opinion | The drought in California is worse than we thought

Outside my lab near Donner Pass in California’s Sierra Nevada, there are new animal tracks on the snow after a winter of hibernation, bird songs soar into the air, and a creek swells mightily with water from melting ice. Spring came alarmingly early in the Sierra Nevada.

Last week, I joined teams of other scientists who have collected the most important measurements of ice mass in the Sierra Nevada from more than 265 sites across the state. This measurement usually refers to the transition from snow accumulation to melting season and contains the most snow of any measurement throughout the year. Still, the 2022 results confirmed what those of us watching the state’s drought had feared: Snow in California is now 39 percent of its average, or 23 percent less than it was at the same point last year. This points to an exacerbation of drought – already the worst in the western US in 1,200 years – and another potentially catastrophic fire season for much of the West.

Many people have a somewhat simplistic view of drought as a lack of rain and snow. This is accurate – up to a point. What it does not explain is human activity and climate change that is now greatly affecting the available water and its management. As large, frequent wildfires and extended droughts hit the land, our most critical water management tools are becoming less and less accurate. At the same time, our reliance on these models to try to make the most of the little water we have is becoming more and more problematic.

Drought may last for several years or even more than a decade with varying degrees of severity. During these types of extended droughts, the soil can become so dry that it absorbs all the new water, reducing runoff into streams and reservoirs. The soil can also become so dry that the surface becomes hard and resists water, which can cause rainwater to run over the land quickly and cause flooding. This means that we can no longer rely on relatively short periods of rain or snow to alleviate drought conditions quite as we did with previous droughts.

Many storms close to the amounts of rain or snow would be required in a year to cause a significant reduction in drought conditions. October was the second snowiest month, and December was the snowiest month at the Snow Lab since 1970, thanks to two atmospheric rivers that hit California. But the exceptionally dry periods of November and January to March left us with another year of snow, rain and runoff conditions.

This type of Eid winter or famine, accompanied by severe storms and severe and prolonged droughts, is expected to increase as the climate continues to change. As a result, we’ll need several years of above-average rain and snow to make up the difference rather than big, successive events in one year.

Even with years of normal or above-average rainfall, changes to the Earth’s surface present another complication. Massive wildfires, such as those we’ve seen in the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies in recent years, are causing distinct changes in the way snow melts and water, including rain, rushes off the landscape. Loss of forest canopy from fires can increase wind speed and temperatures, which increases evaporation and reduces the amount of snow water that reaches the reservoirs.

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Similar to extended drought, fire also alters soil properties and can cause flash floods during periods of heavy rainfall. These changes in the landscape, feast or famine rainfall patterns and increased demand for water supplies make water management in the West a risky and challenging task.

One of the most important tools for managing water during droughts is the models developed by various state and federal agencies such as the National Weather Service’s Hydrological Development Office, the Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Water Resources. However, these models suffer from the same simplistic view of drought and water, and are in dire need of updating.

Earth’s surfaces, ice-melt patterns, and climate have all changed since many of these models were developed, which means they are missing important pieces of the current water puzzle. What has prevented model updates for decades is reduced funding for science and engineering.

Models may not be able to reliably inform water managers how much rain and snow will draw land into reservoirs, which could mean severe shortages in a worst-case scenario. As levels of reservoirs and ice caps have shrunk in recent years, differences between how much water is expected and what’s up can mean the difference between having water in taps and drying out entire cities.

We are looking at the barrel of a gun laden with our water resources in the West. Instead of investing in body armor, we hoped the trigger wouldn’t be pulled. Current water monitoring and modeling strategies are not sufficient to support the increasing number of people who need water. I worry about the next week, month, year, and the new problems we will inevitably face as climate change continues and the water becomes unpredictable.

It’s time for the policy makers who allocate funding to invest in modernizing our water models rather than maintaining the status quo and hoping for the best. Large-scale investment in the agencies that maintain and develop these models is critical in preparing for the future of water in the West.

Better water models ultimately mean more accurate water management, and this will lead to greater water security and availability for the millions of people who now depend on changing water supplies. It is an investment in our future and, moreover, an investment in our continued ability to live in the water-scarce regions of the West. It’s the only way to make sure we’re ready when the trigger is pulled.

Dr. Schwartz is Principal Scientist and Station Director at the University of California, Berkeley, Central Sierra Snow Lab.

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