For the past few years, residents have held onto the belief that El Niño weather patterns encircling the U.S. would give rise to “wetter weather” and refuel the state’s shrinking water supplies, forcing California into recovery. These weather patterns ceased in April of 2015, and a recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters is telling Californians what they probably already knew deep inside: that it will take several years to recover from the present water shortage.
Steve Margulis of UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science is the study’s primary researcher. Through his observations of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Margulis explains that the snow usually found in the mountains was at a 500-year low in spring of last year, and residents aren’t likely to see any major changes until 2019.
“The main take-home is thinking about drought over longer time scales,” he says. “The first wet year doesn’t necessarily solve the longer-term problem.”
While California’s lack of snow has improved somewhat, levels are still below average. Water from melted sources runs down into reservoirs, and supplies are at their lowest points in over six decades.
“What we’ve seen the last four years might be the new normal going forward,” Margulis explains. “Under climate change, if this kind of deficit happens more frequently, then longer-term recoveries will become more common.”
The sad truth is that there have been very few changes to California’s condition. About 43 percent of the state is severely affected by lagging water supplies, while another 41 percent is moderately affected. Over the past few weeks, water levels in many of California’s major reservoirs fell from 64 to 60 percent, and wildfires have burned nearly 200,000 acres across the state since January.
Conservation efforts among residents have been particularly lackluster. The Pacific Institute’s California Drought Response Team explains that water conservation experienced a measly two percent increase (from 26 to 28 percent) between April and May, and the State Water Resources Control Board is implementing new conservation standards for water suppliers, granted the drought continues a further three years.
According to Margulis, this will likely be the case, but the team is offering a ray of hope. While the drought could likely last another four years, there is still a seven percent chance that things will cease in 2016. Residents should refrain from holding their breath and waiting (there are only five months left in the year), but the possibility remains open.
For others, the thought of a sudden and unexpected storm is still very much alive.
“It will take a whole lot of rain to make a difference to our water supply situation,” says Marty Adams of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “We are hopeful that we have a better year than the last couple of years, because we really, really need it.”