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Drought— an extended period of limited or no precipitation— is a fact of life in California and the West, with water resources following boom and-bust patterns.

No portion of the West has been immune to drought during the last century and drought occurs with much greater frequency in the West than in any other regions of the country.

Most of the West experiences what is classified as severe to extreme drought more than 10 percent of the time, and a significant portion of the region experiences severe to extreme drought more than 15 percent of the time, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Experts who have studied recent droughts say a drought occurs about once every 10 years somewhere in the United States. Droughts are believed to be the most costly of all natural disasters because of their widespread effects on agriculture and related industries, as well as on urbanized areas. One of those decennial droughts could cost as much as $38 billion, according to one estimate.

Because droughts cannot be prevented, experts are looking for better ways to forecast them and new approaches to managing droughts when they occur.

Responding to Droughts

Throughout the West, states have responded to the typical pattern of flooding and drought by building a plumbing network of dams and canals that capture rainfall and snowmelt runoff.

The systems are designed to collect surface runoff during winter months, when precipitation generally is plentiful, and store it for use during summer months, when rainfall is virtually nonexistent.

As long as precipitation occurs in normal amounts, these systems work quite well, but they become stressed if precipitation levels fall below normal for even a couple of years. The problem lies in the fact that much of the West is an arid desert that has been transformed into farms, homes and businesses through irrigation.

Such transformation created an agricultural empire in California’s Sacramento, San Joaquin and Imperial valleys while facilitating the developments of vast amounts of land for housing.  In consequence, demands for water by people, farms and the environment have generated controversy and conflict because, even in years with abundant precipitation, the supply of water is not always able to match the need. In dry years, there is simply not enough water to go around.

The frequency and severity of droughts have also prompted new thinking about long-term planning for future droughts and the effects that possible permanent climate changes could have on water supplies. Although few scientists dispute the global-warming phenomenon, others warn that the 2.7 degree anticipated increase in California temperatures could have disastrous consequences for water supplies in the future.

Droughts traditionally have been managed as crises, using short-term, ad hoc water management measures that often disappear once precipitation returns to normal levels.

Organizations concerned with the effects of droughts, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, commonly known as FEMA, and the Western Governors Association, have recommended a shift from crisis management to a more systematic, risk-management approach that anticipates drought events and develops measures in advance to deal with them effectively. Such strategies are a part of overall water conservation efforts in the state.

In fact, a severe California drought in 1976 and 1977 served as a wake-up call for the state and helped spark the water conservation movement.

California itself became a water broker when it created the Drought Water Bank in 1991—a program now on hold. Under the program, the state’s Department of Water Resources bought mostly surface water from agricultural users and sold it to water-strapped urban, agriculture and environmental interests.

More long-term plans for mitigating the effects of droughts should be made before water shortages occur, crisis management experts say, and should include water resources monitoring, graduated water conservation measures, and public education.

On Jan. 17, 2014, California Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed a State of Emergency and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for these drought conditions.

In 2015, California was in a fourth year of drought. The state set a new low when the April snowpack measurement was recorded at 5 percent of the April 1st average, making the 2015 Water Year the driest winter in recorded history.

Scientists believed the drought could have been a once in a 1,200-year event based on the region looked at and indicators such as precipitation, stream runoff, soil moisture or snowpack.

During June, July and August 2015, Californians met or exceeded Gov. Brown’s call for a 25 percent reduction in water use.

An extremely wet winter left the Sierra snowpack at 164 percent of normal in April 2017, leading Gov. Jerry Brown to declare an end to the drought emergency.

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