Is the California drought really over?

California’s most recent drought made the state face some challenging questions regarding the obstacles to ensure water quality and deliverance during these extended periods. On January 17, 2014 Governor Jerry Brown declared a “drought state of emergency” that would last until April 17, 2017, totaling six years of critically low water supplies.

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As defined by the California Water Science Center, a drought is characterized by an abnormally low amount of snowpack and rainfall in a water system that can cause complications due to water supply shortages depending on its severity. They further explain that the declines in surface water “can be detrimental to water supplies for agriculture and cities, hydropower production, navigation, recreation, and habitat for aquatic and riparian species.” Essentially, the severity of the drought can have implications that hinder daily operations in our communities, as well as impact the environmental vitality in the affected regions. The drought put pressure on the amount of water supplied versus the amount needed in order for home, agricultural, and industrial processes to normally continue. The rate of water consumption and lack of replenishment in our surface and groundwater sources led water districts to implement programs and restrictions to comply with mandates that required decreases in the demand for water.

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The focus on conservation efforts was seen on a policy level with changes in water rate structures, watering schedules, and incentive programs for water efficient landscaping. According to Save Our Water, as much as 60% of household water consumption is used outdoors, mainly for irrigation purposes. A push was made to reduce outdoor water use through smart irrigation systems and habitat friendly landscaping. The aim was to reduce “unnecessary” water use or to provide alternatives that would reach the same objective. After six years of drought period and strong conservation efforts, the snowpack and rainfall began normalizing, which consequently filled surface water resources and ended the “state of emergency.”

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Although, the critical conditions of the drought have been declared over, conservation efforts are necessary to continue due to the depletion of groundwater basins. The Groundwater Foundation defines groundwater as, “Water found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand, and rock…that moves through aquifers.” Americans nationwide rely on these water sources more than they may think with a total of 51% of the U.S population consumption coming from groundwater basins. Moreover, rural irrigation in the U.S. depends on 64% of groundwater supply for its production process. The drought had a detrimental impact on the groundwater supply that has not been fully replenished since the emergency drought declaration was withdrawn. Because excess snowpack and rain did not cover the entire State, supplies are still far from being at necessary levels. The importance of its replenishment lies in rivers and lakes serving as a recharging system for groundwater basins. Without substantial rainfall statewide, the groundwater basins have not been replenished. The Groundwater Foundation also goes on to describe the threats that overusing and depleting the resource can have. For example, depleting the basins can cause the necessity to continually dig deeper to reach well water as well as lowering the levels of surface water available. These possible consequences will have the most impact on consumers wallets due to maintenance costs, supply outweighing demand, and water quality concerns.

The good news is that water districts and communities alike can continue efforts to reduce the depletion of our valuable resources. Many of the conservation efforts made during the height of the drought can be extended into non-drought periods that will help decrease consumption. Following a sustainable approach can only create more opportunity for our resources to recharge and making conservations a long term habit.