Experts: Despite Recent Rain, California Drought Far from Over

Published on November 27th, 2015

By Joe Guzzardi
November 27, 2015
Forecasts of El Niño Grande, the storm to end all storms, have heartened Californians. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Bay Area consumers are stocking up on rain gear—rubber boots, umbrellas, and water-proof coats. And while the rain and mountain snow that has fallen is welcome, and some degree of comfort to the drought-plagued state, it represents only a tiny percent of what’s needed to bring meaningful relief.
California’s most recent storm dropped about 1.5 inches of rain in Los Angeles and roughly twice that total in Northern California where it is desperately needed since that area feeds the State Water Project, the storage facility that provides water to about 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland.
But experts say that much more is needed to make a difference in the four-year long drought that’s forced Governor Jerry Brown to impose water restrictions that carry heavy fines if violated. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration thinks that 18 to 21 inches of rain over the next six months would go a long way toward making a dent in the drought. But the California Department of Water Resources projects that 150 percent of California’s average annual rainfall would be required before it could officially declare that the drought is over.
The DWR measures rainfall at eight northern Sierra stations where an average of 50 inches were measured between 1922 and 1998. Using the 150 percent formula, California would need 75 inches of rain by year-end 2015. Only about 11 inches of rain have fallen at those stations since October 1, leaving the state significantly short of the necessary amount. The state has a higher standard because it takes into account refilling reservoirs and restoring run-off back to normal levels.
State and federal climatologists agree that California will need much more rain before it can declare itself out of drought mode. NOAA National Climatic Data Center analyst Deke Arndt said that all rainfall is welcome. But Arndt warned that it took a long time for California to reach its critical level and it will take at least an equally long time to recover—“at least months of above-normal rain to reset things.”
However, the goal of enough water to go around is always slipping further out of reach as California’s population swells to unsustainable levels. Governor Jerry Brown appears to be blissfully oblivious. When the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California asked in June what California would do about when the state’s population exceeds 50 million, the Department of Finance’s 2050 prediction, Brown quipped that water-starved residents would have to develop “a more elegant way of relating to material things.”  
In his April Newsweek story titled “Drying Up: the Race to Save California from Drought,” senior editor for science, health and technology Elijah Wolfson wrote that nature did not intend for California to have 38 million people, as it does today, or hundreds of thousands of acres of lawns, orange groves or almond orchards, and that Southern California is “like a settlement on Mars—everything necessary to survive has to be hauled in.” Among the many challenges Wolfson said confronts California is its obsolete water technology that will likely make the state dependent on “an explosion” of recycled wastewater in the near future.
The first step to help California out of its water crisis would be to admit that population growth has spiraled out of control, and that more people means more depleted natural resources, factors that Brown and his predecessors refuse to acknowledge. Practicing prudent family planning and pursuing sensible immigration policies are two critical variables that could put California on a path toward a stabilized population, and more available water for all.

Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected]

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