Reality Check

Reality Check

Vets the truthfulness of claims and measures the efficacy of public policy

Reality Check: California's Epic Drought? Not Yet

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    NEWSLETTERS

    In this edition of Reality Check, Sam Brock digs up the facts and scrapes away the hype about the California drought. (Published Friday, Mar 14, 2014)

    California is no stranger to droughts, as you only have to go back a couple of years to find the last time the state struggled to produce adequate water resources.

    But according to water policy experts, the previous comparison…really is no comparison.

    “This drought is much more intense, much more severe than the 2007-2009 drought,” said Heather Cooley, water program director for the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based research and policy-making organization concerned with resource management.

    “In fact, it’s not over yet,” she added. “We don’t know how long it’s going to last. Is it going to be one year, two years, 10 more years- that part we don’t know.”

    What we do know, at this point, is that the current drought (now in its 3rd year) is *not the worst in California’s recorded history.

    That claim was made in the weeks leading up to a recent spate of rainstorms, and at one point was true- but no longer is.

    “We had some very dry months there and it came on a very dry calendar year, 2013,” explained Dr. Jay Lund, director for the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, “but in the rains that we’ve had in February and early March, we’re pretty much about the 3rd or 4th driest year of record.”

    Lund said that reservoir levels are still very low and the groundwater basins taxed, “but it’s not going to be a 500-year drought this year.”

    Even though the drought isn’t historically horrific, yet, both environmental science experts agree it’s impacts are still substantial.

    Farmers and agriculturalists, who make up about 80 percent of the state’s water usage according to Lund, are strapped. They’re being forced to decide between trying to acquire expensive, scare water through water transfers or fallowing their fields.

    Localities throughout the state are also implementing mandatory water restrictions to try and stave off the worst-case scenario: No more water.

    The possibility of running out of water is a realistic scenario for a select few communities right now. Thus far, 17 have been declared in ‘severe water shortage’ by California’s Department of Water Resources, meaning they will run out of water in roughly 60-100 days.

    But that number could rise.

    State governments have established steps for implementing mandatory and voluntary reductions.

    The Pacific Institute has also compiled a series of helpful charts and graphs to help Californians understand the impact of drought conditions near them.

    Cooley said even if the current drought expires soon, the overarching problem of water management in California will persist.

    “The reality is that these types of droughts will become more frequent and intense,” Cooley said. “Population is going to continue to grow, our economy grows and water is limited in CA, so we need to learn to live within our means.”

    She also added that climate change makes our ‘hydrologic cycles,’ or water cycles, more variable.