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California winter looking like repeat of 2021 — dry and drought-plagued

A persistent multiyear La Niña event gets much of the blame for the dry start to California's water year.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — As California enters a fourth year of drought, experts warn a likely drier-than-average winter means little relief for much of California and Nevada.

Nearly 41% of California and 43% of Nevada is in extreme drought, according to the latest California-Nevada Adaptation Program report prepared by program manager Julie Kalansky. The U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that over the last month drought conditions have not changed very much. There was little to no precipitation throughout the region to start off the water year in October, though a system of storms in early November moistened the landscape and brought some snow to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

So far 2022 has been California’s driest and Nevada’s 8th driest in nearly 130 years of recordkeeping. The Golden State has seen just 8.5% of the average water year precipitation. San Diego has taken in 21% of the average water year precipitation, while the Reno/Carson City area is below 6% of the average amount seen in a water year.

The most recent drought measurement map across the Southwest released by the California-Nevada Adaptation Program. (Image via California-Nevada Adaptation Program)

National Weather Service Bay Area meteorologist David King said compared to October and November in 2021, things are looking relatively more dry.

Last year, an atmospheric river around Halloween brought in "tremendous amounts of rain" and helped some regions measure far above the average precipitation rate, including 200% above normal for the water year in the North Bay Area.  A small rain event this year in early November was "really beneficial" but rainfall levels varied widely across the state — the North Bay stands at about 50% to 60% of normal while Santa Clara County is at around 80% to 110% of normal, he said.

"It's a great start, but we're hoping to see more of these rain events later in the winter," King said.

Lakes and reservoirs throughout the region remain low. In Lake Tahoe, the water level sits below the rim, and Rye Patch and Lahontan reservoirs in Nevada remain low. In California, Shasta and Oroville, the state's two largest reservoirs, are at 57% of the historical average

The State Water Board announced Nov. 2 that to prevent future water loss, new standards have been adopted for urban retail water suppliers to save about 88,000 acre-feet of water per year, or enough to supply over 260,000 households. Suppliers must now monitor and reduce leakage in their distribution systems. It is designed to follow legislation passed in 2018 through Senate Bill 606 and Assembly Bill 1668 to create long-term improvements in water conservation to adapt to climate change. 

“As climate change induces hotter and drier conditions, we must conserve water as much as possible and become more efficient on all fronts,” said E. Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Board.

“Water loss from distribution systems for drinking water is often out of sight. The new performance standards will not only reduce that water loss by over a third, they will also cut energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions by lowering the amount of water needing to be treated and distributed.”

The new regulation takes effect April 2023. Some systems, such as those in disadvantaged communities, could be given more time to start meeting the regulation criteria.

There is a 76% chance of a La Niña event during December through February, which often decreases the likelihood of a wet winter for Southern California and Nevada. Forecast models show drought persisting across California and the Great Basin, while the December-February outlook from the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center shows likely above-normal temperatures for the region. 

A map reflects the precipitation map of California and Nevada based on percent of normal precipitation. (Image via NOAA Regional Climate Centers)

King said 2021 also saw a La Niña event, with very little rain falling after January.

"When you have a La Niña year, you would expect to have drier than normal conditions in Southern California and wetter than normal conditions in the Northwest," he said.

When the rain does come, the California Department of Water Resources intends to be ready. The department announced Wednesday that in the event of flooding when rain returns — which has grown much more likely due to climate change — $5 million in funding went to seven emergency response agencies within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The delta is increasingly vulnerable to flooding from storm events and sea level rise. 

“This funding will help bolster emergency response efforts in flooding events, which may happen at any time," Gary Lippner, deputy director of Flood Management and Dam Safety, said.

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