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Are Policy Makers Exacerbating Drought Scares? That's What It Looks Like in California

Like much of the West, the state has serious water issues, but Mother Nature is only partly to blame.
 
 
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Take shorter showers, wash only full loads of laundry, sweep instead of hose your driveway.

These are the messages that Californians are getting as part of the state's new "Save Our Water" campaign. Just weeks ago, 19 million Southern Californians were told they would be seeing mandatory restrictions, and at the same time, thousands of farmworkers marched to protest water cuts in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley in the central part of the state.

All this seems to fit with a February proclamation from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that California is facing a drought emergency that director of the Department of Water Resources Lester Snow compared at one point this winter to the worst drought in modern history of the state.

But not everyone is convinced about how dire the situation is and why. In a controversial story in the Stockton Record, columnist Michael Fitzgerald wrote, "California's 'drought' is overblown. The alarmists calling it a historic disaster are trying to pull a fast one."

Responding in kind, an op-ed from fisherman Dan Bacher began, "Lester Snow, the director of the state Department of Water Resources, tried to 'snow' the public by making false claims of a 'drought' scenario in California in an announcement on April 2."

So what gives? Are these guys fringe extremists, or is there any truth to their words?

According to the Department of Water Resources, the monthly readings for April showed that reservoirs were at 80 percent of their historic average. Statewide precipitation was also around 80 percent of average, and total runoff for the year is likely to be around 70 percent.

Critics, like Bacher and Fitzgerald contend that this doesn't hardly constitute an emergency. But DWR explains that the problem is compounded by this being the third dry year in a row for California.

"The last two years, we were riding around 70 percent of normal," for precipitation said Elissa Lynn of DWR.

Sounds bad, but not the makings for an emergency proclamation that are usually reserved for times of disaster -- like earthquakes, right? All this gets a little fuzzy because, according David Carle's seminal book, Introduction to Water in California, "No simple criteria define a drought."

But to give some context to the latest numbers, "The driest recorded water year spanned the winter of 1976 to 1977; statewide runoff was only 21 percent of average," wrote Carle. The most recent drought that Californians reference was from 1987 to 1992 when runoff was between 47 and 56 percent of average in different parts of the state.

So in light of these numbers, is there really reason to be concerned?

The answer is yes. But not for the exact reasons Snow or Schwarzenegger are announcing in their press releases. Regardless of how much precipitation the state got this year, the water situation in California is bad and will likely get worse.

But, Mother Nature is only one player. The real architects of the state -- the governor, various elected officials and big water users like wholesalers and agribusiness have a political agenda that many worry is being fast-tracked under the cover of a scary "drought emergency."

Just to be clear, Californians should be concerned about their water, but the amount of rain and snow received by California only tells part of the story of why the water situation should be ringing alarm bells.

How the water is managed and who is controlling its allocation is another factor.

But first, it helps to understand the complexity of the state's water system.