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 latest snow survey in the Sierra Nevada showed that an
above-average snowpack in January gave way to a dry February,
which reduced the statewide snowpack to 83 percent of normal.
It was slightly better in the norther Sierra/Trinity area, the
drainages that feed lakes Oroville and Shasta, but still below
average at 89 percent.
[Jym] Gritzfeld was among about 150 people – mostly
recreational and commercial anglers – who filed into a
conference room in Santa Rosa on Wednesday to hear
presentations from state and federal fisheries managers about
the dire state of salmon off the coast of California.
Enhanced water-use restrictions imposed last year on more than
10,000 Sonoma County landowners whose properties lie along four
critical salmon-bearing streams will be lifted this spring in
recognition of improved winter rainfall.
An unwelcome three-week winter dry spell left the California
snowpack at just 83 percent of average, a setback for the state
as it tries to break out of record drought, state snow
surveyors found Tuesday.
In another sign that a once-promising El Niño weather pattern
is proving to be no drought-buster, California officials say an
unseasonably warm and dry February shrunk the Sierra snowpack
to below average depths.
“Crazy-making” is how Felicia Marcus, chair of the state water
board and the political face of the ongoing drought,
characterized a February in which nature suddenly turned off
its taps. “Nervous-making.”
Eight months after California’s governor ordered cities to cut
water consumption by a quarter, residents and businesses have
exceeded expectations. … Now, the state’s furious
conservation drive is not only threatening trees but also
resulting in sluggish sewer lines and possible increases in
water and tax bills.
After a dismally dry February, drought-weary Californians are
hoping a series of storms predicted to roll through in early
March blanket the Sierra Nevada with a much-needed additional
layer of snow, building up the state’s vital snowpack that all
but disappeared last year.
Northern California’s commercial anglers are bracing for
restrictions on the upcoming salmon-fishing season after
federal regulators projected there are half as many Central
Valley Chinook salmon in the ocean compared to this time last
After a seven-month legal battle, the Metropolitan Water
District of Southern California on Friday released the names
and addresses of thousands of Los Angeles residents who
received cash rebates for replacing their lawns.
On a hot summer afternoon, California farmer Chris Hurd barrels
down a country road through the Central Valley city of
Firebaugh, his dog Frank riding in the truck bed. …
Agricultural land stretches out in every direction.
Even in the midst of a strong El Niño, California’s sunny
weather this February is not surprising, experts say: The
longest dry spell this month — 14 days — is actually less than
the average for a strong El Niño winter.
Even with unseasonably warm temperatures and little to no rain
in the forecast for at least the next seven days, the operators
of Folsom Dam are going to more than double the flows in the
lower American River to protect against flooding.
After a year in which Californians cut water use by 25 percent,
storm water has become the next front in what amounts to a
fundamental restructuring of Southern California’s relationship
with its intricate water network.
El Niño, as all things must, will be coming to an end over the
next couple months, possibly to be replaced by its sister
phenomenon, La Niña, which could spell a drier than average
summer and fall, a foreboding prospect for a thirsty region
suffering through an extended drought.
Going into March, there’s a good chance most of California will
see above-average precipitation, climate experts said. But
judgment day is not until April 1, when officials start
calculating just how much snow might be available to supply
California’s water demands over the summer and fall.
Despite heavy rainfall in January, an above-average snowpack
and rising reservoirs in some areas, the U.S. Drought
Monitor says more than one above-average winter will be needed
to ease all the impacts of long-term drought in
After the costliest of wildfire seasons ravaged the West last
year, with three catastrophic blazes ripping through Lake
County, the U.S. Forest Service may be headed for a showdown
with Congress over how to cover the surging bill.
Sometime soon, and possibly by the end of this week, we’ll
again bid goodbye to the old Parrotts Ferry Bridge. It’s been
nice revisiting the 78-year-old concrete crossing, north of
Columbia State Park in Tuolumne County, since it re-emerged
from the murky waters of New Melones Reservoir last summer.
Any sign of precipitation in the forecast is a welcome sight
for Californians these days. But with temperatures expected to
be above normal this winter, California’s snowpack may not
reach the heights it could.
Last fall, the consensus was that El Niño would give Southern
California the best chance for above-average rains and much
less of a chance to Northern California. But the opposite has
turned out to be true.
A report released Friday by the Legislative Analyst’s Office
(LAO) — a non-partisan fiscal and policy adviser to the
California Legislature — says that the ongoing drought
necessitates continuing support.
El Niño has given Central California a wet – and welcome –
start to the rainy season, raising water levels in foothill
reservoirs and blanketing the Sierra with snow. But the tap has
been turned off for the foreseeable future.
Money from a controversial “fire prevention” fee paid by many
California foothill and mountain residents will be used to cut
down trees that are dead or dying because of the drought and
bark beetle infestation.
Drought followed by the rains of El Niño, and heat followed by
cold snaps created a cauliflower price boom that now has turned
to a bust, and a celery inflation that lingered just long
enough, growers and industry experts say.
El Niño, which helped increase precipitation in California last
month, is taking a break. … The U.S. Drought Monitor
says “exceptional drought” was reduced slightly in just one
area of the northern Sierra this week: El Dorado County.
The U.S. Drought Monitor says exceptional drought was reduced
in one area of the northern Sierra this week, “despite heavy
precipitation and rebounding stream flows in the short term the
past few weeks.”
In the strongest indication yet that the California drought
could be easing, officials said strict water conservation
orders could be dramatically scaled back or even ended if El
Niño storms keep pummeling the state into the spring.
Despite record January rainfall, an above-average snowpack and
rising reservoirs, the state water board stuck to its
conservation guns Tuesday, approving an eight-month extension
of the existing drought-related emergency regulations with
Nine months after California imposed its first-ever mandatory
statewide water conservation rules to cope with the state’s
historic drought, dozens of leaders of water agencies on
Tuesday pleaded with the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown to
State water regulators voted to extend emergency conservation
measures because of a drought, even though an increase in rain
and snow this winter has improved California’s snowpack. But
with the drought still severe, conservations efforts fell off
One of California’s last great salmon runs tallied a perilously
low number of surviving offspring in 2015, scientists said
Monday, marking a second year of drought-driven problems for
the Sacramento River chinook, which loom on the verge of
Worsening drought conditions may be doing more damage to
forests in California and throughout the West than their
ecosystems can handle, causing a spiral of death that could
have a devastating impact, a U.S. Forest Service study
Endangered native salmon suffered a second straight disastrous
year in California’s drought, with all but 3 percent of the
latest generation dying in too-shallow, too-hot rivers, federal
officials said Monday.
Following a welcomed parade of El Niño storms drenching
drought-stricken California, state officials on Tuesday will
decide whether to extend emergency conservation orders, and
reveal how much water Californians saved in December.
Folsom — which dwindled to 14% of capacity last year and became
a global image of the California drought — has more than
tripled in size since December, thanks to a series of storms
that has brought above-average snow and rainfall to Northern
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.