The Never-ending Drought

The green hills and flooded driveways aside, it's been a dry-ish winter. According to the state Department of Water Resources, instead of a drought-quenching torrent, El Niño has delivered to San Francisco only 90 percent of the rainfall seen in a “normal” year as of Monday.

Meanwhile, snowpack in the Sierras is just barely above average for this time of year. This means that not only is the drought not over — most of California is still officially in a state of “exceptional drought,” according to the official U.S. Drought Monitor — it may just be beginning.

The four-year drought has left the state with a two-year water deficit, according to UC Berkeley professor B. Lynn Ingram, a geologist who specializes in paleoclimatology. That means the state needs another El Niño just like this one in order to refill reservoirs and replenish groundwater — yet some scientists think next year will bring a dry La Niña instead, leading Ingram to deliver a dire pronouncement.

“It's not likely we'll come out of this drought,” she told university press organ Berkeley News last week.

Optimists will point out the wettest weather the “worst” of El Niño will deliver is yet to come. The 1997-98 El Niño was strongest in January through March, and Ingram believes precipitation will be at “170 percent of normal” for the year thanks to those months.

Nonetheless, that won't come close to replenishing the groundwater drained during the last four years. Instead, in part due to increasing evaporation thanks to climate change, California is likely entering a period of extended dry, Ingram said. Better save some of that driveway runoff for later.

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