Will El Niño solve California’s drought?

Will El Niño solve California’s drought?

California faces over a decade of drought conditions, reaching historic proportions in 2014, it continues to wreak havoc throughout the State. Leaving destruction in its path, the drought has caused wells to run dry, family businesses to close and water bills to increase. Everyday, Californians continue to adapt to a lifestyle focused around drought conditions. Shorter showers, brown lawns and overall water efficiency have become a normal way of life. With constant reminders to reduce water use, Californians have anxiously been waiting for relief. Will the predicted El Niño climate changes approaching be the solution to end the drought?

El Niño weather is predicted to bring more rainfall than in previous years’ historic storms. Photo Credit: Michael Lee Williams
El Niño weather is predicted to bring more rainfall than in previous years’ historic storms. Photo Credit: Michael Lee Williams

This year’s El Niño weather is predicted to bring more rainfall than in previous years’ historic storms. The El Niño climate cycle can have a severe impact on weather patterns. According to The Weather Channel, every two-to-seven years, there is a warming in the Pacific Ocean, near the equator. The warming of the waters creates a change in the atmospheric pattern in the ocean. Combined with wind patterns and storms that change direction and head east, Southern California is expected to be affected by this cycle. Conditions are anticipated to last through the spring.

While the increase in rain and snow seem to be approaching, their arrival is unlikely to solve the State’s water crisis. “The presence of an El Niño effect is not a guarantee that the amount of rain that falls in California will increase, the amount of snow pack in the Sierras will grow or the sizeable deficit in our State’s groundwater basins will be reversed with a single wet winter,” explains Tim Barr, Deputy Director of Water Resources for Western Municipal Water District (Western). “A wet winter would be a welcomed change, but rain must fall at a rate slow enough that it can infiltrate into the ground, not in torrents that ultimately run off, flows to a nearby river and then out to the ocean. We need a combination of rain in the right places to fill our reservoirs and groundwater basins, wet snow pack to refill them as it melts over the spring and summer and we need California’s residents to rethink their landscape and its water use.”

Reservoirs store clean water in tanks until it is ready to be used.
Reservoirs store clean water in tanks until it is ready to be used.

As El Niño approaches, the lower part of the State is expected to receive a substantial amount of rain, however Northern California, where the majority of the State’s imported water comes from, is not expected to create the necessary snowpack. In fact, Washington and Oregon are likely to receive less than average rainy days as a result of the change in weather patterns. Snow pack from the Northern Sierra Nevadas, which becomes snow melt, is one of the primary sources of drinking water for Californians.

Adequate snow melt is necessary to replenish groundwater basins.
Adequate snow melt is necessary to replenish groundwater basins.

Water leaders continue to seek solutions to hold on to as much rainfall as possible through storm water capture, a method for capturing rain or snow that what would otherwise become water runoff. It is the process for replenishing groundwater basins and surface reservoirs. Often times, reservoirs are constructed and strategically placed so they can be filled by rain water and snow melt.

Water agencies throughout the State are taking the necessary means to maximize storm water capture. “Western is working with other local water agencies to plan for our future and ensure we are making the most of all our water supplies – local groundwater, imported water, and recycled water. Local storm water capture is a valuable component of our supply portfolio,” continues Barr.

According to Metropolitan District of Southern California (MWD), the regional water supplier for the majority of Southern California, the District is prepared to take advantage of any increased rainfall and snowpack in the agency’s imported water sources in Northern California and along the Colorado River. “Today, the district can capture and store more than 1 million acre-feet of water in a single year.  However, lots of rain this winter doesn’t change the need to conserve and use water wisely,” shares Bob Muir, MWD spokesperson. “With investments, such Diamond Valley Lake in southwest Riverside County, Metropolitan has increased the region’s storage capacity to nearly 6 million acre-feet of water, a 13-fold increase since 1990.“

Diamond Valley Lake is a man-made reservoir located near Hemet, California. It is one of Southern California's largest reservoirs.
Diamond Valley Lake is a man-made reservoir located near Hemet, California. It is one of Southern California’s largest reservoirs.

Agencies invest in resources to maximize water reliability. Collaboration between partnering agencies to efficiently capture water and snowmelt has been taking place for years prior to the drought. One example of this is Western working with San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District (Valley) to secure nearly 200,000 acre-feet of collective water rights associated with the building of the Seven Oaks Dam above Highland. The dam is able to capture storm water and then recharge the local groundwater basins. Currently, Western, City of Riverside and Valley District have been collaborating research the cost benefits of building a rubber dam across the Santa Ana River. The dam would have the potential to be lowered and raised in order to divert runoff as needed.

As Californians anticipate this year’s El Niño, it is important to remember that while the increase in rain will serve as a temporary fix, this will only Band-Aid the problem. Its long term effects are not expected to solve the drought. Water agencies and city governments will continue to work together to seek solutions to continue to provide safe and reliable water resources, however it has up to the community to continue to use water wisely. It has taken California years to reach the drought that it is currently facing and it will take years to repair.