The welcome rain this week saw about 14.5 inches of precipitation fall on the San Barnardino Mountains, but the drought status remains unchanged as 55 percent of California is still considered in the most extreme category. Up to 99.7 percent of the state still lies within moderate to severe drought status.
The past two months have seen several back-to-back storms with this week’s downpour among the heaviest some areas have seen in years. Predictions for a severe El Nino winter fell off earlier this year as Pacific Ocean waters failed to warm up as much as climatologists were hoping. Officials at the U.S. Drought Monitor have formed a consensus, however, that this may still be a wet winter but not at the 150 percent level that would be needed to end the drought. The state would need a storm like we had this week to occur every three to five days through the spring to certify that that the drought is over.
Michael Anderson, a climatologist with the California Department of Water Resources, said this week that “we have a chance” to get back on track in terms of water, if weather like this week keeps up. As much as eight inches of rain fell in some parts of the state, but “we will need a lot of precipitation that heads to the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevadas to ensure snowpack deep enough to get us through next summer and not remain in drought conditions,” Anderson explained.
Another scientist, Brian Fuchs at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska, echoed Anderson’s view that California will need a regular series of storms through the spring to fully declare an end to the drought. “One event isn’t going to take away three years of drought,” Fuchs said.
On Capitol Hill, a new water bill is scheduled to hit the House floor early next week. The legislation, introduced by Rep. David Valadao of the 21st Congressional District (Central Valley) and supported by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, will likely be approved by the GOP-led chamber. It will encourage planning (not construction) of new dams and help to boost irrigation deliveries to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in hopes of capturing more storm runoff for human use. If signed into law, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act will not repeal the current San Joaquin River restoration plan, and the law will be rescinded as soon as the drought is over. This is presumably the last opportunity for a water bill during the remaining days of the 113th Congress.
The real test of this bill will come in the Senate, where senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein hold considerable sway in terms of any legislation meant for California. Boxer said in November that she wanted a California water bill to move next near through the standard committee hearing process; Feinstein said she intends to utilize the “regular order” that has been at least partially bypassed during months of closed-door negotiations regarding how best to address the state’s dwindling supply of fresh water.
McCarthy this week blamed some of the drought’s consequences on “years of inaction by Senate Democrats” as well as on “ill-conceived policies” out of Sacramento. House democrats, in turn, have placed blame for the inaction on drought relief republicans: “It’s nothing more than a water grab,” said Rep. Doris Matsui of the Sixth Congressional District (Sacramento).