Despite early season rains, state’s drought worsens in its third year

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The wet start to California’s rainy season didn’t last long and despite rain Monday, March 28, the state is expected to continue its third straight year of drought with little relief in sight.

While the late fall and early winter precipitation made for good holiday skiing, January and February were the driest on record in California. Repercussions range from reduced supplies of potable water to cattle ranchers being forced to ship or sell their livestock early because their grazing land has dried up.

“Things are not going the direction we had hoped,” said Ben Hatchett of the Western Regional Climate Center at a webinar hosted by the National Integrated Drought Information System on Monday.

“We’ve seen a little bit of precipitation lately, but not enough to make a dent,” he added.

Without “mega rains” in April, the drought will continue at least into the fall. And because La Nina weather patterns are likely to continue through the spring, such precipitation is unlikely, said Nathan Patrick of the National Weather Service.

While normal spring rainfall is predicted for Southern California, that “normal” doesn’t amount to much. And the rest of the state is expected to receive less normal levels of rain and snow, Patrick said.

Shrinking water supplies

As a result of the drought, the state’s water storage continues to shrink. The Department of Water Resources announced earlier this month that water imports from northern California to the rest of the state were being reduced from 15% to 5% of what had been requested by local water agencies.

That particularly affects areas of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties that are heavily reliant on those intrastate water imports. Meanwhile, import dependent areas that rely mostly on Colorado River water — including south Orange County — are less likely to be affected, at least for now.

State reservoirs are at about 50% of their normal levels, according Hatchett. And while snowpack that feeds the Colorado River is in better shape than California snowpack, Lake Mead — which is filled by Colorado River water — is at record lows, he said.

Compounding the concern is Californian’s recent water use. While Gov. Gavin Newsom has repeatedly called for a 15% reduction in use, earlier this month the Department of Water Resources said that January saw an increase of 2.6%.

Newsom stepped up conservation efforts a notch Monday, calling on local water agencies to move to Level 2 of their water shortage contingency plans. That requires the agencies to take “actions that will conserve water across all sectors.”

Those contingency plans vary from agency to agency, depending on local circumstances. In some areas, for example, it means reducing the number of days that residents can water outdoors.

Additionally, Newsom directed the State Water Resources Control Board to consider a ban on watering ornamental grass at businesses and institutions.

“Amid climate-driven extremes in weather, we must all continue to do our part and make water conservation a way of life,” he said.

January’s increase in water use was driven in part by unusually warm and dry weather, a byproduct of the same high pressure ridge that Hatchett said pushed winter storms away from California and into Canada.

“It’s a boom-or-bust hydroclimate,” Hatchett said of the state’s rainy season.

“Thankfully, we had a boom to start, because it’s been a bust since.”