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 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.
The decline also could influence whether farmers south of the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will agree to help pay for Gov.
Jerry Brown’s Delta tunnels, the $15.5 billion plan to
re-engineer the fragile estuary with the goal of improving
reliability of water deliveries to Southern California cities
The Department of Water Resources, mindful of the fruits of the
El Niño weather pattern, boosted expected water deliveries to
cities and farms from last month’s scant projection of 10
percent of what was requested to a slightly better 15 percent.
Damages from two destructive Northern California wildfires that
killed six and sent thousands fleeing their homes topped $1
billion in insured losses, according to a preliminary estimate
by the state’s insurance department.
After months of warnings by some officials that El Niño and
winter rains were far from certain, the bounty of storms
plowing through Northern California has opened hope that there
could be a huge improvement in the state’s severe drought by
California’s congressional delegation continued to wrangle over
how to respond to the Golden State’s water crisis Thursday when
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) released what she called a
“discussion draft” of proposed legislation.
With a couple of weeks of rain and snow behind them and more on
the horizon for the Sierra Nevada in Northern California, state
water officials expressed cautious hope that this El Niño
season could lift California out of its historic drought.
California lake levels are rising as fast as the stock market
is falling, with Folsom Lake east of Sacramento rising an
astonishing 44 feet in just over a month and Lake Oroville, the
second most expansive water storage facility in the state
rising another 20 feet.
The rain and snow falling across Northern California in recent
days is by no means extraordinary. … But inch by inch,
forecasters say, it’s doing the work necessary if California is
to reverse years of epic drought.
Even as California has marched out unprecedented water
restrictions during the drought, the spigots at thousands of
farms and ranches have gone largely unmonitored — a vestige of
the state’s Gold Rush-era water policy.
When the first hints of El Niño developed last year, experts
believed that the brunt of the rain would occur in Southern
California rather than Northern California. So far this season,
the opposite has happened.
Acknowledging the challenges posed by the hot, dry climate
endemic to much of inland California, state drought regulators
Friday proposed easing the water-conservation rules for
Sacramento and other communities where it takes extra water to
keep trees from dying.
Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that the
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California must release
the names and addresses of recipients of millions of dollars in
turf replacement rebates.
The proposed changes to California’s emergency drought
regulation reward water districts for investing in new local
supplies and allow for adjustments to savings goals based on a
district’s climate and population growth.
This winter, dozens of water agencies across the state are
counting on a drenching El Niño to produce surplus water to
stash in the earth and make up for what’s been pumped out at
unprecedented rates due to the recent absence of surface
The dramatic decline in water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell
is perhaps the most visible sign of the historic drought that has
gripped the Colorado River Basin for the past 16 years. In 2000,
the reservoirs stood at nearly 100 percent capacity; today, Lake
Powell is at 49 percent capacity while Lake Mead has dropped to
38 percent. Before the late season runoff of Miracle May, it
looked as if Mead might drop low enough to trigger the first-ever
Lower Basin shortage determination in 2016.
Read the excerpt below from the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue along
with the editor’s note. Click here to subscribe to Western
Water and get full access.
Los Angeles County Superior Court judge could rule as soon as
Friday on whether the Metropolitan Water District of Southern
California must release information about the recipients of
millions of dollars in turf replacement rebates.
California’s current drought may well be remembered as the
crisis that introduced people to recycled water. All over the
state, water agencies in 2015 began offering customers free
recycled water at designated “fill stations.”
The State Water Resources Control Board will soon vote on
changes that it says relax – at least somewhat – the 25-percent
statewide conservation mandate. But many urban water suppliers
say the regulations don’t provide enough relief.
It turns out “emergency drought relief” can take up to two
years to distribute. On Wednesday, California regulators
awarded the final pieces of the $680 million drought aid
package Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers approved in March
A series of storms passing over Northern California are
expected to drench residents in rain and dump up to 2 feet of
snow on the northern Sierra Nevada, a precious water resource
the state relies on in the spring, the National Weather Service
What began as an emergency response to the drought has dragged
on and on. A year after the first tank was installed, tanks are
now the primary source of water for more than 540 households in
Tulare County, the epicenter of California’s four-year
Water experts in Yolo County are actively monitoring water
wells to measure the groundwater supply. … The
groundwater supplies about 30 percent of the water in our
region, according to the Northern California Water Association,
which represents water rights holders in the Sacramento Valley.
State regulators said Tuesday they are confident that residents
of drought-stricken California will meet long-term water
conservation goals but worried that the onslaught of storms
dousing the state might lead to backsliding.
California residents continue to ease back on the taps, but
their efforts are slipping a bit, according to data released
Tuesday that show cities and towns missed the state’s 25
percent water savings mandate for the second straight month.
After a year of hype and hope, El Niño’s punch is finally
arriving in California, bringing a series of storms to soak the
Bay Area and most of the rest of the drought-stricken state
through this week and probably into next.
After taking the measurement and leaving a path of boot prints
in his wake, Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative
Snow Surveys Program, told a group of tightly bundled reporters
that the snowpack was “encouraging, but still obviously not
where we’d like to be.”
Don’t be surprised to see a flurry of new legislative proposals
in 2016 that push toilet water recycling, rooftop water tanks
and underground systems to filter sewer sludge for field
irrigation in California. Call it the Australian plan.
The message that Maria L. Gutierrez gave legislators on Capitol
Hill was anguished and blunt: California’s historic drought had
not merely left farmland idle. It had destroyed Latino farm
workers’ jobs, shuttered Latino businesses and thrown Latino
families on the street. Yet Congress had turned a deaf ear to
their pleas for more water to revive farming and farm labor.
The water content of the Sierra Nevada snowpack in
drought-stricken California was 136 percent of normal Wednesday
when officials took the winter’s first manual survey – an
encouraging result after nearly no snow was found at the site
Gov. Jerry Brown, Starbucks and Tom Selleck drove the
nationwide curiosity and concern over California’s fourth year
of dreadful drought conditions, according to a survey of
billions of online search engine records.
His [Martín Hernandez Mena] was one of dozens of shanties
that grew where little else does after four years of
California’s crippling drought. … Mena’s is a story about
what water gives and takes away — how California’s farmworkers
are an ecological crisis away from losing their jobs and their
homes, with no safety net.
Some of the world’s biggest temperature jumps are happening in
lakes – an ominous sign that suggests problems such as harmful
algae blooms and low-oxygen zones hazardous to fish will get
worse, says a newly released scientific report.
The U.S. Forest Service said officials have started
assessing the renewal of a 1978 permit that Nestle has
long been using to pipe water out of the San Bernardino
National Forest to produce Arrowhead brand bottled water.
As water utilities and their customers increasingly look to
gray water and runoff from storms to supplement their supply
amid drought, more guidelines and research are needed to ensure
that the water is safe, researchers said in a report released
This free briefing sponsored by the Department of Water Resources
and the Water Education Foundation will discuss forecasts of
water project operations in the coming year.
Water year 2016 has officially begun, and all eyes are on the
weather and the potential runoff. But even if the projected heavy
El Niño becomes reality, the state’s drought-impacted reservoirs
are still a major concern.
Not content to hope for El Niño storms, state officials on
Tuesday approved a plan that — though watered down in the end —
could result in better flows next year for endangered fish
species decimated by drought.
The Paris conference brought cheers not only from renewable
energy advocates but from water groups. For years,
organizations that focus on the world’s freshwater resources
felt marginalized in the climate change debate. A warmer planet
means nastier droughts, bigger floods, and unsettling
perturbations in the water cycle, but the question of
adaptation was mostly ignored by diplomats.
California regulators set a minimum level of water that should
be held behind Shasta and Folsom lakes Tuesday in an effort to
avoid another catastrophic die-off of Sacramento River salmon,
but they reserved the right to change the limit if El Niño
rains fill up the reservoirs.
California drought regulators on Tuesday backed off a
controversial plan to withhold water from farms and cities next
year in an effort to preserve an endangered species of salmon,
instead choosing a more flexible approach they said still could
do the trick.
Debate over a plan to address California’s drought
continued Friday as the Republicans in the state’s delegation
held a news conference blaming Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)
for not supporting their bid to insert the plan into a
must-pass spending bill.
California lawmakers’ repeated failures to agree on legislation
to resolve the state’s seemingly endless battle over how to use
its water resources raise new questions about whether they’ll
ever be able to find a compromise. This year, the climate
looked ripe for an agreement.
In what looks like a who’s who of local celebrities, the latest
list of the East Bay’s biggest water users released Thursday
includes San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey; Roy
Jacuzzi, inventor of the namesake whirlpool tub; and Motley
Crue lead singer Vince Neil.
The utter collapse of negotiations means a California water
package that in its latest manifestation spanned 92 pages will
not be slipped into a much larger, much-pass omnibus federal
spending package needed to keep the federal government
About 72 million gallons of water were used to irrigate San
Diego County’s thirsty and illegal marijuana operations, enough
to serve 440 families for a year, and that’s only for the ones
that were found.
It’s shaping up as the biggest snowstorm to hit the central
Sierra in two years. … After four years of drought, its
reservoirs are dry: Folsom Lake last week hit its lowest point
since record-keeping began 40 years ago.
California Republicans will continue trying to include language
addressing the state’s drought in a must-pass bill to fund the
federal government, over objections from the state’s Democratic
A closed-door attempt to rewrite California water law crashed
late last week in a public row between Sen. Dianne Feinstein
and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy that could doom
drought legislation for yet another year.
Municipal water agencies from Sacramento and elsewhere pleaded
for relief from California’s mandatory drought cutbacks Monday,
arguing they should be given credit for coping with arid
climates and developing their own supplies.
Scientists were knee deep in the Feather River on Friday,
systematically injecting 20,000 fertilized salmon eggs into the
bottom of the river. … The eggs were injected near the
Oroville Wildlife Area, just a few miles north of Gridley.
The State Water Resources Control Board meets Monday on
potential changes to mandatory water conservation targets
should the drought persist into 2016. … The Regional Water
Authority is joining several other water providers from across
the state to propose an objective, science-based approach to
adjust water conservation targets for climate.
A California water bill that skeptics say has been cloaked in
excessive secrecy will probably miss its Capitol Hill train
this year. … The latest plot turn in California water
politics bears a striking resemblance to past Capitol Hill
Some of California’s Christmas trees are looking a bit more
like a “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree this year. After four
years of drought have stressed and stunted trees on area farms,
growers are feeling the pinch.
Farmers are no strangers to struggle or drought. But this
four-year drought is different than others, they say. It’s more
widespread, touching nearly everyone who turns on the tap or
starts an irrigation pump.
Officials with the US Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency
that operates Shasta Dam, have blamed the drought for the mass
salmon die off and say there simply wasn’t enough water to go
around. … But environmentalists and fishermen note that by
the end of summer 2015, many farmers in the Central Valley had
received 75 percent of their water contract allotments, while
at least 95 percent of the endangered winter-run Chinook’s
fertilized eggs and newborn fish had been killed.
With rivers still flowing low, the freshwater Delta is once
more turning salty. Officials are already considering
installation of another emergency drought barrier in the Delta
in April, to keep that saltwater at bay.
Public water agencies that serve millions of residents in
drought-weary California might only receive 10 percent of
expected supplies in 2016 – half the amount that flowed to them
this year through the state’s massive system of reservoirs and
canals, state officials say.
Californians posted a 22 percent savings in water use in
October, marking the first month residents have missed the
state’s mandatory 25 percent conservation target since
enforcement of the cutbacks began in June, officials said
Tuesday in Sacramento.
California officials announced Tuesday that the state’s massive
water delivery system, which carries mountain runoff to cities
and farms, will likely supply 10 percent of the water requested
next year due to the drought — half of what was provided this
But during an unusually hot October, state regulators say,
water savings hit a snag. For the first time, residents and
businesses fell short of the statewide target, cutting their
water consumption by 22.2% in October compared with the same
month in 2013.
Largely lost in the statewide discussion about fallowed crops,
depleted reservoirs and brown lawns, is the impact of
California’s drought on hunting. The succession of four dry
years has dried up many of the natural marshes and rice fields
used by the estimated 55,000 people who hunt waterfowl in
Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest executive order provisionally extends
California’s drought restrictions into next fall and calls on
the State Water Resources Control Board to consider adjusting
the rules in the coming weeks.
This month’s rainfall and cooler temperatures have helped
lessen the strain on salmon migrating on the Eel River, but not
near enough to ease the concerns of local researchers. And they
have their reasons.
As many as 27 percent of Californians say they will not buy a
live Christmas tree this year because of the ongoing drought.
That’s according to a new survey by the American Christmas Tree
Association. … In Oregon, which produces more Christmas trees
than any other state, the market is holding up just fine, even
though that state is experiencing a milder drought of its own.
Thanks in part to El Niño, a series of strong storms have
blanketed the Sierras with snow. Another storm this week is
expected to deliver another layer of the white stuff — and draw
skiers back to resorts.
A massive storm, reaching across about half of the state, is
expected to move in Tuesday and peak Wednesday, where it will
drop up to 18 inches of snow on mountain summits from Shasta
County and Lake Tahoe to Yosemite, said Nathan Owen, a
meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which manages the
salmon on the Mokelumne River, relies on a camera that records
every single salmon swimming past Woodbridge Dam. The footage
is relayed to East Bay MUD’s office three miles away.
A California law – that was passed to respond to the drought -
allows artificial turf on all residential property. But, a
Sacramento city councilman says the law should allow cities to
restrict its use.
Four years into the worst drought in California’s recorded
history, the contrast between the strict enforcement on
Californians struggling to conserve and the unchecked
profligacy in places like Bel Air has unleashed anger and
indignation — among both the recipients of the fines, who feel
helpless to avoid them, and other Californians who see the
biggest water hogs getting off scot-free.
One of the most powerful El Niños on record continues gathering
strength and is looking increasingly likely to bring heavy
rains to key Northern California areas that provide water for
the rest of the state, according to a new forecast.
After four years of unrelenting drought, nearly all of
California is likely to see at least some relief this winter,
federal climate experts said Thursday, offering a first real
message of hope for the bone-dry state.
October’s temperature was the most above-normal month in
history. … [NOAA climate scientist Jessica] Blunden and
other scientists blame a potent and strengthening El Nino on
top of accelerating man-made global warming.
The report from the Public Policy Institute of
California says the state’s system for allocating water is
fragmented, inconsistent and lacks transparency. It says
the problems keep the state from adequately managing water in a
In 35 years, nobody’s seen numbers like these. In a personal
survey this week of 125 recreation lakes, 33 are under 25
percent full, and that includes 19 that are less than 10
percent full and four that are empty.
Escalating the fight over California’s diminished water supply,
a coalition of environmental groups sued Central Valley farmers
and the federal government over the possible extinction facing
an endangered run of salmon.
It will take dozens of rain storms to alter the effects of
California’s four-year drought. … With Folsom Lake now
at just 15 percent of capacity, water experts are once again
urging Californians to conserve.
The drought is driving up water rates all over California as
utilities scramble to cover revenue losses and pay for
additional supplies. There will be no relief for low-income
residents, who are caught in a legal conundrum that prevents
most water agencies from discounting their rates.
When the California Water Commission this year surveyed water
agencies about storage proposals that might qualify for funding
under Proposition 1, the 2014 water bond approved by state
voters, half the responses involved groundwater projects,
including one from [Gary] Serrato’s [Fresno Irrigation]
As California enters the fifth consecutive year of
unprecedented drought, Congress is debating two competing bills
designed to provide federal drought relief to California
agriculture. The proposals reveal stark differences in proposed
federal water and environmental policy.
Two areas of California considered to be in “exceptional”
drought were upgraded to the “extreme” category
— the best either area has seen since at least the
beginning of summer, according to the U.S. Drought
It takes a lot of water to feed the lush lawns that drape in
vibrant folds across the Menlo Country Club’s golf course on
the edge of Woodside. And, apparently, a crippling drought is
seen as no reason to pull back on the spigot.
A legal battle is brewing in Washington over President Barack
Obama’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, setting states
economically dependent on fossil fuels against those already
suffering from longer droughts, stronger storms and higher
Across California, after years of punishing drought, reservoirs
that normally fill canals and make crops bloom are greatly
depleted or even empty. Some say that getting more water into
storage by building more dams is key.
California is soul searching right now on how to deal with the
drought. Should it build more dams? Or are there already enough
dams — more than 1,400 — in the state, and not enough water to
fill them up anyway?
With portions of the Tahoe region reporting 465 percent above
the average snowpack following the first winter storm of the
season, Monday, Nov. 2, it’s clear the Sierra Nevada is in for
a winter for the ages. Right?
Unfazed by the taint of “toilet-to-tap,” the Water
Replenishment District of Southern California unveiled another
in a series of water recycling projects Tuesday that will help
end its reliance on imported water and provide
drought-insurance for its customers.
As the worst drought in California history threatens to enter a
fifth straight year, officials are advocating a variety of
water reuse projects they say will reduce Southern California’s
unquenchable thirst for imported water.
Calling it “the worst epidemic of tree mortality in modern
history,” Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency this
week, asking for swift removal of dried-out trees either
through controlled burns or as feed for biomass energy plants.
California’s four-year drought has lowered Mono Lake more than
five feet. … In this case, another dry winter that pushes the
state into a fifth drought year would push new and potentially
contentious Mono Lake management issues to the forefront.
Lamenting “the worst epidemic of tree mortality” in the state’s
modern history, Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday sought federal aid
to remove dead trees from California forests and called for
more controlled burns to reduce the risk of wildfire.
UC Riverside economist Christopher Thornberg told hundreds of
business leaders at a recent economic forecast that there is no
drought. … The content of his address surprised and
frustrated some water officials, who said the declaration of
drought is based on hydrology, not economics.
Regulators are praising the Californians who conserved water in
September, but issuing the first fines to four urban water
suppliers who waited too late to conserve or failed to enforce
In their zeal to conserve water during the fourth year of a
historic drought, many East Bay residents have become water
snitches, tattling on neighbors for hosing down driveways,
leaving sprinklers on all night and even excessive bathing.
Recent high tides and brief mid-September rains gave some Eel
River salmon a fleeting chance to move closer to their spawning
grounds. But a lack of adequate flows on the river is causing
many fish to fall ill as they crowd within small pools for
weeks at a time, according to a recent survey by the Eel River
The batch of 1,098 East Bay Municipal Utility District
customers who sucked up more than their share during a 60-day
billing period this summer was a who’s who of some of the
richest people in the Bay Area.
Right now, migrating waterfowl are looking for wet places to
land and feed. … This week, several Sacramento River farm
water districts finalized a deal with the federal Bureau of
Reclamation to use water later in the year, to provide water
for birds in November.
State officials plan to tell Californians what penalties they
are taking against communities that fail to meet a mandated 25
percent reduction in water use when they announce usage figures
Friday, in the state’s battle against a widespread drought.
In the drought-ravaged Central Valley, scientists are using a
new imaging technology to find ancient worlds of trapped water,
hidden hundreds of feet underground. … This week, a
helicopter swept 60 linear miles of parched fields in the
Tulare Irrigation District in one of the most arid regions of
As California braces for torrential downpours this winter from
El Niño, authorities have stockpiled extra sandbags across the
state while putting hundreds of personnel through flood-control
training, officials told state lawmakers on Wednesday.
A Wednesday state Senate hearing dove into a topic on the mind
of many Californians, examining how an anticipated El Niño
surge of wetness could affect residents and force a pivot from
drought preparedness to flood response.
One of the last wild runs of chinook salmon in California is
sinking fast amid the four-year drought and now appears
perilously close to oblivion after the federal agency in charge
of protecting marine life documented the death of millions of
young fish and eggs in the Sacramento River.
For the second straight year, huge numbers of juvenile
winter-run Chinook salmon appear to have baked to death in the
Sacramento River because of California’s drought-stretched
water supplies, bringing the endangered species a step closer
Over the last four months, the residents and businesses of the
Indian Wells Valley Water District have cut their water
consumption by about 25%, and General Manager Don Zdeba thinks
that’s “pretty darn good.”
Many Californians have already mentally deposited oceans of
rainwater into our depleted reservoirs, thanks to the hype
surrounding a projected Godzilla El Niño this year. The only
problem is that actual deposits haven’t really amounted to much
With the harvest largely over, the State Water Resources
Control Board said there’s enough water in the Sacramento-San
Joaquin watersheds so that holders of senior water rights could
once more divert water from rivers and streams.
Irrigation leaders illegally agreed to sell Stanislaus River
water to outsiders, an Oakdale Irrigation District customer
alleges in a formal complaint. … The district has explained
the deal in meetings, a news release and an Oct. 18
advertisement in The Modesto Bee.