In the last several decades, California has become warmer and drier. The combination of warmer years and a hit-and-miss rain cycle has resulted in a much higher fire threat and introduced higher agricultural risk state-wide.
Historically, a lot has already been done to live in California’s wild weather environment. California has one of the most complicated and generally successful water management systems in the world, but now even that is strained to its limits.
We are all aware of the phrase, “when it rains, it pours.” But in California, when it stops raining for too long, it can become a problem quickly.
In California, the rainy season runs from October 1 to September 30. The idea of having the rain season start and end at these times is to be able to compare active rain seasons against each other, rather than having that designation at the first of the year which would always straddle two rain seasons.
Since October 1, 2020, San Luis Obispo has seen 8.44” of rain, more than ten inches short of average. In San Diego 4.51” has fallen but 9.58” is average, which is a shortfall of 5.07”. In Bakersfield 2.77” of rain has fallen this season when 6.31” is normal, a shortage of 3.54”.
Climate change is having a big impact in California. Just this year, new 30-year averages for temperature and rain were instituted to more accurately give perspective on recent climate and the result was warmer and drier.
There are also additional climate change numbers to consider.
Here are some key findings from a UCLA project looking at climate impacts on our rain seasons and events:
This research is backed by other research which shows since 1980 there has been more variability in rainy seasons. In other words, the dry years can be drier and the wet years very wet. Additionally, more of the water California uses comes as rain. The average of rain vs. snowpack was 73 percent since 1945 but in 2015 it was so warm that 92 percent of precipitation came in the form of rain.
“The trending is, especially over the last couple of decades, certainly an increase in the temperatures, so the fuels... it is definitely drying them out,” said Dr. Tim Brown, Research Professor and Director of the West Region Climate Center.
Dr. Brown was a presenter at the Operation Sierra Storm weather conference early this year in South Lake Tahoe. He delivered a presentation that accurately showed concerns about upcoming drought conditions in California and how it would impact wildfires and their behavior.
I asked Dr. Brown if conditions could even be worse than last year’s record-setting fire season.
“Yes, potentially it can. I have no way of predicting how much worse it can get but there is certainly no reason to think this would be the worst year we’ll ever see,” he said.
Many ask what can be done under the current circumstances. The general consensus is that getting the public to accept climate change is real is not enough. The problem is that most consensus stops there. Short-term solutions like water conservation can help but a majority of California water is used for agriculture, and it is a large part of California’s economic engine. Changing any part of that equation could have wide-ranging impacts but some say that part of the conversation needs to be on the table.
The golden era of building dams and reservoirs ended a long time ago. Building more to trap what rain we get has never been more complicated or expensive, but it has been discussed.
Currently, all of California is in a drought heading into the part of the year where rain becomes rare and the hottest days of summer are still likely ahead of us.