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Climate and Environment

California's Dry Weather Is Bad News For Wildfires And Water Supply

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A tractor kicks up dust as it drives through an unplanted field in Los Banos (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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It's now April, which means that California's rainy season has officially come to an end.

And because we're not likely to see much more precipitation until next winter, it's the perfect opportunity to reflect on where we're at in terms of water throughout the state, and what the rest of the year is going to look like.

In short: it's bad.

We're now officially entering our second year of worsening drought conditions after a paltry showing of rain and snow back in 2020.

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That left us in a critically dry position in the fall, with 84% of the state experiencing some level of drought. And because of the disappointing showing of precipitation over the past four months, that's now spread to 91% of the state, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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Over the past five months drought conditions have spread to cover 91 percent of the state according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

The credit for any sort of moisture this rainy season belongs to only a few storms, most notably the late January atmospheric river, which was responsible for 50% of this year's all important snowpack. Another example of how crucial the storm systems are here.

That said, it wasn't enough to get us to "normal." And without a miracle March to save us, we're left with a snowpack across the Sierra that's only 61% of average for April 1.

That's concerning because a significant portion of water for our landscapes and reservoirs comes from the snowpack, especially through the dry months.

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Speaking of water storage, the sustained dry weather is starting to take a toll on our reservoirs which had recovered following our last drought.

Most notably, Shasta and Oroville, which are just about at or below 65% of their historic average.

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Both the Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville reservoirs have been depleted to levels close to those seen in 2014 during the previous drought. (California Department of Water Resources)

California naturally swings between wet and dry periods, but climate change could be intensifying those extremes and increasing the likelihood of drought conditions.

WHAT'S THE STATE'S RESPONSE?

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The second year of a drought is when we start to see larger impacts to our water stores and state officials have recognized that.

Limits on water allocations, similar to what we saw during the worst of our last drought, have started to be put into place. And in late March, California's Water Resources Board told the state's 40,000 water rights holders to get ready to conserve.

It's unclear if and when an official drought declaration might be made by Gov. Gavin Newsom, but if conditions continue as they've been, it's likely.

Previous water conservation efforts likely put us in a better position to handle what could come. That said, our groundwater stores still haven't recovered from the last go round, though long term efforts are underway to address the issue.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR FIRES?

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Again, not so great news.

The lack of precipitation means drier soils, which means drier vegetation, which means higher likelihood of fire earlier in the year.

In years with normal precipitation we usually get some sort of break from the burning between December and late spring.

By June - July, grasses start to dry out and we see spot fires pop up here and there. They're usually put down fairly quickly by firefighters because the larger plants are still holding on to a decent amount of moisture.

They start to dry out by late August - early September.

Sometimes we see fires in that window, but it's really when the Santa Ana winds come along in late September that the unstoppable conflagrations come after us.

Those horrid conditions continue until rain shows up in late fall - early winter.

This year everything's already so dry that our landscapes are just about ready to burn, particularly in Southern California. In some mountainous areas like Angeles National Forest we're already seeing fuels approach concerningly dry levels.

Don't forget that climate change is further complicating things.

Not only is it likely pushing the start of our rainy season later and later -- and thus making our fire season longer -- extreme warming is dessicating landscapes to dangerous degrees.

Between 2012 and 2015 our landscapes were so dry and our temperatures so warm that 150 million trees died in the Sierra Nevada, and subsequently served to fuel some of our megafires in recent years.

GETTING PREPARED

For wildfires, the coming months will be a good time to work on the defensible space around your home and to ensure that you have everything prepared, in case you have to flee from fire in the middle of the night.

As for saving water, California's Department of Water Resources has a list of water conservation tips which includes fixing leaking plumbing, installing high efficiency appliances, and planting low water vegetation.