Photo by Michael Chen (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Photo by Michael Chen (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“In the last 10 water years, eight have been dry, one wet, one average. Although this year may end up being wet, we can’t say whether it’s just going to be one wet year in another string of dry ones.” – Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Agency.

The observation above seem to represent a bit of a Debbie Downer moment in light of the general relief Californians are celebrating after enduring years of warm and dry winters, inundated by a weekly parade of significant rain and snowfall up and down the Golden State. But indeed, Vogel’s words aren’t intended to “dampen” spirits,  but to remind us all of the dangers of complacency, mistaking short term changes in weather versus the long term patterns of climate.

A comparison of drought conditions across the state of California created using data from the United States Drought Monitor shows the significant attenuation of drought conditions after this winter's flurry of storms.

A comparison of drought conditions across the state of California created using data from the United States Drought Monitor shows the significant attenuation of drought conditions after this winter’s flurry of storms. Note, the darkest red denoting “exceptional drought” is completely erased.

Exacerbated by last year’s much hyped and ultimately disappointing El Niño (for an explanation why El Niño never produced the precipitation promised by meteorologists, “Lessons From An El Niño That Didn’t Go As Planned” provides some insights about how intra-and inter-seasonal variability and news sensationalism coalesced into a perfect storm into a year of sprinkles rather than downpour), Californians can be excused for pretending for a moment that all is well again. Exuberant reports of 201% of average rainfall and the “wettest start to the water year for the Northern Sierra in 30 years” makes for undeniably good news for a state parched for something…anything positive.

The Sac Bee reports “only about 2 percent of the state, mainly in the vicinity of Santa Barbara” is still measuring within the category of “extreme drought”, a mark still improved over the worst “exceptional drought” conditions according to the Drought Monitor ratings. Reservoirs, rivers, and lakes have returned to look again like bodies of water rather than bad 3D fractal art from the 1990s, and the reappearance of snowpack has delighted skiers and snowboarders who might have resigned themselves to riding upon ice rather than powder. [Cue in music]

But before we Command-W memories of the drought, and as we turn the corner into February, it’s worth noting rain and snow essentially stopped around this time last year, leaving the state mostly dry through April 1 (no joke). There’s no guarantee we’ll see any additional significant rainfall, despite having whet our appetite for precipitation and wet weather fashion.

Rainfall has been undeniably plentiful, but the data we’re celebrating only measures “surface water”; California aquifers are still recovering and far from reaching levels prior to our 4-year drought (with doubts it will ever return to pre-deep well procurement practices as our state’s thirst continues to grow alongside its population). California depends upon distant snowpack-fed sources such as the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Colorado River, and the California Aqueduct transporting water from our northern reaches for 90% of our water supply, worrisome when considering NASA warns there’s a 99 percent chance of a “mega-drought” roasting the Southwest lasting decades.

The cautious warnings of Jay Lund – a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, and writer behind California WaterBlog – offers a prescient and prudent perspective:

Some speak of drought as permanent for California. But, it is better to think of California being a dry place with permanent water shortages (except in unusual wet years), which is also prone to drier than average years, which are droughts. California must reconcile itself to being a dry place and some long-term water shortages. It must also prepare for periods of drier than average conditions with greater shortages and costs, which are droughts.

For policy-makers the distinction is important. If every year is labeled a drought crisis or emergency, then “drought” loses important meaning and urgency needed to motivate and conserve to higher levels in drier conditions. In addition to managing during drought, we must manage other years for normally dry conditions, which will often include deliveries less than desires and storing water and suppressing some demands in preparation for still-drier drought conditions.

But for now, continue celebrating and enjoying the green lush hills of Los Angeles, the snowcapped mountains in the distant, and the lingering smell of petrichor, for tomorrow may bring weeks of imperfectly perfect 78 degree weather without a cloud in sight.

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