Changes Made During California’s Drought Could Help It Survive the Next One

There's a good chance California could face a fifth drought year, but there are benefits to a long dry season.

Kaleigh Rogers

Kaleigh Rogers

Image: IRRI Photos/Flickr

It may have been a green Christmas along the Eastern seaboard, but high in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, the snow has been falling—as much as two feet of white stuff the week before Christmas. That's good news for the drought-stricken state, but it's too early to be breathing a sigh of relief just yet.

It's not going to be easy for California to crawl out of the hole created by four years of drought, and a few feet of snow is definitely not going to cut it. Many of the state's reservoirs are still dismally low, as are its soil moisture and groundwater levels. There's a very good chance the state could be facing a fifth straight drought year. But there's a benefit to a long drought period: many of the changes Californians have made just to muddle through this dry spell will have a lasting impact, giving the state the ability to better survive its increasingly-severe drought periods.

The Sierra Nevada snowpack provides about 30 percent of the state's water supply, and last winter's low snowfall levels helped push California into a fourth straight year of drought. But over the past week, the snowpack has seen a much-needed boost. Statewide, the latest measurements show an average of 10 inches of snow-water equivalent (the approximate amount of water that would be produced if the snow thawed all at once). That's 107 percent of what's considered normal for this time of year, so we've had some above-average precipitation.

This is definitely good news, and it has some optimists already predicting a drought-ending year. But the last four years have taken a major toll on California's water supply, and it will take more than a few days of snow to bounce back, according to Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit environmental research institute, and an expert in environmental resources.

"If from here on out, for the rest of the water year, we get the average amount of water, it's not going to be a drought-busting year," Gleick explained. "We would have to have well above average for the rest of the year to refill the reservoirs, refill groundwater aquifers, refill soil moisture, and refill the mountains with snow. We still need a winter much above average. We might get it, but there's simply no guarantees yet."

Some southern Californians have opted to re-landscape with climate-appropriate plants, like cacti and succulents. Image: whistlepunch/Flickr

To illustrate the deficit California's water system is working under, Gleick pointed to the reservoirs, which aren't showing the impressive numbers the snowpack is. Lake Shasta, the state's largest reservoir, is only 31 percent full—the historical average for this date is just over 60 percent. Many reservoirs fill up in the spring when the snow melts, but Shasta relies more so on rain, which means we can't rely on the mountain snow to fill it up. California still needs rain.

But there's no reason California can't see a stormier-than-average winter, and if the state sees enough storms it could wind up being a drought-busting year yet, Gleick said. So what happens to all of the water conservation efforts the state has imposed on residents and farmers as it weathered the four dry years?

It's hard to predict whether or not behavioral changes (such as taking shorter showers, or flushing the toilet only for number two) will persevere once the drought lifts. Those changes did stick, to a certain extent, in Australia after part of the continent experienced less-than-average precipitation for 12 years straight. People there got used to conserving water, and the changes stuck. But California is a different beast: some stubborn wealthy Californians have refused to change their habits even in the midst of the current drought.

Overall, though, Gleick said some changes that have put into place to conserve water during the drought will have long-lasting effects. Over the past few years, Californians have been investing in water-conserving technology that will continue to have a positive impact on their water use even after the drought ends, like upgrading to high-efficiency appliances, adopting better irrigation techniques, and swapping lush green lawns for climate-appropriate desert gardens.

The changes, both behavioral and technical, have been working: California has reduced its water use by 27 percent since June, when Governor Jerry Brown's mandate to have the state curb its water consumption by 25 percent went into effect.

"It's a different world," Brown told the LA Times in April after announcing the mandate. "We have to act differently."

And some of those behavioral changes might be forced to stick around, too. Water wasting rules that went into effect early this year—including not watering your lawn if it's rained in the last 48 hours and not serving water to restaurant patrons unless they ask for it—could become permanent laws as early as next summer, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

"It's just good common sense," Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state water board, told the Sentinel. "It's good use of a precious resource."

With climate change threatening to make California's regular droughts more severe, lasting changes will be more needed than ever going forward.

"In some ways, that's the way it's always going to be," Gleick said. "There will always be the ability during droughts to change behavior. Even once we squeeze out all of the inefficient toilets and washing machines, even then there will be the potential to cut down our water use. There's always going to be room for behavioral responses."