LOS ANGELES — California’s hopes for a wet “March miracle” did not materialize and a dousing of April showers may as well be a mirage at this point.
The state appears in the midst of another drought only a few years after a punishing 5-year dry spell dried up rural wells, killed endangered salmon, idled farm fields and helped fuel the most deadly and destructive wildfires in modern state history.
“We’re looking at the second dry year in a row. In California that pretty much means we have a drought,” said Jay Lund, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Davis.
In fact, the entire West is gripped in what scientists consider a “megadrought” that started in 1999 and has been interrupted by only occasional years with above-average precipitation. In California, the heaviest rain and snow comes in the winter months, but not this year — about 90% of the state already is experiencing drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Much of California’s water comes from mountain snow in the Sierra Nevada that melts during the spring and summer and feeds rivers and streams that in turn fill reservoirs. The Sierra snowpack traditionally holds its peak water content on April 1 and the state will take a survey Thursday to determine the level. Last month, a survey showed just 60% of the average.
Four years ago, when then-Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared an end to a statewide drought emergency, he said conservation should continue, warning “the next drought could be around the corner.”
It’s arrival will mean different things depending on where people live.
The 2012-2016 drought required some sacrifice from everyone as Brown ordered a 25% reduction in water use. Residents took shorter showers, flushed less frequently and let their cars get dirty. Many homeowners replaced their lawns with artificial grass or desert succulents.
Such restrictions are less likely this time around because municipal supplies are in better shape and water use has not returned to previous levels, said Caitrin Chappelle of the Public Policy Institute of California. The Metropolitan Water District, which sells water to public agencies serving about half the state’s 40 million residents, has a record high water supply.
But efforts to restore depleted groundwater aquifers or keep river flows high and water temperatures low enough for the winter-run Chinook salmon that almost went extinct on the Sacramento River during the drought, are not as far along.
“The time in between the end of the last drought and, possibly, the beginning of this next one isn’t that long,” Chappelle said. ”They have started doing a better job of planning for it, it’s just whether or not they’ve had enough time to prepare before the emergency hits again.”
The Sierra snowpack provides about 30% of California’s water and the Department of Water Resources measurement is key to forecasting how much can be allocated…