As many Californians pile sandbags around their properties and keep canoes and kayaks ready for the next flood, the mountains continue to accumulate snow and reservoirs are filling quickly. Certainly California has not been so wet in years. Late in January, in fact, the state declared widespread flood emergencies.
But only two weeks later, the State Water Resources Control Board officially decided at a meeting in Sacramento to extend existing conservation regulations. Water agencies are irritated by the decision, which was approved by the board through a vote on Wednesday afternoon. The ruling doesn’t impose any limits on how much water these agencies may sell. In fact, it doesn’t do much, other than continue to prohibit egregious wastes of water, such as irrigating a lawn immediately after rain. It also requires that water agencies submit monthly reports of their customers’ water consumption – a rule that has been in place since May 2015.
However, water agencies are concerned that extending the emergency drought regulations could deliver a mixed message that will confuse the public. This, many agency directors warn, could undermine Californians’ confidence in how the government assesses and manages water supplies and, they argue, could also stifle efforts to instill water-efficient habits in the state’s populace.
“For the state to continually call this a long-term drought is like crying wolf when there is no wolf,” Andy Fecko, director of resource management at the Placer County Water Agency, told Water Deeply in an interview several days before Wednesday’s vote. “It erodes confidence in the government.”
His sentiment is one that was voiced repeatedly during the public comment period that preceded the vote.
Two years ago, when the state mandated that Californians reduce consumption by 25 percent, customers listened. That’s because it was so apparent to the general public that the state, fresh out of the driest winter in California’s recorded history, was experiencing a real and extreme drought.
“But we clearly aren’t in a water supply situation anymore that constitutes a drought,” John Woodling, executive director of the Regional Water Authority, says.
Like Fecko, Woodling hopes to see Californians adopt a long-term habit of using less water. He is concerned that Wednesday’s decision endangers the credibility of state officials and local agencies. In turn, he warns, it could negatively affect how the general public reacts to future water conservation advisories.
“We’re questioning now whether customers will cooperate the next time we have a real drought,” Woodling says.
He says the Sacramento region has very carefully managed its water supply, even increasing its groundwater reserves, through the drought. Other communities around the state, by contrast, sit above severely depleted groundwater basins. Still, Woodling insists, this doesn’t mean California is necessarily battling a drought.
“Groundwater overdraft is a long-term supply issue and not evidence of a drought,” he said. “The state needs to identify these problem areas and individually try and help them.”
Fecko jokes that California is now “in the wettest drought ever.” He notes that reservoirs are “in flood-control mode.”
“We literally have so much water on our hands we can’t handle it all,” he says.
But abrupt gushes of rainfall like we’re seeing now – even if they persist for an entire winter – don’t necessarily mean an end to a drought. Nancy Vogel, the deputy secretary for communications with the California Natural Resources Agency, points out that eight of the past 10 years have been dry in California. One year was “average,” she says, and the one that qualified as “wet” – 2011 – immediately preceded the driest dry spell in the state’s history.
The effects of drought, she says, linger even through dramatic upticks in precipitation.
“It’s no surprise that we can have both a drought and flood emergency in effect at the same time,” she wrote in an email.
Explaining California’s water supply situation to the public seems almost as tricky as the task of managing it.
“I understand the danger of calling this a permanent drought when people’s yards are flooded and there’s 20ft [6m] of snow,” says Peter Gleick, chief scientist at the Pacific Institute.
Unlike local water agency officials, Gleick doesn’t think the wet months behind us merit lifting the emergency drought regulations.
“But we should call it something else,” he suggests.
That, he says, is because the term “drought” doesn’t do justice to the complexity of California’s water woes. It’s too simple a concept to be brushed over California’s very complex hydrologic circumstances. “Drought” tends to be applied as a binary classification that is either on or off. However, the word fails to convey important nuances about California’s water supplies – such as longstanding groundwater deficits and the key distinction between precipitation that falls as rain and that which accumulates as snowpack.
“Asking if the drought is over or not – that’s the wrong question to ask,” Gleick says. “When someone asks that, what is it they really want to know? It might be a farmer wondering if they will get water this year. It could be a salmon fisherman wondering if there is going to be a fishing season. It could also be a homeowner wanting to know if they can water their lawn again and wash their car.”
Gleick notes that “it will never be okay again to water your lawn in a way that water runs down the sidewalk.” Indeed, just about everyone who studies water in the West agrees that efficiency of use must become rooted in the Californian lifestyle. An analysis several years ago by the University of California, Davis, revealed how state and federal water agencies have allocated to various user groups five times as much water as the state actually has available – part of the circumstances creating what many frustrated users have termed the state’s permanent “regulatory drought.”
Fecko hopes Californians will become conditioned to conserving water during truly dry times and in wetter periods using water efficiently but without reducing economic productivity. He believes water managers at the state level must try and clarify this distinction between wise use and reduced use. Now, he says, is the time to lift the drought declaration while continuing to encourage smart use of water.
After all, even if California enters a wet period of several years, its water supply will remain precarious. Gleick disagrees with the general way in which the D-word is so often used, but he recognizes its value as a communication tool.
“Water managers are trying to be cautious because they don’t want people to go back to doing things the old, wasteful way,” he says. “Even in a wet year in California, there isn’t enough water available for everyone to do everything they want.”