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Is California Entering Another Drought? Experts Answer Your Questions.

Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP

In this Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, flames from a back firing operation underway rise behind a home off Ladera Ln near Bella Vista Drive in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP

The lack of rain and snow in California has people wondering if we're headed into another drought.

There’s less than 25 percent of the average amount of snow in the Sierra Nevada. That on its own could incite drought panic.

Lauren Bisnett with the California Department of Water Resources says the saving grace is last year’s storms, which filled up state reservoirs. For example, Bisnett says, “Shasta Reservoir is at 74 percent of capacity.”

Another way to look at it, she explained is that “it’s at 102 percent of average full."

To find out what the lack of precipitation means for the state, we asked our social media audience for questions. And we reached out to experts across the state to answer them.

Are we in a drought?

If storms don’t roll in soon, Jay Lund with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences UC Davis says drought could be on the horizon. “It looks like we are in for a dry year, and that could easily become a drought,” he explained. “If it is the beginning of a drought, the first year is not the worst usually.”

Lund says if that happens, forests as well as birds and fish could suffer the worst. "We've had rebound of some fish this year from the last wet water year we had, but the Delta smelt didn't come back. So, there's a lot of concern of some of the species not coming back and what we should do about that," he said.

But the California Department of Water Resources noted that there's still hope for a wet April or March, which happened at least twice in years like this. "We're dealing with warmer temperatures and experiencing dry conditions, but there's still time for a couple big storms that would bring us closer to average conditions,” says Lauren Bisnett with the California Department of Water Resources.

Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says if rain and snow doesn't come, it will create hardships for farmers in terms of small or zero water allocations, as well as the need to pump groundwater.

“This sort of situation may never go away,” Famiglietti said.

He added that California needs to begin planning for different ways to use water, and for “more judicious use of groundwater.”

UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain says the high reservoir levels benefit big cities, but don't necessarily help farms. "The current reservoir levels will comfortably get us through the summer, even if it doesn’t rain much or snow much for the rest of the season,” he said.

Swain also points out that for some parts of Southern California the drought never ended, including where the Thomas Fire burned in last year.

So, yes, there are plenty of warning signs —  but it's just too early to call this a drought.

Is there enough groundwater to hold us over?

 

The resounding answer is "Who knows?"

But Lund says some of the groundwater has recovered from the previous drought. "But there are large parts in the southern part Central Valley that will remain pretty low," he added.

Still he admits that over pumping could get worse, because if rain and snow doesn't fall then farms and cities will need to draw more groundwater.

Will California experience larger wildfires?

With 129 million dead pine trees across the state, Tim Brown, with the Western Regional Climate Center, says there will be more big fires.

Dry weather means lots of dry brush acting as fuel. "Should we have another hot summer that will further increase the potential for flammability,” Brown said.

He also explained that there's still a chance of a wet spring, but that the chances are dwindling. Because of that, he says Southern California is still under significant fire activity.

"Those same areas that had the severe fires in December, like the Thomas Fire, are highlighted actually through May at this point,” he said. “And as we approach summer we'll see the areas of significant fire potential increase across the state."

Should we start conserving?

All experts echoed a common theme: This is California, and we should always have some pressure to increase our water conservation.

“If we get into March and we stay very dry, I expect a lot of cities and agencies will look and start to put on voluntary or low level mandatory conservation in case we have a long drought on hand," Lund predicted.

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