California Drought Status

California Drought Status:

Where are we now?

by: Caroline Minasian

California Drought status as of April 2016. The Dark red=exceptional drought conditions and the red=extreme. Source: U.S. Drought Monitor
California Drought status as of April 2016. The Dark red=exceptional drought conditions and the red=extreme. Source: U.S. Drought Monitor

Spring has sprung and many Californians are wondering if the recent storms should be leaving them with Gene Kelly’s notable “glorious feeling”—should we be happy again? Recently released news articles suggest that because California’s biggest reservoirs have recovered, stringent water conservation limits should be reworked. Water agencies continue to urge the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to reduce the mandated water conservation standards that were put into effect last year. Urban water suppliers were required to meet a 25% reduction as compared to 2013 water use. Their reduction targets ranged from 4% to 36% and on April 7, 2016 the SWRCB released updated water supplier conservation standards that take into account supplier’s submitted adjustments. 79% of the 410 urban water suppliers subjected to conservation received lowered targets. Though these limits are being reworked it is necessary to remember that many of the state’s reservoirs and groundwater basins remain depleted and as of April 5, 2016 over 50% of the state was still classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor at intensity D3 and D4: Extreme and Exceptional Drought.[1] Only 3.55% of the state is at “normal” conditions.

With northern reservoirs filled to historic levels and most of the state still in exceptional drought, where do we go with policy? In 2015, a lot of discussion revolved around “the new normal.” The Bay Area Council hosted a forum that focused on how extreme climactic events are becoming the norm and Governor Brown also noted the need to become more resilient as the weather continues to grow more unpredictable. So, do we continually adjust drought regulations based on a few storms and hope that they keep coming or do we keep what are meant to be “emergency” regulations in place as the “new normal”? To garner a deeper understanding of the level of recovery needed, it is important to first acknowledge the impacts of 2015 and what they mean in context of preparing for the extreme climactic events that, because of global warming, are becoming more frequent and standard.

Road Forward to Drought Recovery  

Map of Land Subsidence in the Central Valley. The red is subsidence caused by groundwater pumping. Source: USGS
Map of Land Subsidence in the Central Valley. The red is subsidence caused by groundwater pumping. Source: USGS

In considering policy changes and the importance of creating a path forward that promotes a resilient future, it is necessary to go below the surface and take into account groundwater pumping and land subsidence. NASA released an analysis in December 2014—based on space and airborne measurements—that stated 11 trillion gallons of water are needed to recover from California’s drought. Using GRACE data and other satellite observations, it was also shown that groundwater levels across the Southwest United States are in the lowest 2-10% since 1949.[3] This is one effect of the state’s multi-year drought, which spurred the “overdrafting” of groundwater basins that has led to seawater intrusion and land subsidence.

The San Joaquin Valley’s land subsidence has been monitored since the 1960s and it was noted in 1975 by Joseph Poland and others that 1 foot of subsidence affected more than 5,200 square miles of irrigable land. Sinking of the earth’s surface becomes a problem because it has the potential to damage buildings and infrastructure, increase flood risk in low-lying areas, and cause lasting damage to groundwater aquifers.

In 2015, DWR had a report prepared by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory entitled Subsidence in the Central Valley, California. Their research shows that in certain locations the San Joaquin Valley is sinking nearly 2 inches per month, which is significantly faster than historic levels. It was also noted by DWR that long-term subsidence has already destroyed thousands of public and private groundwater well casings in the San Joaquin Valley. Though not all from subsidence, from 2014 to March 2016 the County of Tulare has had reports of 1,469 well failures which demonstrates the continued hardship for many in regards to lasting drought impacts.

So, though the state’s northern reservoirs are filling to capacity, Californians still have a long road forward. If we are to avoid a relapse before recovery is even possible, it is crucial to turn conservation into a habitual routine through both individual and policy efforts. As the planet continues to warm we will be faced with longer droughts and larger floods and being able to adapt quickly will become necessary. Instead of treating these climactic disasters as emergencies we need to treat them as “normal” occurrences. If the state is capable of conserving 96% of the emergency conservation target that was set in place last year, then let’s continue to conserve so that the state has greater water security and reliability for the future. Let’s not aim to create a temporary “patch” each time a drought hits, but to continually plan and implement so that the patch sticks.

[1] The U.S. Drought Monitor is produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

[2] NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, State of the Climate: Global Analysis for Annual 2015, published online January 2016.

[3] Steve Cole and Alan Buis, “NASA Analysis: 11 Trillion Gallons to Replenish California Drought Losses,” December 16, 2014.

Author Caroline Minasian
Author Caroline Minasian

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This is the first of a number of articles that will be written about California’s water situation as a part of Syzergy’s Billion Gallon Challenge. Subscribe above to stay up-to-date on all things water as we gear up for the summer. If you have a topic you’d like discussed feel free to email

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