Do the El Nino rains signal an end to historic drought in California?
It was only Dec. 27 when NASA released a statement saying that the effects of El Nino were yet to come for much of the United States, particularly drought-stricken California. A mere two weeks later, California and parts of the U.S. Midwest are dealing with heavy rains causing floods and landslides.
The rains, while welcomed, are wreaking havoc across several states. The ground has been unable to absorb the copious amount of rain.
And all eyes are on California, a state that is seeing one of the worst droughts in its history.
So does all this rain mean that the drought is over?
California has been experiencing its worst drought conditions over the past four years. In April 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown even issued state officials to impose mandatory water restrictions — a first in the state’s history.
That’s because water reservoirs have been far below capacity, with some as low as nine per cent of capacity.
The consequences of one of the worst droughts in history are widespread: farmers — the primary users of water in the state — are feeling the crunch, with many almond farmers forced to dig up their trees.
It’s gotten so bad, that — as a result of pumping groundwater — a region in the San Joaquin Valley is sinking nearly five centimetres a month. And it can’t be repaired, even if groundwater levels increase.
But days or even weeks of rain isn’t enough to mitigate a four-year drought, which some scientists could be indicative of a rare “megadrought” as the region experienced 1,000 years ago. While a drought may last a few years, megadroughts can last decades. The 1930s Dust Bowl drought lasted for more than 35 years.
California needs far more precipitation — in the form of a snowpack — to even begin to get levels that will bring enough water to quench the thirst of the land.
“In Los Angeles it’s been one to four inches of rain,” Brad Pugh, meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center in Maryland said of this week’s rain. “With more than five inches in the mountains, of both rain and snow.”
But that’s hardly enough. And the form of precipitation matters.
“It’s all tied into the reservoir,” Pugh explained. “You need the melt off of the snow to fill up the reservoirs. But with the rain you see runoff.”
The good news is that the next two weeks are expected to be wet ones across the state, with higher than normal precipitation expected. And the trend — thanks to the time of year and as a result of El Nino — is expected to continue into March, particularly in southern California.
But don’t expect the drought to be over and done with.
“Certainly we do expect large improvements to the drought, but currently many of the large reservoir levels are running 25 to 50 per cent of historical average for this time of year,” Pugh said. “Best way to put it is we’d expect large improvements in the drought and some recovery levels, but to see the end of such a long-term drought…that may not occur.”
“It could take a couple of good winter seasons of winter precipitation.”
The state is still under water restrictions and, so far, there’s been no mention of lifting them.
© 2016 The Canadian Press