On Tuesday night, the rain started to fall and Gov. Gavin Newsom did something curious: He declared a state of emergency for drought and gave the regulators permission to put in place mandatory water restrictions throughout the state if they wish.
Newsom's order may seem odd, considering that forecasters are predicting up to 7 inches (18 cm) of rain could fall in some areas of the Northern California Mountains and Central Valley this week. Experts say that it is sensible to consider drought as a result of climate change, and not weather.
California's water supply has been dependent on snow and rain in winter for decades. This water is used to replenish the state's main rivers and streams, which then feed massive lakes that store water for farming, drinking and energy production. The annual runoff from mountains is decreasing, mainly because it's becoming hotter and dryer, and not because it rains less.
California's Sierra Nevada snowpack was 60% lower than its historical average in spring 2015. However, the amount of water that reached the reservoirs was almost the same as 2015, when it was only 5%. Nearly all the water that the state officials expected to receive this year evaporated or was absorbed by the drier soil.
Justin Mankin, a Dartmouth College geography professor and co-lead for the Drought Task Force at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that you don't get into this kind of drought by... missing a few thunderstorms. Warm atmosphere evaporates more water off the land surface and reduces water availability for other uses like hydropower, people, and crop growing.
California's "wateryear" runs from October 1 through Sept 30. The 2021 wateryear, which just ended in, was the second-driest ever recorded. The previous one was the fifth driest. Record low levels are being recorded at some of the state's most valuable reservoirs. Lake Mendocino is in such dire straits that officials from the state fear it will be dry next summer.
Jeanine Jones, interstate resource manager at the California Department of Water Resources said that people shouldn't think of drought as something that happens occasionally and then it turns back into a wetter system.
She stated that "We are transitioning to a dryer system so, you can know, dry becomes our new normal." Drought is not a temporary feature. Droughts can take time to develop and often linger for a long time."
Water regulators have already enjoined farmers and large users to stop using water from the state's major rivers, streams, and lakes. Water restrictions could become mandatory for regular citizens.
Newsom asked people in July to reduce their water consumption by 15%. People cut down 3.5% in July and August. On Tuesday, Newsom issued an executive directive allowing state regulators to impose certain restrictions. This included a ban on washing cars, using water for sidewalks and driveways, and the prohibition of filling decorative fountains.
Officials from the state have warned water agencies that they may not be able to get water from the state's reservoirs this coming year. At least, not initially. This will prove very difficult, according to Dave Eggerton, executive director of Association of California Water Agencies.
He said that he believes Californians can start conserving water more quickly with help from a statewide conservation program, which will include messages placed on electronic signs along busy highways.
He said, "It's going be happen." "People are beginning to understand the message and want to do their bit."