California should expect a ‘fourth dry year’ as drought persists

California’s reservoirs will enter the fall in a slightly better position than last year, but the Golden State should brace itself for more drought, extreme weather events and water quality threats in 2023, officials say.

The Department of Water Resources’ latest climate forecast update came on Wednesday, just days before the end of the water year, which runs from October 1 to September 30 in California. Officials said some of the state’s largest reservoirs, including Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta, are slightly fuller than at the same time last year but still remain well below average.

Water managers are now preparing for a “fourth dry year,” as well as more unpredictable weather and wildfires linked to climate change, DWR Deputy Director John Yarbrough said during a California Water Commission meeting.

“We have more storage in the reservoirs, but we’re still way below average, way below what we would like,” Yarbrough said. Also, “we have to prepare and expect to see things we haven’t seen before.”

Part of the challenge facing the state’s water managers is that climate change is making it harder to predict and prepare for water outcomes, Yarbrough said. During the 2022 water year, officials observed significant swings between extremely wet and extremely dry conditions, including a particularly rainy October through December, followed by the driest January through March on record.

Yarbrough said such variability underscores the need for conservative planning and aggressive multi-agency action.

“When we look at patterns like this, it challenges a lot of the way we do things, how we plan the system, and how we’re going to work over the next year,” he said.

The 2022 water year also saw warmer-than-normal temperatures and drier-than-normal conditions, he said, but both metrics improved slightly from the previous year. Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, is expected to end the water year with a storage capacity of 1.48 million acre-feet — up from 1.07 million acre-feet last year.

Nevertheless, Yarbrough emphasized that California is still stuck in a severe drought. Even with improved storage, Shasta is at about 34% of its capacity, according to The Times drought tracker.

It’s “better than last year, but not good enough,” he said.

Though California has experienced droughts in the past, Wednesday’s report came amid significant water cuts and worsening drought in what researchers have described as the driest 22-year period in at least 1,200 years.

In addition, the state’s other main water supply — the Colorado River — is also dangerously low, and federal officials are warning that another 150 feet of Lake Mead sinking could result in “dead pool” conditions, or the point at which the water falls below it the lowest intake valve at Hoover Dam.

The looming crisis has pressured California and other nearby states to figure out how to significantly reduce their reliance on the river, and officials said painful cuts are likely in the coming months.

But climate change isn’t just affecting water availability in California, it’s also affecting water quality, particularly in watersheds near wildfires, according to Andrew Schwarz, climate action coordinator at the State Water Project.

More than half of the Feather River Watershed — the largest in the Sierra Nevada — burned in wildfires between 2019 and 2021, Schwarz said. About a quarter of these burned at high intensity associated with significant tree mortality.

Such fire activity can have myriad impacts on the watershed, including altered soils and vegetation. Schwarz said black carbon deposits from ash and burnt trees can alter snow’s reflectivity to make it melt faster, while high heat can make soil waxy, more water-resistant and more prone to runoff. In addition, erosion and debris flows can leach sediment into rivers and other water sources.

“It’s an incredible change in the landscape of a watershed, as you can imagine,” he told the California Water Commission.

This confluence of hazards means the state’s water managers are increasingly considering wildfires in their climate resilience efforts, Schwarz said, including improving water safety plans for local residents and implementing new sensor data to help experts monitor changing hydrology.

“We’re likely going to have more fires in the watershed, and so we’ll be able to continue to adapt and get better information over time,” he said.

Commissioner Alexandre Makler said the reports underscored the need for continued maintenance and asset management of the state’s water project.

“It has to be in top shape – that’s absolutely critical,” he said, adding, “It’s clear there’s a significant capital component to addressing the risk and combining that with the planning process.”

California has invested in such work, with the 2022–2023 state budget allocating $1.2 billion in new funding to reduce wildfire risk through better forest management and $2.8 billion to support drought resilience and response, among others.

But the growing challenges mean there is still work to be done. Other water priorities for the coming year include maintaining the quality of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is the source of municipal drinking water for many communities, while continuing to meet minimum health and safety standards and protecting species and the environment, he said Yarbrough Commission.

It’s also important to conserve as much water as possible in the reservoirs, he said, “so that we’ll have water again if we face a fifth dry year.” California should expect a ‘fourth dry year’ as drought persists

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