News Briefs Feb. 14, 2018

California may face new drought

Less than a year ago, California’s five-year drought—the worst in the state’s recorded history—was declared over. During the last three years of the drought, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency and ordered a 25 percent cut in urban water usage statewide. A series of intense storms during the 2016-17 winter finally provided some respite, and in April 2017, Brown lifted the state of emergency. However, he warned, “This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner. Conservation must remain a way of life” (The Los Angeles Times, “Gov. Brown declares California drought emergency is over,” 04.07.2017).

Now, even as the state is recovering from last autumn’s devastating wildfires and mudslides, scientists are worried that California may be headed back into drought conditions (The New York Times, “A Hot, Dry Winter in California. Could It Be Drought Again?” 02.13.2018).

Due to a high-pressure air ridge situated near the state’s West Coast blocking storms that would otherwise come in off the Pacific Ocean, California has seen very little rain this winter (The New York Times). Los Angeles, for instance, has received only 1.96 inches of rain in the last seven months, a period in which the city would normally get an average of 8.54 inches of precipitation (The Los Angeles Times, “Dry, hot California winter closes ski resorts, stalls wildflower blooms and revives drought fears,” 02.13.2018).

As of Feb. 6, 52 percent of California—including the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country—is currently classified as experiencing moderate or severe drought, up from 8 percent three months ago. Another 30 percent of California is considered abnormally dry (U.S. Drought Monitor, “California,” 02.06.2018).

The state government has not issued an official proclamation of drought, but on Monday, Feb. 13, the State Water Resources Control Board announced that it would permanently restrict wasteful water use, such as over-watering lawns, washing cars with hoses that lack an automatic shutoff nozzle and watering plants within two days of one-fourth of an inch or more of rainfall. These regulations are expected to take effect on April 1. Those who violate these rules will receive a letter of warning upon their first offense and be fined $500 upon their second (The Mercury News, “California’s drought restrictions on wasteful water habits could be coming back — this time they’ll be permanent,” 02.13.2018).

In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where snow accumulated throughout the winter provides about one-third of California’s water supply, snowpack—or the mass of snow on the ground—is at 21 percent of its yearly average. This means that there is only about one-fifth of the snow that there would normally be at this point in the year (NPR, “California Appears Headed Back To Drought,” 02.01.2018) (California Department of Water Resources, “Snow Water Equivalents,” 02.13.2018).

One advantage California now has that it lacked in previous drought-ridden years is an abundance of water stored in the state’s reservoirs from last year’s heavy rains (NPR, “California Appears Headed Back To Drought,” 02.01.2018). It remains to be seen just how much this might help.

—Laurel Hennen Vigil, News Editor


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