It’s been raining in California. Does that mean the long-running drought is over?

February 7, 2017 Paul Marshall

The nasty water shortage started more than five years ago, but right now the state’s reservoirs are 80% full and the snowpack is 200% of normal


Rain. If you’re a water engineer like me, raindrops are pennies from heaven. If you’re a homeowner next to a rising creek, each raindrop taps on your nervous consciousness, robbing you of sleep.

In January, the State/Federal Flood Operations Center (FOC) in California was fully activated for the first time in about a decade. The FOC in Sacramento monitors reservoir releases, river flows, and weather forecasts to help federal, state, and local authorities manage floodwaters throughout the state.

That activation of the FOC showed a clear change in California’s weather. 


Water is released from Lake Natoma at Nimbus Dam in Rancho Cordova, Calif., as a precaution against flooding, January 13, 2017. Lake Natoma's water storage is being reduced to save room for coming storms and snowmelt. Lake Natoma is an intermediate lake along the American River, located between Folsom Dam and Nimbus Dam in Sacramento County, Calif. The lake is located within the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources


From dry to wet
It’s no secret that California has been locked in a nasty drought. The first couple of years (2012, 2013) weren’t even called a drought. Rain and snowfall in the state varies naturally so a couple below-average years isn’t unusual. But when 2014 looked dry again, Governor Jerry Brown issued a State of Emergency declaration.

The state was officially in a drought.

When the 2015 water year brought no relief, Californians far and wide made sacrifices to survive the dry pattern. At the beginning of the 2016 water year, weather predictions called for a wetter El Niño weather pattern in the state. In fact, it was billed as the “Godzilla of El Niños,” and hope was high the drought’s thirst would finally be quenched. But Godzilla never arrived and 2016 barely managed to deliver even average rain and snowfall. The drought continued through year five.

But 2017 is proving different. So far a firehose of multiple atmospheric rivers have deluged the state. We have rain and snow! Reservoirs are about 80% full, the snowpack is 200% of normal and it appears there’s more on the way.

In California, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range is the state’s single largest water storage “reservoir.” That’s important, and it’s why California water managers won’t get a good night’s sleep anytime soon. The snowpack is naturally very inconsistent and unpredictable, even before any influence by climate change. Yet water demand in the state is steadily growing and that erodes the state’s ability to tolerate that natural variability. We certainly wouldn’t design a community water system with such unpredictable storage.


After the recent storms, the Cosumnes River has flooded the area around Twin Cities Rd., East of Interstate 5 in Elk Grove, Calif. on January 13, 2017. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources


End of the drought?
Does all the snow and rain mean California’s drought is over?

Even if California doesn’t get much rain between now and April, there’s already enough water to deliver most water users the allocation they need this year. Plus, when the reservoirs in the north are nearly full, there’s just enough storage to carry over into the next water year to avert drastic measures. So already it’s clear that the State Department of Water Resources won’t have to implement some of the extraordinary water restriction measures they had to in 2015. With more storms on the horizon, the Governor might call this drought over, at least in Northern California.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue thinking about conservation. Every drop counts. And many of our clients are looking toward groundwater storage. An abundance of groundwater now means less worrying later when things dry up.

In the meantime, I am waxing up my skis because the webcam shots of my favorite ski resort show it buried in snow. I’m also working on strategies that local water agencies and communities may want to have in place before the next drought. Hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

About the Author

Paul Marshall

Paul A. Marshall recently joined MWH Global, now part of Stantec. He spent more than 25 years working for the State of California, most recently in the Department of Water Resources.

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