Date: Nov 01, 2014
November 2014: Drought Diagnosis--Difficult Year Ahead

California is still in drought conditions and experts say that almost regardless of what happens this winter, there will be water delivery challenges next year.  In fact, precipitation and snowpack would have to come in at about 150 percent of normal before water deliveries could return to a more regular level.

At least that is the educated view of Bill Croyle of the California Department of Water Resources and Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District.  Croyle is currently wearing the title of drought program manager and would love to return to his previous job which was emergency program manager.  In that position, he often dealt with flooding problems.

The official point person for the current California drought said forecasting models are currently predicting a rainy season that looks like it is going to be very average.  Talk of El Niño conditions that might have resulted in well-above average rainfall have almost completely died down.  Croyle said the tools that are now being used to forecast are much better than they once were, which allows climatologists access to better information and a better way to forecast how current conditions will impact future rainfall.

That is certainly what has happened with the El Niño prediction.  A generation ago when El Niño conditions were first examined, scientists looked at the warm water in the Pacific Ocean and the heavy rain that resulted the following winter and saw a cause and effect relationship.  Today, Croyle said there are many more tools available to measure those ocean conditions and how they impact the atmosphere.  Consequently, climatologists have looked at this year’s El Niño and noted that the atmospheric conditions are not occurring that would create the above average rainfall.

“It looks less and less likely that the El Niño is going to produce a lot of rain,” he said.  “At least not in Northern California where we need it.  Southern California may get wetter conditions.”

Croyle is quick to admit that while the forecasting and modeling tools are much better than they were years ago, it is still very difficult to predict with accuracy how much rain the state will get over the next six months.  California gets the vast majority of its rain and snowpack in the four-month period stretching from December through March.  Forecasting has gotten very good when you are talking about a week or two out.  Meteorologists can look out at the storms building in the Pacific Ocean and can fairly accurately gauge how much water those storms hold and what the local temperature will be when they hit.  That temperature is very important, as the colder it is, the better chance for snow, which he said is “California’s largest reservoir.”

But meteorologists can’t see what’s coming in December, January, February and March.  And Croyle said what we are really talking about “is just three or four storms.  That’s how we usually get our water for the year…three or four water events.”

When those storms hit, the amount of water they are carrying and the temperature at the time are both very important.  Croyle said in 2011, California got above normal rainfall and we had a long, cold winter.  That meant that the rain turned into snow and built a very good snowpack.  The long winter allowed the snow to melt over a longer time period which led to great utilization of that runoff.  A warm spring can lead to a faster melting of the snow and less efficient utilization of the runoff.

All this comes together to highlight just how difficult it is to predict how wet the winter will be or, even if it is wet, how much water our reservoirs will get.

And they need plenty.

Croyle said it would be great if the rainy season “would start off with a bang.  What we really need is a wet fall, winter and spring to replenish our reservoirs because we have so much catching up to do.”

Croyle said one very positive thing is that the state and federal water agencies have a collaborative approach in the works.  He said when a “water transfer” situation presents itself with a rain event, there are plans in place to help move the water where it is needed and can be utilized.  Better than maybe ever before, utilization of whatever rain comes will be at the highest level.

Kightlinger, general manager of the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, which services a good deal of Southern California’s water needs, is an expert on California’s water situation.  He said that from MWD’s perspective “normal precipitation” for this water year will still produce a dry year in terms of runoff.

Kightlinger said the ground is “bone dry” throughout the state, and the first rains will produce very little extra water for storage and later use.  “I know many water districts have already warned their customers that a normal rain year will still result in zero allocations.  We need a wet year with a lot of snow.”

He said weather forecasters are currently calling the 2014–15 water year “a classic coin-flip year.  It could go either way.  There is a weak El Niño, and some years that has produced a lot of water…but it might not.”

While there have been some so-called “Miracle Marchs” in the past, Kightlinger said by the end of February “we should have a very good idea where we stand.”

In any event, the Metropolitan Water District and Southern California — where the rain usually doesn’t come — appear to be in far better shape than Northern California because of long range planning by MWD.  After the 1989–92 drought, Kightlinger said MWD took a very aggressive approach to both water storage and water conservation.  It has added significant water storage in the past 20 years and devoted millions of dollars every year to conservation efforts.  “Over the past decade we have been preparing for this drought,” he said.

In its planning model, MWD forecasts drought periods of five to seven years, with the ability to have fairly normal water deliveries for up to five years.  But rather than waiting that long to start cutting back deliveries, the model calls for a gradual reduction in the third year.  Kightlinger said MWD expects about a 10 percent cutback this year.  “We have a couple of years (of water) left in storage,” he said.

He does say another couple of dry years will result in much greater cutbacks and more conservation efforts.  But in general, Southern California has done a better job in conservation than the northern half of the state.

In fact, there are many Northern California water users that don’t even have meters, including most of Sacramento.

Croyle said that is an issue and one that is being addressed.  Water meters are being installed at a faster pace in areas that do not have them.  While that is expensive, it is a proven water saver “and results in making those who use more water pay for it.”

Areas that do not have meters charge users on a flat-rate basis.  That system, of course, offers no personal incentives for water conservation.  Studies have shown that areas without water meters use far more water on a per capita basis than metered areas.  “We have to get metered up and we are moving in that direction, but it is controversial,” Croyle said.

Some people just don’t trust government or utilities knowing how much water they are using.  Croyle said some water districts did adopt mandatory conservation efforts, but the practice will be much more widespread if this proves to be another dry year.  As far as urban use of water is concerned, Croyle said about 70 percent of it is consumed through landscape irrigation.  That will be the first area of mandated reductions for most districts.  Lawns will die he said, but homeowners will be encouraged to water trees.

Kightlinger said more water storage and more conservation efforts are the only real solutions to long-term water needs.  He said desalination plants offer a small answer to the problem, but the cost of construction is very high and the output is not sufficient to solve the problem by itself.  He noted the northern San Diego plant in Carlsbad currently under construction will only yield 50,000 acre feet of water annually.  “We would need 30 more of them to solve our problems,” he said.

As a point of reference, an average household uses a half-acre foot of water per year.  So a 50,000 acre-foot desalination plant would provide 100,000 households with water.  Considering California is adding 30,000 to 50,000 new households annually, you would need a new plant to go on line almost every year to keep up with growth.

Kightlinger is much more bullish on the value of the water bond on the November ballot.  He said if the $2.7 billion in new storage funds can be leveraged to create a $10 billion kitty by accessing federal financing, “We (California) should be able to handle our needs for the next 30 years.”

Of course he believes more aggressive conservation efforts are necessary, especially as one looks at climate change and the impact it may have over the ensuing decades.  “We expect higher volatility.  Longer dry periods and wet periods that are very wet.  We are going to need large-scale storage and larger pipes to capture that water during those wetter periods.”

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