Photo: Ray Bouknight / Flickr
It’s official… California’s six-year drought is coming to an end. Over the past few weeks, winter storms have drenched the Golden State with a welcomed deluge, and the eternal dry spell haunting the west coast is on its way out. Ribbons of moisture rising from the Pacific (which climate scientists refer to as atmospheric rivers) are now bringing the rain California so desperately needs.
But sadly, it’s a bit early to celebrate, and while experts say California’s present drought is indeed ceasing, even larger ones are likely to occur in the near future.
Colombia University climate scientist Ben Cook calls California one of the most “variable places in the United States.” Its climate situation tends to be very black and white – either exceedingly dry or dripping wet. Anything in-between is far-fetched. Cook warns that as California experiences higher temperatures, the extremity of its weather patterns will become even stronger, meaning if California ever goes dry again, it could be even worse by comparison, and recovery will be rather difficult as evaporation increases.
“Even if precipitation doesn’t change… the temperature effect is going to be changing the system,” Cook explains. “The droughts, when they occur, are going to be much deeper.”
California’s recent spell was likely already being pushed along by altered temperatures. As climate change continues to take hold, storms usually wind up producing more rain than snow. This could exacerbate things even further, as nearly 30 percent of California’s water comes from snow packs in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Over time, this snow melts into streams which gather in reservoirs along the mountains’ bases. The possibility of lagging ice can only mean one thing… That California is at risk for further droughts down the line.
Additional problems lie with the state’s groundwater sources, which have been weakening since 2011. Two years ago, Governor Jerry Brown imposed strict limits on water usage, and made the first mandatory urban cuts to water use in state history. Recent storm activity isn’t likely to make any significant dent in the groundwater department; sure, residents may witness improvements over the next few months, but a complete and instant change is out of the question. California’s central valley has also been sinking thanks to increased pumping, and floods have occurred in California’s northern regions, inciting mass evacuations and causing damage to neighborhoods and farms.
Fear struck new heights last April when California sought help from overseas legislators, and Australia seemed like the best place to find help. Australia recently battled a 14-year drought through the use of recycled water, rooftop tanks, and (Yuck!) shared showers. Desperate times call for desperate measures apparently, and according to Felicia Marcus of the State Water Resources Control Board, Australia now stands in a prime spot.
“We’ve captured over two-thirds [of the El Nino rains], but we need more storage of all kinds,” she said regarding California rain collection. “Australia has done a remarkable job. We are trying to catch up with them. I envy their model. I really do.”
The good news is that three additional storms are expected to hit California in the coming weeks, which means further relief is just around the corner. Traces of the drought have already vanished from northern territories, and ski resorts are decorated in blankets of lush snow. Water in key reservoirs has also reached stable levels for the first time in several years.
“With a drought that’s lasted as long as it has, the ground is like a big sponge, and it can soak up a lot of water,” says Ventura County weather specialist Stuart Seto of the state’s healing groundwater reserves.
The journey is not quite over, but the current weather is a positive and valid step towards recovery, and water shortages have thankfully fallen by nearly 20 percent… Not a bad start for 2017.