Rain Is Coming, But California Drought Persists

Rain Is Coming, But California Drought Persists
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My uncle’s farm in the gentle rolling hills east of Sacramento vanished beneath a gigantic lake when Folsom Dam was built in 1955. I was sad when it happened, not anticipating that parts of the farm would periodically reappear above the water in the next six decades as California was afflicted by recurrent drought.

The farm made its latest appearance last month as Folsom Lake, which covers 10,000 surface acres and has 75 miles of shoreline when full, fell to 7 percent of capacity as the result of the state’s exceptional drought.

The heaviest rain in three years is forecast this weekend in California. It will be welcome in Folsom and almost everywhere else, especially in the parched Central Valley, where 700,000 acres lie fallow for lack of water. The valley produces 25 percent of the nation’s table food on 1 percent of its land; consumers in the East this year will pay higher prices for fruits and vegetables because of the drought.

The rain will also be welcome in Southern California, where less than four inches has fallen in Los Angeles since July. In the Santa Barbara area, where I live, the rainfall has been less than two inches. At our church last Sunday, prayers for rain took precedence over prayers for the deceased. One water district in the area has imposed mandatory cuts in water use of 30 percent, joining more than a score of other communities in the Golden State with similar restrictions.

In a drought proclamation last month, Gov. Jerry Brown asked all Californians to cut their water use by 20 percent. That may not be enough for cities lacking a ready water supply. California has some huge reservoirs, but they have been dropping for months. Shasta Lake is just 36 percent full and San Luis Reservoir, a significant agricultural supplier, is at 30 percent capacity. The state and federal governments have told urban water districts and farmers alike that they will not be providing them with water this year.

Rain began falling Wednesday in Northern California. If the weather forecasters are accurate, the storm is the prelude to a much larger one that will hit the entire state starting on Friday and last through the weekend. Some predictions say it will be the biggest storm in Southern California since 2011. But unless there are many more such storms, the rain will make only a minor dent in the drought, according to Mark Strudley, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service.

The rain may be sufficient, however, to end the public pilgrimage to Folsom Lake, which became a tourist attraction as water levels receded. Beginning in January, people flocked to the shores of the shrinking lake to witness the partial emergence of Mormon Island, a Gold Rush town.

Similar although slightly less extreme emergences occurred during droughts in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s. The difference now is that California has many more people: 38 million compared to 22 million in the 1970s. Farmland—at least until this year—has increased commeasurably. Conservationists and fishermen are alarmed by the decrease in the number of salmon and steelhead trout, as their spawning streams increasingly have been diverted to human use.

On the other hand, Californians are more water-conscious than they once were, in part because of the repeated experiences of droughts. Los Angeles, with a fifth more people now, uses less water than it did two decades ago. Low-flow showerheads and low-flush toilets are commonplace. In some communities it is a sign of civil responsibility to let the lawn become brown. Gov. Brown’s goal of a 20 percent reduction in water use should be easily attainable unless this weekend’s storm induces a false sense of security.

But it would take a great deal more rain for Californians to relax about the drought. Much of the state has a Mediterranean climate with rain falling mostly from December through February. Although the so-called “March miracle” rains of 1991 did significantly ease what was then a four-year drought, the month is often pretty dry.

With climate change looming, whatever human beings do to cope with drought may not make a long-term difference. “The heart of the West is a desert, unqualified and absolute,” wrote historian Walter Prescott Webb. Tree ring studies bear him out, showing ancient droughts much longer than the present one. A 16th century drought lasted several decades.

If that should ever happen again, my uncle’s farm would be out of Folsom Lake well before the drought ended. The lake itself would be long gone. 

Lou Cannon worked 26 years for The Washington Post and is the author of “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.”

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