating future weather and rain patterns is not always simple. Eliminating the drought would depend on the continuation of current rain patterns. However, water storage levels can be in danger of decreasing in the future.

“Because of climate change I think we need to be prepared for these yearly fluctuations not so much like decade fluctuations like we’ve seen in the past,” Johnson said. “We have these wild extremes from year to year, and then it’s do we have the infrastructure to meet the extremes and no we don't.”

Now that rainfall has increased, the state must respond appropriately to collecting and storing it.  However, the issue with developing infrastructure is not easily solved. Much of California’s water storage issues come from over-pumping groundwater. It takes longer to replenish underground water supply because it takes a while for the rainwater to sink down into the soil. Johnson explained other problems associated with developing infrastructure to target the drought.

“We have reservoirs that are meant for long term water storage, but they can only hold so much … There's a lot of environmental concerns around building more dams because it blocks fish migration,” Johnson said. “It also floods land that used to be exposed, so you decrease biodiversity. You increase methane production when you have a lot of dams.”

Issues with infrastructure is not the only problem Californians should be aware of. Now that rainfall has increased and droughts are unofficially declared over, many will resort to pre-drought water usage patterns. Johnson added, “What unfortunately happens, and there's lots of data that is used as evidence for this, is during our winter months when we do get rain, water consumption increases and in the summer when we're not getting rain, water consumption decreases.”

Senior Meredith Nash also believes that people are more inclined to help when the drought is severe, “Back a few years ago when the drought was severe, I remember people were urging each other to take shorter showers, people stopped watering their lawns, people stopped washing their own cars with hoses.” Nash said. “Overall I feel like we as a state were all trying to work together to lessen the impacts of the drought. If the public is misinformed about the drought, however, they will not be able to band together to the best of their ability to combat it.”

Therefore, in order to preserve the current elevated water storage levels, California residents must do their best to continue saving water. Californians may consider using large bins or cans to collect rainwater during the rainy season and store it to use during the summer when less water is available. Rainwater can be used to water plants, wash cars, or to flush toilets. It’s important to save while we can because we never know what the future could bring in terms of climate change and droughts.

Posted on February 17, 2017 .