Drought Watch

By Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Posted: 06/27/14, 12:49 PM PDT |

Not too long ago in this season of California’s massive and extended drought, climate experts saw a small glimmer of hope on the horizon: Predictions for a wet El Niño season coming in the winter that would bring badly needed rain and relief to a parched state.

Now that glimmer is fading fast and the drought has gotten even worse.

“Those are remarkable numbers,” said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist and the center’s monitoring program leader.

The drought monitoring team in Lincoln has never seen an exceptional drought since they started keeping detailed data in 1999. The D4 category — a forboding maroon color on a California drought map — extends from Sacramento and the Bay Area through the Central Valley, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Los Angeles County and counties south and east register a D3 for extreme drought, mostly because the region has more reservoirs filled to the brim to fight the drought, now in its third year, Svoboda said.

Predictions for a much-anticipated wet 2014-15 winter are waning.

“The El Niño had a very promising, dramatic surge in January, February and March, but now as we enter summer, all of a sudden it is disappearing,” climatologist Bill Patzert said, looking up from a dozen satellite images on his computer screen at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena. “The great wet hope is going to be the great wet disappointment.”

Patzert, who once was booed off the stage at an American Meteorological Society meeting in January 2007 for predicting an El Niño would fizzle, often goes against the scientific grain. However, that year, the El Niño, a warming of the ocean waters that often brings rain and sometimes flooding, had weakened as he said it would, resulting in the driest rain season in the history of Los Angeles, up to that time.

The movement from extreme to exceptional drought occurred this summer. A year ago, none of the state was in the exceptional or extreme drought categories, according to the drought mitigation center’s data.

How can California and the western states get worse? The categories count duration, which has lengthened, and demand, which spikes during the summer season, Svoboda said. The effects are becoming more noticeable too, as more farmland lies fallow and supermarkets are recording higher prices for beef and produce.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is relying on Metropolitan Water District for water supply almost exclusively this year. But with only 3.6 inches of total rainfall in 2013, the driest in 135 years, Metropolitan is banking against the future. It can only get 5 percent of its allocation from the State Water Project, i.e. water delivered via aqueduct from Northern California.

Metropolitan, which delivers water to 19 million Californians, is drawing down water from Southern California reservoirs, namely Pyramid Lake, Silverwood Lake and Diamond Valley Lake. Groundwater basins in the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena’s Raymond Basin, the enormous San Gabriel Basin and the Santa Ana River watershed in the Inland Empire are approaching record low levels, water managers say.

And Metropolitan and its 26 member agencies are pumping more water from the Colorado River via Lake Havasu into its system, a water source LADWP is also using to serve its customers.

The question is, how long can Southern California water agencies keep that up?

“You are just borrowing from the future,” Svoboda said. “It comes down to next winter. Can we get the snowpack and reservoirs back up? That system was built to buffer against a long-term drought. But that doesn’t mean it will withstand the longest drought.”

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