After more than two months of atmospheric rivers and bomb cyclones, in the midst of a super-sized Sierra snow capand with more precipitation forecast for the rest of the month, isn’t the California drought over?
The US Drought Monitor reports that yes, 17% of California is now drought free. Most of the rest of the state is also quite wet, although it remains in a certain level of “drought,” as the term is defined by the Drought Monitor.
Only 17%? How is that possible? We’ve had more rain and snow than all of winter 2019, when the state was last declared drought-free.
The cognitive dissonance is a result of the word “drought,” which scientists use to describe a range of measurable conditions in the soil, atmosphere, plant life, rivers, and reservoirs. For most of us, however, the drought ends when it rains.
Keep in mind the Great Plains in the 1930s. Now, That was a drought that everyone could understand. When it stopped raining in 1930, the ground dried up and blew away. Poor farmers moved from Oklahoma and neighboring states to the San Joaquin Valley. In 1939 it finally rained again. The drought was broken, the soil recovered, the corn and wheat grew, the US became the breadbasket of the world, and everything was back to normal.
Unfortunately, much of that story is a myth, and in any case irrelevant to California’s terrain and hydrology in an era of heat waves, longer summers, and urban life.
Drought was never the right word for the dry streaks in this state. Californians need a term that not only describes how much water comes in, but also how much we use each day and how much we save for later. We need a word or phrase that suggests how long we can take a shower, whether farmers can continue growing pistachios, and whether the forests and cities will burn again when summer arrives.
Instead of drought, we should talk about taking on water debt, and refer to wet spells as winning the water lottery.
And isn’t a wet winter like this a lot like winning the lottery? Most jackpot winners expect their lifestyle to change forever. But then they pay off their debts and the taxes on their profits, and indulge in a few extravagances. Before they know it, they’re back where they started – except now with a taste for luxury they can no longer afford. So they keep putting themselves further in debt.
California has developed a fondness for almond groves and lawns that need water in amounts we’ll never have, even after a wet winter lottery. This year’s rain and snow will help pay off some of our water debt by refilling once-empty reservoirs in Northern and Central California. But it didn’t change conditions at Lakes Mead and Powell on the Colorado River, which supplies much of Southern California’s water. Since 2000, when those reservoirs were last at capacity, we’ve reduced them to almost nothing. They were filled by a previous jackpot paid during the 20e century, which according to geological records was an abnormally wet period.
We also remain overdrawn on some of our largest water bank accounts, the aquifers under the San Joaquin Valley. To recharge it, we would have to invest a lot more land and money in floodplain restoration so winter rainwater can settle over time and seep into the soil, as it did until the early 20th century .e century at the formerly vast but now vanished Tulare Lake and Buena Vista Lake. Meanwhile, even some empty aquifers disappear, as dried underground layers compress and lose their ability to hold moisture. It’s like we won the lottery, quit our job, used up our winnings, spent all our savings, and then burned down the bank.
This is not a unique California story. At the end of the Dust Bowl drought, the rain returned, but farmers wanted more and began pumping from the ground Ogallala aquifer, an underground water source the size of a large lake that has been created over thousands of years. As in the San Joaquin Valley, over-pumping is draining the Great Plains groundwater at a shocking rate, and without better management it could all be gone by the end of this century.
We don’t tend to call that kind of exhaustion a drought. But the US is building up a national water debt that can never be managed the way we manage our more traditional debts. We can always print more money, but we can’t print more water. We need to better manage what we have.