State’s in a drought, but it’s not the worst ever


The warnings have been ominous this winter: California is headed into the worst drought in modern history. The water supply is drying up. Or, as one water association declared last week, “Things just keep getting worse and worse.”

Is it really that bad?

If you look at the numbers, the answer is no. Not only have a series of February storms pushed up mountain snowpack levels, but by historical standards the current three-year drought is far from the worst.

Monday, the state Department of Water Resources announced that the mountain snowpack that feeds the state’s reservoirs has reached 80% of normal for the date. Precipitation in the northern and southern Sierra has climbed above 90% of average and another storm is on the way.


“Right now it doesn’t look too bleak,” said Maury Roos, the state’s chief hydrologist. “I think we’ll have more runoff than last year.”

The water interests who have spit out grim news releases the last two months were silent Monday in the face of the growing snowpack.

Those who would like to build new reservoirs and canals and to weaken environmental regulations have invoked the drought like a mantra in recent weeks.

A recently introduced congressional bill that would allow federal officials to relax endangered-species protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is titled the California Drought Alleviation Act.

“For over 100 years in California, the drought argument has been used consistently to justify actions, and I think this is no exception,” said Robert Wilkinson, director of the Water Policy Program at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

In late January, a public relations firm representing state water contractors trumpeted: “California’s water supply dries up.” It was highlighting the need for a delta “fix,” including a canal bypass.


Sen. Dave Cogdill, a Republican who represents agriculture-dependent Modesto, called the drought “epic” when he introduced a $10-billion water bond package last week that includes funding for new reservoirs and other infrastructure.

State and federal water managers earlier this year sought to relax delta water quality standards, arguing that because of the drought, it needed to hold more water in upstream reservoirs to preserve cold water flows for salmon in coming months.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last month called for fee increases and outdoor watering restrictions, citing the state’s “severe water shortages.”

The state is in a drought. But it’s “not the worst we’ve had,” said Roos, chief hydrologist for two decades.

Roos looks at two water supply criteria to determine whether the state is in a drought: Runoff from the state’s major river systems has to be in the bottom 10% of the record, and total statewide reservoir storage has to be at or below 70% of average.

By that definition, 2007 and 2008 barely made the drought category.

In 1977, the water year (which ends Sept. 30) was the driest on record. Back then, statewide reservoir storage was 35% of average. Statewide storage was more than twice that by the end of September last year, and in 2007. Roos estimated it is about 70% of the norm now, a little less than halfway into the water year.


Roos said it was prudent for water managers to be conservative. “But some of the statements have been pretty grim . . . The climate can change pretty fast.”

Said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland and one of the world’s leading experts on water issues: “The state is still dry, but it’s a lot less dry then it was three weeks ago and decisions about water allocations and water policy ought to be done with the best current information.”

Even as reservoir and snowpack levels were rising, federal water managers announced last week that they might not make deliveries to some big Central Valley farms -- a scenario Gleick doubts will play out.

“It’s extremely likely that the allocations for the [federal Central Valley Project] are going to go up . . . The idea that they’ll give zero water to farmers -- that’s not going to happen.”

Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources, defended his agency’s characterizations of the drought, saying that though it may not be the worst hydrologically, other factors are accentuating its seriousness.

There are more people in the state, more farmers have switched to permanent crops that can’t be fallowed and growing environmental problems in the delta have restricted water deliveries.


“So the same level of hydrology [that the state experienced] in 1991 produces more severe impacts,” Snow said. “That’s what spurs us to talk about the potential for the worst drought.”