Gov. Jerry Brown’s drought declaration Friday should be applauded, as our current water situation is challenging, to say the least. But declaring a drought is only part of the picture.
Today, the Sierra snowpack is 5 percent to 10 percent of what it should be by April 1. Usually, we have more than a third of our snowpack by this time. The snowpack is California’s greatest water storage system, holding more water than all our reservoirs combined.
Without adequate water, our state will suffer dramatically, from its economy and lifestyle to its ability to stave off the wildfires that plague Californians even in the best years.
California depends heavily on wet winters, and particularly on abundant snow in the Sierra Nevada and other mountains. Winter snowpack, followed by spring snowmelt, delivers the water needed to sustain mountain forests and provide stream flow to generate electricity and supply water to agriculture and cities through the dry summer and fall.
If you are an optimist, you can hope for one or two large storms in the next few weeks to make up the difference. But a realist must look at the historic record: Seven of the past 10 years have seen below-average snowpack. Some years, such as 2004, 2007 and 2013, were well below average. We’re in the third year of a drought, and we had a six-year drought less than 30 years ago (1987-1992).
Despite that long dry spell, nothing has changed in the way we operate – as individuals and as resource managers and decision-makers.
Regrettably, only now that drought has been officially declared have water-management agencies said they will suggest or gently urge customers to conserve.
Water conservation should part of every Californian’s lifestyle, at all times. Water is always a precious resource here, and will only become more precious as the climate warms and dry years become more common.
We have to go beyond asking citizens to conserve water as individuals. We need to use this opportunity to take a larger view of water planning and decision-making. With better management – and the best information to make critical decisions – our state’s snow and rain could go a lot further toward meeting our urban, agricultural and environmental needs.
As it turns out, it’s quite difficult to accurately determine who uses how much water. That’s just further evidence that the state critically needs an updated water-information system, which is feasible using low-cost technology developed by University of California researchers, including at UC Merced and UC Berkeley.
Partnerships with the California Department of Water Resources and other key stakeholders such as irrigation districts, resource management agencies, utilities and farmers would make the system truly unified and beneficial to everyone.
Conklin is a professor of engineering with an emphasis on water issues and Bales is a professor of engineering with an emphasis on hydrology at UC Merced.