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California Drought Emergency Officially Over


Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared California’s drought emergency over on Friday, April 7. It was a fitting ending to one of the worst episodes in California’s drought-laden history.

Or was it? The next two posts update California’s water situation. This one focuses on the current short-term situation. The next one focuses on the future, with an eye toward the future impact of climate change. I have personal reasons for following California’s water situation – I have family living there. But in addition, California is the most populous state in the Union, it has the largest economy of any state, and the state grows a ridiculously large fraction of our food. What happens in California affects us here in Missouri.

Figure 1. California Snowpack, 3/31/2017. Source: California Department of Water Resources.

Is the short-term drought truly over? Yes, I think so. The vast majority of California’s precipitation falls during the winter, and the snowpack that builds up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains serves as California’s largest “reservoir.” As it melts, it not only releases water that represents about 30% of the state’s water supply, but it also feeds water into the underground aquifers that provide groundwater to much of the state. Thus, the size of the snowpack is the most important factor in determining California’s water status. California measures the water content of the snowpack electronically and manually. The measurements around April 1 are considered the most important, as that is when the snowpack is typically at its largest. Figure 1 shows the report for this year. Statewide, the water content of the snowpack was 164% of average for the date, almost 2/3 larger than average. The water content was significantly above average in all three regions of the snowpack, North, Central, and South.



I follow the snow report at Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort to provide a specific example of the snow conditions. Figure 2 shows that through March, Mammoth received over 500 inches of snow, one of the highest totals in the record going back to 1969-70. The column for 2016-17 has very large blue and orange sections, indicating that the majority of the snow fell in January and February. Figure 3 confirms the impression. It charts the amount of snowfall at Mammoth during each month of the 2016-17 snow season, and compares it to the average for that month across all years. You can see that both January and February were monster snow months, especially January. By March, snowfall had already fallen below average. I wouldn’t make too much of this fact, one month doesn’t make a trend.

Figure 2. Source: Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort.

Figure 3. Data source: Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort.











Figure 4. Source: California Data Exchange Center.

California also stores water in man-made reservoirs. Figure 4 show the condition of 12 especially important ones on March 31. Most were above their historical average for that date, and many were approaching their maximum capacity. Those who follow this blog know that the Oroville Reservoir actually received so much water that it damaged both the main and emergency spillways, threatening collapse of the dam and requiring evacuation of thousands of people down stream. (See here.)







Figure 5. Elevation of the Surface of Lake Mead. Source: water-data.com.

In addition, Southern California receives the lion’s share of water drawn from the Colorado River, thus the status of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado, is important to the state. A study in 2008 found that there was a 50% chance the reservoir would go dry by 2021. On March 31, Lake Mead was at 1088.26 feet above sea level. (This doesn’t mean there were that many feet of water in the reservoir, Hoover Dam isn’t that tall. Rather, it represents how many feet above sea level the surface of the water was. Lake Mead’s maximum depth is 532 feet.) The current level represents 41.38% of capacity. Figure 5 shows the level of the lake over time. You can see that the line tends to go up with the spring snowmelt, and down during the rest of the year. This year it is up very slightly year-over-year, but the trend has been relentlessly down since 2000.

The conclusion seems inescapable: for this year at least, California has plenty of water. The short-term drought is over. One year doesn’t make a climate trend, however. In the next post I will consider the implications of this wet winter for California’s water situation going into the future.


Barnett, Tim, and David Pierce. 2008. “When Will Lake Mead Go Dry?” Water Resources Research, 44, W03201. Retrieved online at http://www.image.ucar.edu/idag/Papers/PapersIDAGsubtask2.4/Barnett1.pdf.

CA.GOV. Governor Brown Lifts Drought Emergency, Retains Prohibition on Wasteful Practices. Viewed online 4/10/2017 at https://www.gov.ca.gov/home.php.

California Data Exchange Center. Conditions for Major Reservoirs: 31-Mar-2017. Viewed online at http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cdecapp/resapp/getResGraphsMain.action.

California Department of Water Resources. Snow Water Equivalents (inches) for 3/30/2017. Viewed online 3/31/2017 at http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/snowsurvey_sno/DLYSWEQ.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort. Snow Conditions and Weather, Extended Snow History. Data downloaded 4/2/2017 from http://www.mammothmountain.com/winter/mountain-information/mountain-information/snow-conditions-and-weather.

water-data.com. “Lake Mead Daily Lake Levels.” Downloaded 4/5/2017 from http://graphs.water-data.com/lakemead/.


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