As I write this, in the first week of 2016, I’m looking out the window at a rainy and cool day. And the forecast is for additional wet weather to come. It appears we will welcome in the New Year on a rainy note – a promising end to one of the driest years in California’s history. December was a pretty good month in terms of precipitation for California – the Sierra snowpack is just about where it should be for this time of year (good news for skiers and snowboarders) and many of the north coast streams are flowing freely. However, don’t forget that last year at this time we had received more rainfall than normal and appeared to be on track for a wetter than normal year. Then the skies just cleared and the rain and snow stopped falling. We all remember the April 1 snow survey – the one that had a photo of Governor Brown standing on a patch of bare ground which would normally be covered with snow. This was the first time in 75 years of snow surveys that no snow was found and led to the implementation of California’s first mandatory water conservation order.
2016 promises to be very different. There may be hope and change on the horizon for more relief from this on-going drought. The consensus of the weather experts is that a very strong El Niño, i.e. a Godzilla El Niño is arriving and will be here in full force by January and could extend into spring. In fact, the latest NOAA short-range climatic outlook shows a potential for a wet first month of 2016. Also, NOAA is predicting a greater than 50% probability of a wet January to March time period. So, after four years of intense drought, this is good news but it’s not a solution to California’s drought problem.
Even though most researchers say that, according to their models, California is likely to have a much wetter than average rainy season, it will still not be enough to end this drought. The effects of the driest four years in California history will be hard to reverse. Keep in mind that in California, WHEN is not as important as WHERE the precipitation occurs. Most people are familiar with the old adage about California water – most of the use is in Southern California and most of the storage facilities are in the north. Again, in a typical El Niño, NOAA scientists say it’s more likely heavy rains would hit Southern California than Northern California. NOAA forecasters give Central and Southern California a greater than 50 % chance for above normal precipitation and only a 50/50 chance for Northern California to receive above normal rainfall.
I have seen a number of optimistic reports in the mainstream media about the amount of snow already accumulated in the Sierras and how it compares favorably to last year. All the ski resorts are open and tourists are again heading to the snow which is great news for the Tahoe economy. But, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’ve just experienced four years of drought and both our surface water and groundwater reservoirs are at record low levels. http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/products/rescond.pdf. This prolonged drought has put California into a huge water deficit. Here in Solano County, Lake Berryessa, a major water source for Vallejo, Vacaville, Suisun, Fairfield, and our agricultural community, is barely half full. We won’t be able to get out of this deficit with just one wet winter. It is going to take a series of non-drought years to bring us back to where we should be in terms of water resources.
So, let us hope that 2016 will be a wet year and bring us some relief from this drought. But the bottom line is that there are over 38 million people in California and we have the same amount of developed water as we had when there was half that number of people living here. Do the math, the fact is that California will be in a state of perpetual drought. As we head into this New Year, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are in this drought until we’re not.