California: Dreaming for Winter Days While in a State of Extreme Drought

Folsom Lake Reservoir, CA down to 17% of its capacity on January 28th, 2014 | © Chris Alford

A buoy at Folsom Lake in California is left high and dry | © Chris Alford

Sunshine and blue skies might seem like a dream for those weathering the throes of the arctic cold front that has swept across the majority of the United States. In California however, the record number of sunny days has become an unwelcome sight.

January typically marks the middle of the wet winter season in California but, as of January 30, 2014, the water content of the state’s snowpack was only 12% of normal. This dry condition marks the third year of drought for California. It also follows 2013, which was the driest year since the state began measuring rainfall in 1849.

Many residents of Northern California breathed a small sigh of relief yesterday as the clouds rolled in and rain and snow fell for the first time in over 50 days during what is normally the “rainy” winter season. While these scattered showers will help provide much needed moisture to help keep dust out of the air and reduce fire risk, they will barely be a drop in the bucket for California’s current water deficit. With approximately 90% of California in a condition of severe, extreme, or exceptional drought [PDF] it will take a succession of major storms over the next couple months to get anywhere close to replenishing groundwater supplies, rivers, reservoirs, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack.

At this point, it is hard to tell if the high pressure ridge that is keeping California dry will weaken enough to allow significant storm systems to enter California this winter, but the long-term forecasts are not looking favorable. In the meantime, the current drought conditions have far reaching impacts on the state’s communities, agriculture, and natural resources.

Small communities and irrigation districts located in 10 counties across California are currently at risk of running out of water within the next 2-3 months, if the drought continues. Even state and federally operated reservoirs which provide water supplies for most of the state’s large urban communities and agricultural areas are running low, with water levels down to about half of their average level for this time of year.

The water level at Lake Folsom on the American River is down to approximately 30% of the historic average (17% of its total capacity). Some farmers are already irrigating their crops, particularly orchards, when they normally wouldn’t irrigate until April. Others are preparing for fallow fields.

Folsom Lake Reservoir down to 17% of its capacity on January 28th, 2014 | © Crhis Alfred

Folsom Lake Reservoir in California is down to 17% of its capacity on January 28th, 2014 | © Chris Alfred

Salmon populations are also being severely impacted as redds (clusters of salmon eggs) that were deposited in stream gravel beds a few months ago are left high and dry due to low stream flows. In an effort to protect adult salmon and steelhead that have had their habitat severely restricted due to low flow stream conditions the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has closed several coastal streams to fishing and has requested that the Fish and Game Commission utilize their authority to close additional streams to fishing.

While California is no stranger to drought, both the level of awareness and preparedness for prolonged drought conditions varies greatly across the state. Drought conditions tend to be a wake-up call that drives home the message that we as individuals and as a state need to proactively find ways more efficiently manage the limited water supplies we have. The hard part is recognizing that our actions now need to include preparations for the future and a shift of our long-term behaviors in addition to addressing the emergency conditions we currently face. Water conservation and water use efficiency need to be an integral part of our lives and daily habits – not just something for the non-rainy days.