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Officials say California is drought free — but water supply is still strained

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And I'm Ailsa Chang in Culver City, Calif., a state that, well, officially, is no longer experiencing drought. At least that's the determination of the U.S. Drought Monitor after a year of record-breaking storms here in California. But, you know, this isn't quite cause for celebration. Groundwater reserves, one of the state's most important sources of water, have been overdrawn for decades, and restoring those reserves is not a simple task. The state has struggled to curb their depletion. So what does this past year of precipitation mean for this state's water woes? Jeffrey Mount is a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California's Water Policy Center and joins us now. Welcome.

JEFFREY MOUNT: Hey - happy to be here.

CHANG: Well, I mainly want to know, Jeff - like, how meaningful is this so-called drought free status in California? - because, yeah, the Drought Monitor's report sounds like great news. But how long is this status going to last, do you think?

MOUNT: We don't know what this winter is going to bring us. We're hearing a lot about El Nino. But, you know, it's a 50-50 chance is the best way to describe it that we're really going to have a wet year. The predictive ability of El Nino has disappeared at 20-some years ago, so don't put too much stake in that. And so it could be wet, could be dry. And that's the way we think about it.

CHANG: And if it's dry, we'll just go back to extreme drought.

MOUNT: We did that. In 2019, we had a very wet year, and by 2020, we were in a drought emergency. So things change very quickly here in California. And I think too many Californians forget that.

CHANG: I just want you to tell us more about the U.S. Drought Monitor. Like, how exactly does it judge whether an area is experiencing drought conditions?

MOUNT: You know, I like to call it a map of art. And that is what it looks at is precipitation, soil moisture, looks a little bit at how much is in reserve in reservoirs. And then there is a person who actually draws the map based on professional judgment. So it's not like a computer prints these maps out. But this is the thing that I think people need to remember about that drought map - it's really telling you about conditions at an individual place, and it's conditions really at the surface. And as your introduction alluded to, in California, groundwater is extremely important. And we have been mismanaging groundwater for a hundred years. And so we have groundwater scarcity even in a year like this. We're seeing wells go dry even in a wet year like this. So it doesn't capture well the fact that we rely so heavily on groundwater.

CHANG: And about 85% of Californians, I hear, rely on groundwater for at least some of their water supply, right? We're talking a huge proportion of the state. Those reserves have been massively overdrawn for years. How much was the last year of rain and snow able to restore that? And does the Drought Monitor take that into account?

MOUNT: No, it does not. It can't. The Drought Monitor really tells you about conditions in the here and the now at the surface. It doesn't get groundwater. Yet groundwater is absolutely important for managing water scarcity in California. And I have to tell you, you know, everybody was really excited. We got a lot of water back in the ground this year. There was - I mean, first of all, there was tremendous amounts of flooding. But we got...

CHANG: Yeah.

MOUNT: We really did a great job of putting water back in the ground. It does not make up for the previous three dry years. So we're still in a net deficit of water when you look over the last four years because we had such a severe drought. So, you know, one good year doesn't solve the problem. It takes two things - a lot of good years and then really good groundwater management. And we've got neither of those right now.

CHANG: OK. So what I'm hearing from you is the bottom line is Californians, stay paranoid. Keep conserving water because even though we're drought-free right now, we could be seeing drought very soon again. So I guess I'm asking, what should listeners even do with this information, that right now the U.S. Drought Monitor says we're drought-free - just don't pay attention to that?

MOUNT: Well, no. Pay attention. We had a very good year. I mean, that's - we should celebrate that. But the fact is next year we may not have a very good year, and we cannot become complacent. It's that simple. We have to continue to conserve water and worry about it every year. We have to put away as much as we can during a wet year, and we've got to conserve what we can during a dry year. And it will always be that way.

CHANG: That is Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Thank you so much.

MOUNT: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
Tinbete Ermyas
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.