Drought’s Over

Drought's Over

Jerry Brown: "Drought's over."

When the science team working on the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) invited me to give a media-communication perspective at a meeting back in the summer of 2006, I titled my talk “Maybe We Shouldn’t Call It `Drought'”.

The problem is that the word is used in so many different ways, meaning so many different things, that if not approached with care it can cause all kinds of trouble.

Kelly Redmond, from the Western Regional Climate Center (who, as it happens, was in the audience at my talk and made fun of my ill-fitting suit) wrote a great piece in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society back in 2002 taking on the problem of definition, and offering up a framework for thinking about the problem that has served me well:

Most concepts of drought involve a water balance. This implies that both supply and demand must be considered, as well as the question of whether there is “enough” (and, enough for what?). Thus, through time I have come to favor a simple definition; that is, insufficient water to meet needs.

There’s a second problem with the word “drought” that I think represents a more insidious problem: the fact that we don’t really have a word for the opposite of “drought.” Well, we do, I guess – “pluvial”? But when was the last time you saw that in a newspaper headline? The result is that when we’re on the dry side of the natural range of variability, we call it “drought” and go hunting for government bailouts. But when we’re on the wet side of the natural range of variability, we just treat it like it’s normal, getting all fat and happy.

Which brings me to today’s announcement by Jerry Brown that California’s drought is over. I love the language of the formal proclamation (all caps in original):

NOW, THEREFORE, I, EDMUND G. BROWN JR., Governor of the State of California, in accordance with the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the statutes of the State of California, do hereby PROCLAIM THE DROUGHT TO BE AT AN END.

I understand it’s very easy and a little cheap to make fun of a gubernatorial proclamation regarding such a natural phenomenon. I get that there are underlying legal and policy issues – that a formal legal declaration of “drought” triggers certain governmental actions, and that an anti-declaration is needed to unwind them.

But the turn-it-on, turn-it-off declaration issue really seems to me to highlight the underlying problem – it’s not that “droughts” are some unfathomable anomaly and now that it’s over we can all get back to normal. Consider this language in Brown’s statement:

“While this season’s storms have lifted us out of the drought, it’s critical that Californians continue to watch their water use,” Brown said. “Drought or no drought, demand for water in California always outstrips supply. Continued conservation is key.”

Whether we call it “drought” or not, the problem Redmond so gracefully highlighted – “insufficient water to meet needs” – has not gone away for Californians.



  1. Yesterday Governor Jerry Brown declared an end to the drought declaration by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. While it is good news, it is important to remember that this water won’t last forever. Currently the State’s reservoirs are at 85% capacity and pumps have been turned off because there is nowhere to store additional supplies. That means if California turns dry again next year, today’s abundance is lost. California is in need of more reservoirs for water storage. Almost 300 thousand acre-feet per day is being released to the Pacific Ocean, enough to serve the domestic needs of 1 to 2 million Californians for an entire year. This need for increased storage emphasizes the need for an improved conveyance system that will deliver the water to all water users in our state.

    This year’s abundant water supply gives us hope. New storage and improved conveyance will give us the assurance that adequate water should be available when the state faces another dry year in the future.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

  2. “But when we’re on the wet side of the natural range of variability, we just treat it like it’s normal, getting all fat and happy”

    As Tonto once said, “what do you mean, ‘we’, paleface?” There are lots of people working very hard to increase wet-year storage. How much new water has been stored in Kern County waterbanks, compared to 20 years ago? Multiple MAFs.

    The single biggest issue facing CA water is the inability to move surplus water across the Delta in wet years and store it south of the Delta. The existing system causes too much environmental harm. The principal alternative — the Peripheral Canal (or whatever name it has today) — interferes with existing land uses, has a very long construction time, is highly controversial due to the need to oversize it to capture maximum surplus flows, and is subject to saltwater intrusion due to sea level rise. The Cross-Delta Pipeline solves some of these problems but has an even higher construction cost.

    It is, at the end of the day, a governance issue. Can southern Californians make sufficient commitments to northern Californians that we’ll only take truly surplus water, so as to get the northern Californians to trust us? It seems that very slow progress is being made in that direction.

  3. Of course you are right Francis. I think that, in general, water managers, trying to cope with the supply side of the equation, get this. That’s why, for example, we have Mead and Powell. But on the demand side, I don’t think we’ve come to terms. “Drought” focuses the mind on the demand side, but once we’re on the wet side of the natural range of variability, we comfortably expand our agricultural and M&I uses in ways that are not sustainable when we swing back to the dry side.

    See, for example, Atlanta.

  4. JF: I mostly agree. Ask any water manager and they see their role as supplying water on demand. The land use decisions, like whether growth should occur at all, they believe belong with planning commissions, city councils, county boards and lafcos.

    Now, whether public officials are doing a good job of integrating supply side limitations into the decision whether to increase long-term demand is another question altogether. There’s some evidence that the Keuhl amendments to CEQA are actually having some bite and are forcing that analysis.

    But no one wants to hear that SoCal is grown out. No new development without reducing current demand for water by an equal amount (ie, no net increase)? Horrors.

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