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.
A lethal combination of drought, heat and voracious bark
beetles has killed 26 million trees in the Sierra Nevada over
the last eight months — an alarming finding for a state
already raging with wildfires fueled by denuded landscapes and
California is no stranger to drought. When conditions become dry,
water storage declines and water conservation mandates make news
headlines; questions from the public often surface about what
appear to be easy solutions to augment the state’s water supply.
But the answers can be complicated and, in the end, there is no
silver bullet to ensure a resilient water supply, especially
We explore “frequently asked questions” often posed by the public
and provide answers below. Simply click on the question for the
answer to appear.
Improving weather conditions overnight have diverted resources
from a brush fire burning in Santa Barbara County to a pair of
blazes burning above communities in the San Gabriel Valley
foothills and a third in San Diego County, where hundreds of
homes remain under threat.
Some forest fires should be considered natural disasters and
their damage paid for like hurricanes and tornadoes, according
to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who laments that 56
percent of his budget is going to suppressing fires. … A
bill pending in the House would allow for supplemental
appropriations, like those made for natural disasters like
hurricanes, as needed.
It could take California four years to recover from the most
severe drought on record, even if the next several winters
bring above-normal snowfall to the Sierra Nevada, researchers
said Tuesday releasing a study.
Word of the vanishing Sierra snowpack, which usually helps
replenish reservoir levels later in the summer, arrives amid
uncertainty over how California’s dams will be managed in
coming months to protect endangered fish. It also comes at a
critical juncture for urban water officials across the state.
California’s drought has revealed that when it comes to water,
not every community is equal. … Now, a bill by a Bay
Area state lawmaker aims to slow the spread of little “mom and
pop” water providers by making it very difficult to create new
When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced last month that
the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, had fallen to its
lowest-ever level at 1,074ft (327m), the question many asked
was: How will it affect one of California’s primary drinking
sources? … Falling water levels are the result of a drought
in the Colorado River Basin that has dragged on for 16 years
California’s drought and a bark beetle epidemic have caused the
largest die-off of Sierra Nevada forests in modern history,
raising fears that trees could come crashing down on people or
fuel deadly wildfires that could wipe out mountain communities.
President Barack Obama mixed business with pleasure here
Saturday, touting the importance of national parks and then
seeing one up close for himself as he took in the sights at
what is arguably the crown jewel of the national park system.
Summer starts Monday, and the state faces another fire season.
Many worry it could be a repeat of last year, when massive
wildfires tore through populated areas and ravaged landscapes
parched by years of drought.
The El Niño-fueled storms that coated the Sierra with nearly
normal snow this winter brought blasts of hope to drought-weary
California. But after the flurries stopped and the seasons
changed, the melt-off from the high country has been swift and
disappointingly scant, according to new water supply estimates
from the state.
For anyone who doubts that we’re still in a drought, San
Joaquin County’s groundwater “savings account” was even more
depleted this spring than last, despite improved rainfall over
the course of the winter.
Wednesday will be a day of reckoning for California water
wholesalers like Southern California’s Metropolitan Water
District (MWD). They have to prove to the state that they have
enough water to get through three more years of drought.
The DWR [California Department of Water Resources] hired
[Dave] Meko and his crew to perform the massive tree-ring study
beginning last year. … The Southern California watershed data
will be analyzed and compared with tree-ring data from Northern
California and the Colorado River area, three key sources of
drinking water for a state of 36 million people.
What does the future hold for California’s weather and climate?
Is drought the new normal? And what about La Niña? We talked to
Daniel Swain—founder of the popular California Weather Blog and
a Stanford University climate scientist—about our volatile
Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael L. Connor announced
more than $30 million in funding through the Bureau of
Reclamation’s Title XVI program for seven projects that will
provide clean water to California communities and promote water
and energy efficiency.
This year was supposed to be different. With Northern
California’s reservoirs finally brimming and cities liberated
from stringent conservation rules, farmers were expecting more
water for their crops. The worst of the drought seemed over. Or
Though El Niño’s impacts in the state, particularly Southern
California, fell short of expectations, worldwide effects from
the event were significant, according to scientists at the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. . . . in its
declaration, NOAA estimated a 75 percent chance for a La Niña
phase, characterized by cooler-than-average sea temperatures,
to roll around this fall, though it’s unlikely to cause extreme
changes in the Bay Area’s rainfall, forecasters said.
In its monthly update Thursday, the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration said the El Nino has ended, 15
months after its birth in March 2015. El Nino is a natural
warming of parts of the central Pacific that changes weather
At the first hearing on Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s controversial
drought legislation, it emerges that the Obama administration
supports the bill. But a deeper look shows that many concerns
remain, leaving consensus still in doubt.
Following the wettest winter in five years, water conservation
rules for Santa Clara County’s 1.9 million residents are likely
to be relaxed in the next few weeks. The staff of the Santa
Clara Valley Water District, the wholesale water provider for
the county, is recommending a 20 percent cut in water usage
compared with 2013 levels through Jan. 31, down from the
current 30 percent.
State officials lauded Californians’ continued water savings
Monday while issuing a stern warning: State-mandated
restrictions will be imposed again on suppliers that fail to
take extended conservation needs seriously.
Last month, state water officials eased conservation mandates
in response to slightly above-average winter rain and snow in
much of California, leading many to speculate that the state’s
long-running drought has tapered off. If only.
The state Water Resources Control Board has launched an
investigation into Nestle’s water rights in the San Bernardino
National Forest, adding a new layer of scrutiny to the growing
public outcry into the water bottler’s operations during a
Parts of the Western U.S. are getting an early taste of
scorching summer heat, forcing officials in California, Oregon
and desert Southwest states to heed the warnings of dangerous,
triple-digit temperatures in this first week of June.
Earlier this week, I [Brad Plumer] wrote about how Lake
Mead, America’s largest man-made reservoir, has shrunk to its
lowest level ever. … Now NASA’s Earth Observatory has posted
two satellite images that show the dramatic decline of Lake
Mead between 2000 and 2015.
Bernie Sanders, traipsing across far-flung regions of
California as he seeks a comeback victory here next week,
swatted at likely Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump
for minimizing the state’s water shortage and the effects of
Earlier this month, California lifted its sweeping restrictions
on how its towns and cities use their water, signaling that
even though much of the state continues to face extraordinary
drought, a moderately wet winter has blunted officials’ sense
of urgency over water shortages. Seemingly overlooked, however,
is the state’s enormous reliance on the Colorado River for its
urban water supplies — and the fact that the Colorado is
approaching its worst point of crisis in a generation.
The 20th century dams and canals that gave birth to modern
California — to San Francisco, to Los Angeles, to the San
Joaquin Valley farms that feed the nation — are near the end of
their engineered lives. … So far, the three major
presidential candidates have hardly noticed these problems as
they barnstorm the state heading into the June 7 primary.
When California officials announced an end to restrictions on
urban water use last week, they cited the recent wet winter as
one reason. El Niño, the climate pattern that brought a
succession of storms to Northern California, had given the
state a reprieve from its water woes, they said.
State water regulators are proposing to dismiss a record
$1.5-million fine they intended to levy against a Northern
California irrigation district accused of ignoring
drought-related cuts in water diversions.
Photos of brimming lakes and reservoirs, flowing rivers and
raging waterfalls have been splashed across news headlines and
in social media. It’s a welcome change from last year when
California was entering its fifth year of drought. Yet, the
reservoirs are filling because the snow is melting early, not
necessarily because the state has more water that fell as snow
or rain this winter.
Nevada’s wildland firefighters are readying themselves for a
treacherous fire season in months ahead. That’s because a
multi-year drought interrupted by El Nino moisture created
conditions that cranked up the risk of wildfire in both the
Sierra Nevada and Great Basin.
Before throngs of TV news cameras in April last year, Gov.
Jerry Brown stood on a patch of bare Sierra dirt that should
have been covered in snow and told Californians they had to be
unified in conserving water. … Flash forward to this week.
The surface level at Lake Mead has dropped as planned to
historic low levels, and federal water managers said Thursday
the vast Colorado River reservoir is expected to continue to
shrink amid ongoing drought.
Long considered an ally of Delta advocates, U.S. Rep. John
Garamendi introduced legislation this week that appears likely
to test that reputation. … The Feinstein-Garamendi bills are
pitched as a more moderate alternative to a bill by U.S. Rep.
David Valadao, R-Hanford, that already has passed the House.
Stubborn drought conditions and an epidemic of dead and dying
trees mean California is facing a potentially catastrophic fire
season, federal officials said Tuesday as they promised to send
extra money and personnel to the state.
Strict rules adopted at the height of California’s drought
leading many people to let their lawns turn brown may soon end
as state regulators Wednesday consider letting local
communities decide how to keep their own water use in check.
Five years into California’s latest drought, a major water bill
compromise can seem as far away as ever. The perennial
conflict, often summed up as fish vs. farms, subtly surfaced
again Tuesday at a key Senate hearing.
The sounds of watercraft and families enjoying Lake Shasta on
Sunday carried across the water against a vibrant backdrop of
the tree line. The scene is a far cry from last year’s low
water levels on the lake, which became a visual indicator of
the state-wide drought and the impact to the local environment.
The budget also contains significant money to address the
historic drought: an increase of $11 million to fund the
removal of some of the estimated 29 million trees, many in the
Sierra Nevada, that have died over the past two years from
drought and bark beetles.
A mix of rising global temperatures, mysteriously warmed waters
off Baja California and unusually far-reaching storms in
the western Pacific Ocean conspired to block this year’s
El Niño storms from hitting Southern California, the National
Weather Service said this week.
Those at the helm of California’s drought response and water
policy have decided to make a tactical shift. … A
new draft plan from Water Board staff calls for allowing water
suppliers to develop their own plans based on each area’s
Citing the state’s improved hydrology and impressive regional
conservation, officials at Southern California’s massive water
wholesaler voted Tuesday to rescind the cuts they imposed on
regional water deliveries last year.
California water regulators announced new drought rules on
Monday that will loosen mandatory conservation targets while
making permanent some of the measures that have helped reduce
water use during the past year.
Some of the temporary water-saving measures imposed on
homeowners and water agencies — including how you wash your car
at home and how you water your lawn — are now permanent under
an executive order issued Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown.
With California entering its fifth year of a statewide drought,
Gov. Jerry Brown moved on Monday to impose permanent water
conservation measures and called on water suppliers to prepare
for a future made drier by climate change.
On the same day that Gov. Jerry Brown sought to make water
conservation a way of life for Californians by permanently
banning some wasteful practices, regulators in Sacramento
prepared to significantly ease the current drought restrictions
for urban residents and businesses.
California’s historic drought rules are going to be a whole lot
looser this summer. In a major shift, the administration of
Gov. Jerry Brown announced Monday plans to drop all statewide
mandatory water conservation targets it had imposed on urban
areas last June.
Gov. Jerry Brown and top water regulators on Monday laid out a
revised game plan for dealing with California’s persistent
drought, making some conservation rules permanent while also
moving to give communities more of a say in deciding how much
water they must save.
California’s “frozen reservoir” is melting fast. Unusually high
temperatures this spring have acted like a blow-drier on
accumulated winter snows, despite a healthy boost during the
stormy month of March.
The U.S. Drought Monitor released May 5 shows some minor
improvement in California drought conditions. But looking ahead
to the dry season shows drought persisting for a fifth
consecutive year in the Golden State.
Thanks to El Niño rains and a fifth year of drought, experts
say, California’s landscape has provided enough water to spring
up new vegetation to ignite while swaths of forest continued to
dry out, priming them to burn and creating a dangerous mix that
state and federal firefighters will have to contend with this
No fewer than nine government agencies and nonprofit
organizations have had a hand in helping the [East Porterville]
community, which drew international media attention for its
exceptional suffering in the fourth year of California’s
What if 2017 is a dry year? “There are no predictions yet, but
we have to be prepared,” said Jeanine Jones, resources manager
for the state Department of Water Resources. Jones and other
state and federal water officials outlined the challenges faced
in meeting water demands and the limiting factors to delivery,
during a Water Education Foundation seminar held in Fresno.
The U.S. Forest Service’s proposal to grant Nestle a new permit
to continue piping water out of a national forest for bottling
has drawn a flood of written comments from the public,
including a petition with more than 280,000 names demanding the
agency “turn off the spigot.”
Residents of drought-stricken California doubled their water
conservation efforts in March compared with the month before by
turning off their sprinklers when the rain fell and changing
habits, officials said Tuesday.
Nestle extracted 36 million gallons of water from a national
forest in California last year to sell as bottled water, even
as Californians were ordered to cut their water use because of
a historic drought in the state.
Despite California’s drought, almond growers expanded their
orchards by an estimated 60,000 acres in 2015, marking the 12th
consecutive year of growth for the crop, which now covers more
than 1.1 million acres, or more than any other fruit, nut or
vegetable crop in the state.
The trifecta of complaints in 2016 pounded last year’s biggest
concern — the California drought — like a heavy El Niño
rainstorm. Only 1 percent of Bay Area residents named the lack
of water as the biggest problem this year, compared with 24
percent last year.
For nearly two decades, Los Vaqueros Reservoir — a sprawling
lake in eastern Contra Costa County nearly 3 miles long and 170
feet deep — has been a popular spot for boating, fishing,
hiking and a key source of water for local residents.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, campaigning for U.S.
Senate, said Tuesday that she would consider amending the
federal law governing endangered species to help improve the
water supply across the parched state of California.
With El Niño-fueled storms drowning out reminders that most of
California remains in a state of severe drought, a growing
number of communities and water associations are demanding an
end to emergency water restrictions that were first imposed
more than a year ago.
Once bathed in deep green, the forests in the foothills and
Sierra east of the San Joaquin Valley are increasingly turning
reddish-brown as drought- and beetle-weary trees die by the
month. … Local and state officials want the ponderosa
pine’s territory, generally above 3,000 feet in elevation,
declared a federal disaster area.
Earth Day, celebrated today across the globe, reminds us of the
fragile state of our planet. From land contaminated with toxic
chemicals to bad air spewed into the atmosphere, the most of us
have been affected by pollution in some way. To bring all of
this closer to home, we’re listing the 10 most critical
environmental problems in Southern California.
Lake Tahoe’s famed water clarity took a hit last year in part
due to California’s fourth consecutive year of drought.
… With spring snowmelt continuing, the lake is currently
2 inches above its rim and has begun spilling over into the
Truckee River for the first time since October 2014.
The U.S. Drought Monitor says extreme and exceptional drought
was reduced slightly in California last week and, for the first
time since the week of July 2013, there is no exceptional
drought in Nevada.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Tuesday called for “a major
course correction” in the way the nation conserves its public
lands, waters and wildlife, saying climate change and other
trends threaten natural areas “in existential ways.”
Among firs and cedars high in the Sierra Nevada, scientists are
using an array of instruments to monitor the health of the
forest, measure the snowpack and track the water that melts and
seeps into the soil. … Already, as the winters have grown
warmer, the snow has been melting earlier after storms pass.
Politicians in Washington could have passed laws four years ago
that would be yielding benefits today. These would be things
like assistance with groundwater recharge, water conservation
on farms, stormwater capture and wastewater recycling. I
[Matt Weiser] call these non-nuclear options, because they
don’t peg the Geiger counter in many lobbying offices in the
Four years of bruising drought in the West has strained inland
rivers where salmon spawn, putting the fish in sharp decline.
… The salmon industry in California and Oregon alone is
valued at $2 billion annually.
For the first time in five years, Northern California’s rivers
are roaring and its reservoirs are filled almost to the brim.
But you’d hardly know it, based on how quiet it’s been at the
two giant pumping stations at the south end of the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Despite the wettest winter in five years, an overwhelming
majority of Californians believe that the state faces an
extremely serious water shortage and plan to continue
conserving water, according to a poll released Thursday.
Responding to profound threats to California’s quintessential
catch, federal fishery regulators laid out new restrictions
Thursday for the state’s commercial salmon fishing season,
scheduled to begin next month, as well as to the sport season,
which started April 2.
In what may be an ominous sign for the end of the drought, the
El Niño that brought Northern California its wettest winter in
five years is continuing to weaken and appears to be giving way
to its atmospheric sibling — La Niña.
Dramatic photographs showing
California’s diminishing, drought-ravaged reservoirs
circulated all over news sites and social media last year.
Images of exposed lake beds with parched, cracked earth became
symbols of the Golden State’s water crisis. The story
changed this winter.
The politics of California water is becoming three-dimensional
chess in Congress as lawmakers balance competing anti-drought
ideas with a proposed San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage
settlement that’s going to get bigger.
The first Alaska wildfire of 2016 broke out in late February,
followed by a second there just eight days later. … And
on the border of Arizona and California this month, helicopters
dumped water on flames so intense that they jumped the Colorado
River, forcing the evacuation of two recreational vehicle
Here at the Gatekeepers Museum, onlookers see something that
until now has been a rare occurrences. Lake Tahoe at its
natural rim, slightly above as a matter of fact, to allow water
to overflow into tributaries — like the Truckee River.
A pattern change will continue to bring rain and some mountain
snow to parts of the drought-stricken West this week.
… This pattern change is good news for California, where
drought remains a concern and any precipitation is
People have long predicted that California could eventually
collapse into the ocean following a mega earthquake. Now, an
eerily similar true-life scenario is playing out — but it’s
thanks to the weather.
Scattered statewide showers forced baseball players to sit
through rain, horses to run through mud and caused other
nuisances. But the rainfall once again fell short of wet
expectations for the dry California.
In record numbers, homeowners throughout the state rushed out
to buy flood insurance in anticipation of the widely hyped –
and feared – monster El Niño. …. And some are asking: Did all
these insurance buyers make a monster mistake?
This is the time of year when water utilities set their rates,
which almost inevitably go up. But this year, the rate hikes
are likely to be higher than usual, as water utilities cope
with the unexpected impact of mandatory conservation on their
In another sign that the drought isn’t over in this neck of
California, state officials are considering temporarily
loosening water quality standards on the Stanislaus and San
Joaquin rivers for the third year in a row.
Some residents of drought-stricken California who let their
lawns turn brown and took shorter showers could soon get some
relief, while others may continue to feel the pain. In the
coming months, state officials will undertake a monumental task
of rewriting conservation orders for a fifth year of drought.
On April 20, the [State Water Resources Control] board will
meet with hundreds of cities, water utilities and private water
companies in an effort to reduce targets and adjust a new
conservation plan that runs through October. On May 5, the
board will consider reducing targets due to water availability
Poised to ease California’s mandatory drought rules after
rebounding rain and snow levels this winter, state water
officials on Monday made it clear that — even where reservoirs
are 100 percent full — no community is likely to get an
entirely free pass from conservation targets this summer.
Californians cut water use 12 percent in February, concluding a
nine-month mandatory conservation initiative that fell just
short of the governor’s 25 percent saving goal, according to
state data released Monday.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in an eagerly anticipated
announcement, outlined the initial 2016 water allocations from
the Central Valley Project, the federal government’s massive
network of reservoirs, pumps and canals.
A nearly average spring snowpack in the Sierra Nevada will
likely prolong tough water conservation measures in
drought-stricken California — although the restrictions could
be loosened in some areas after an El Niño storm system
drenched the northern half of the state this winter, officials
“California’s front yard” is getting a water-wise makeover.
Work crews Wednesday started sheet mulching swaths of lawn
outside the state Capitol as the iconic Capitol Park begins
transforming its landscape for a more drought-tolerant future.
“And don’t forget the trees,” would be the refrain from State
Water Resources Control Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus at the
end of every meeting. Marcus wants Californians to conserve
water but not at the expense of yard trees and park specimens
that provide shade and reduce energy use.
The rain storms and blizzards that were supposed to come with
El Niño were conspicuously non-biblical in California this
winter, leaving the state in an ecological limbo that has
regulators thinking about easing water-use restrictions in some
places but not in others.
With the wettest winter in five years having taken the hard
edges off the historic drought and a key Sierra snowpack
reading Wednesday expected to show big gains, Californians can
look forward to substantial relief from mandatory statewide
One year ago Friday, Frank Gehrke hiked out to Phillips Station
and stuck a tube onto a tuft of brownish-green grass. There was
no snow, but Gehrke had quite an audience. … On Wednesday,
when Gehrke hikes out to the field again, he’ll have something
Congress is about to try again to help ease California’s
drought. … Discerning the helpful proposals from the
hyperbole can be difficult. So as a guide to the process, Water
Deeply offers the following four themes to watch as the bills
Pointing to improved conditions at Folsom Lake, a water
district serving one of the region’s wealthiest areas announced
Friday that it would not follow conservation targets mandated
by the state this year and would instead ask its customers to
voluntarily cut water use by 10 percent.
Adding to the debate over Northern California’s winter
stormwater, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and congressional
Republicans asked President Obama on Thursday to increase the
volume of water pumped through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
to the drought-stricken San Joaquin Valley.
The U.S. Drought Monitor released March 24 says from a water
supply perspective, there is nearly normal snowpack to melt off
and northern Sierra reservoirs are filling. But long-term to
extreme drought is still “entrenched” across much of central
and southern California.
After years of drought, Northern California has so much water
that the state’s two largest reservoirs are releasing water to
maintain flood-control safety. … Shasta and Oroville are
the twin anchors of California’s giant water-delivery
With Lake Oroville rising more than 82 feet this month, the
water level is now cutting into the buffer needed for flood
control. … Other north state reservoirs have increased
their outflows as they encroach on flood control limits.
The White House on Tuesday unveiled several billion dollars’
worth of corporate commitments to water research and
development during a high-level summit. Pegged to World Water
Day, the summit was intended to draw attention to specific
state and corporate pledges as well as new Obama administration
initiatives prompted in part by Western states’ drought and the
Flint, Michigan, drinking water scandal.
Late last spring, amid the depths of California’s punishing
drought, state officials made a historic determination that
rivers and creeks were too low for many farms and cities to
draw from. Not everyone agreed, however.
The so-called March Miracle has unleashed the largest
allocation of water from Northern California in four years,
more than doubling the flow of imported water from the State
Water Project into Central and Southern California.
President Barack Obama on Monday directed the federal
government to come up with a less reactionary and more
long-term strategy for dealing with drought. … The White
House is hosting a “water summit” on Tuesday, which is World
Water Day, to raise awareness of the importance of safe,
sufficient and reliable water resources.
The film, titled “Pumped Dry: The Global Crisis of Vanishing
Groundwater,” was co-produced by Steve Elfers of USA TODAY and
Ian James of The Desert Sun, and was supported by a grant from
the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
As Californians hope for rain and snow to end the state’s
extreme drought, a decades-old rule prohibits reservoirs from
filling up in the winter, so some water ends up being released.
The rule may sound odd given how chronically dry California is,
but it’s actually to prevent a bigger disaster: flooding.
Congress is about to try again to help ease California’s
drought. A handful of bills — some new, some held over from
last year — will come up for debate in the weeks ahead. The
subject is as partisan as the presidential race, and a lot more
The Forest Service is conducting an environmental review of
Nestle’s controversial bottled water operation in the San
Bernardino Mountains, and could require the company to monitor
the impacts of its withdrawals, officials said Friday, March
Deliveries from the State Water Project are now forecast to be
45 percent of what was requested, still less than what’s
supplied during most wet years but more than what’s been
allocated since the first year of the drought.
Seeking to impart lessons from Australia’s 15-year “millennium
drought,” the nonprofit California Foundation on the
Environment and the Economy is paying for a handful of
lawmakers to fly across the world during the Legislature’s
spring recess next week.