Gavin Newsom says end to California drought isn’t cut and dry. Why experts are still worried

·4 min read

After months of continuous rain and snow, many of California’s once bone-dry reservoirs are filled to the brim — and Gov. Gavin Newsom is lifting drought measures Friday as he signals a near end to the three-year plight.

California depleted its reservoirs during the drought and high temperatures only exacerbated the situation. After 12 atmospheric river storms in three months, more than half of California’s major reservoirs are at least 70% filled, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

“It would be nice to have a governor say that the drought is over,” Newsom said in a briefing beside flooded Yolo County wetlands. “But unfortunately, complication requires nuance.”

A major part of this equation: The state’s reservoirs and groundwater.

Reservoirs are designed to capture and store water in the wetter months to use during the dry season, said co-director Dr. Jay Lund with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Services. They’re also crucial in flood prevention.

“It means our bank account is back up to where it needs to be,” he said.

Water management officials aim to keep reservoir water levels high ahead of dry summer months but with more warm rain looming over a near-record snowpack, the only answer is to release water to an already drenched state.

“Right now we’re more concerned with floods than drought,” Lund said. “Six months ago, we were much more concerned with drought than floods.

“But we’d be fools to not be concerned with both at all times.”

Is California’s drought really over?

Newsom stopped short of declaring the drought over, because ultimately: It’s complicated.

The year started with a bang — historic rainfall and hazardous flooding. In recent weeks, extreme rain and snow helped ease the state out of its driest stretch on record.

The drought’s long-term effects, conversely, will linger for the foreseeable future.

The reservoirs are full, soil moisture has recovered, Southern California lifted its water restrictions to nearly 7 million residents and ecosystems are on track to be well watered.

Lund said “in many ways, the drought is over.”

“This drought is over, I should say.”

But dozens of wet days won’t cure the driest parts of the state.

The Western U.S. and northern Mexico endured the worst drought in centuries, according to a 2022 study published by Nature Climate Change. Scientists found the direst period in 1,200 years was between 2000 and 2020.

“Just because the drought is over does not mean we have no more water shortages,” Lund said.

During drier months, the state pumps more groundwater, found in aquifers below the earth’s surface.

If water is pumped faster than systems are recharged with rain, water levels drop and it can take decades to come up with a long-term fix. That means less agricultural water use as the state works to repay its groundwater overdraft from the last couple of droughts.

“This drought is going to have a longer tail to it,” Lund said Thursday.

Interstate resource manager Jeanine Jones with the California Department of Water Resources said whether or not the drought is over is dependent on where you are and the status of your agency’s water supply.

“That’s why we are still getting reports of people with dry residential wells even though it’s been very wet in much of the state,” she said.

The drought may be over for some but California’s water problems persist.

“We don’t want to overlook the importance of groundwater,” she said.

These basins provide 60% of the state’s water supply during dry years, according to the state, and they’re far from full recovery.

More water concerns as flooding persists

California used to conserve every drop of water it received — urging residents to take shorter showers, replace lawns with artificial turf and wash cars on scheduled water days.

Now, California has too much in some places.

“We will always have water problems, either too much or too little,” Lund said.

Communities across California are bracing for more flooding as another storm system is expected Monday and a near-record snowpack will melt as warmer weather arrives.

In central California, flood waters have washed out crops. In the community of Pajaro, a levee breach drenched strawberry fields.

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