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If California no longer has a drought, what does that mean?

Published April 19, 2011 on Oakland North

If you go to the California Department of Water Resources’ drought Web page, you’ll only find this message: “The DWR Drought Web site has been shutdown due to no longer being in an official drought.”

Water supply has always been a tough issue in California and residents have long been warned to conserve. Three years ago, in 2008, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared California to officially be in a drought and in February 2009, after three years of low water levels, he announced a state of emergency.

But this year has seen some of the heaviest precipitation since 1970, according to the Department of Water Resources. Over 60 feet of snow fell in the Sierra Nevada, and the department’s officials reported that snowpack there had reached 165 percent of its normal level.

With abundant rainfall on the coasts and overflowing reservoirs, on March 30 Governor Jerry Brown announced that California’s drought was over. And with more snow and rain forecast for this month, 2011 might break the state’s yearly precipitation records.

“We are facing a good water supply here,” says Ted Thomas, public information officer for the Department of Water Resources. “The major reservoirs are above average in storage and rainfall is above normal. All the indicators that we are out of the drought are pointing in that direction.”

But what does that mean for your average water user? Should people still try to conserve or can showers now be guilt-free and everlasting? State and county water officials say it’s okay to use more water now—but within reason—because it’s likely that dry years will return.

In Alameda County, the East Bay Municipal Utility District has water storage systems that hold 600,000 acre-feet of water. During the drought, its water supply dropped by a third—to 450,000 acre-feet. After launching a water conservation advertising campaign with the goal of getting people to cut back on 15 percent of water use, EBMUD was able to recover much of that water, getting its storage levels back up to 500,000 acre-feet, which is considered to be above drought level.

Now, with the additional winter precipitation, EBMUD’s reservoirs are spilling over. “We have 1.4 million customers and you can shower as long as you want,” says Charles Hardy, spokesperson for EBMUD. “We have plenty of water.”

In fact, he says, what helped was that the county’s conservation measures kicked in well before the drought was officially announced. “Most of Northern California has been out of a drought for some time,” says Hardy. “When Schwarzenegger declared the drought, he announced a 20 percent conservation goal for the state and we had already succeeded that.”

However, he cautions, Alameda County’s water storage systems only hold enough water for two years. “Even though we’re spilling over now, if we have a dry winter next year, and another dry winter the year after that—we could be back where we were in drought status,” Hardy says.

Juliet Christian-Smith, a senior research associate for the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based non-profit that works on environmental, economic and social issues, advises against limitless water usage. “California is a Mediterranean climate, which means we have highly uncertain weather patterns,” she says. “Basically we live in a climate of uncertainty and that’s only being exacerbated by climate change.”

Precipitation this year doesn’t say anything about what will happen in the long-term, she explains. Citing droughts in the 1970s, late 80s and this recent 3-year drought, Christian-Smith says California’s weather is based on extremes—one year of intense precipitation doesn’t change the geographical climate. “I’m not sure how helpful it is to say we are in a drought or not in a drought,” she says. “This is just our climate.”

Also, Christian-Smith says, water usage is a huge consumer or energy and infrastructure because it costs money to move, heat and purify water. “Nineteen percent of the state’s energy is consumed by the state water project,” she says.

The Department of Water Resources advises to continue practicing water conservation. “We counsel people in California to make conservation a life-long habit,” says Thomas. “Next year we could be sliding toward another drought period—you never know.”

Hardy explains that ever since Alameda County came out of the drought, demand for water has been lower. He believes that people have kept the habits they formed during the drought. Before the drought, EBMUD budgeted 190 million gallons of water usage a day to be used throughout the entire county and now it’s closer to 155 million.

“Definitely now is the time you can take care of the flowers and the lawn,” says Hardy. “But you should still use water wisely because we don’t control the tap.”

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