Lake Folsom during drought

Trucks are parked along the water’s edge in the dry lakebed at Lake Folsom, a state reservoir. The water level is currently at about 48 percent of historical average. Anne Wernikoff / CalMatters

When James Brumder and his wife, Louise Gonzalez, moved into their home tucked up against the mountains northeast of Los Angeles, he applied all his know-how to the task of undoing the thirsty garden they inherited.

Brumder, who worked for a commercial landscaping company, pulled up their weedy, unkempt lawn in Altadena and replaced it with native grasses, filled in garden beds with species that could make a living off the region’s fickle rainfall, installed drip irrigation, set up rain barrels and banked soil to collect any errant drops of water. Whenever the backyard duck pond — a blue plastic kiddie pool — was cleaned, the water was fed to drought-adapted fruit trees.

It was 2013, a year before a statewide drought emergency was declared, but even then the water crisis was apparent to Brumder and most everyone in California: A great dry cycle had come again. Four years later, it receded when a torrent of winter rains came. The drought, finally, was declared over.

It’s said that you always fight the last war. So California — already in the clutches of another drought emergency — is looking over its shoulder at what happened last time, anticipating the worst and evaluating the strategies that worked and those that failed.

So is California in a better position to weather this drought? Some things are worse, some better: Groundwater is still being pumped with no statewide limits, siphoning up drinking water that rural communities rely on. In northern counties, residents are reliving the last disaster as water restrictions kick in again, but, in the south, enough water is stored to avoid them for now.

The good news is that in urban areas, most Californians haven’t lapsed back into their old water-wasting patterns. But, while some farmers have adopted water-saving technology, others are drilling deeper wells to suck out more water to plant new orchards.

The upshot is California isn’t ready — again.

“We are in worse shape than we were before the last drought, and we are going to be in even worse shape after this one,” said Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California at Davis.

The most acute problem, experts say, is the lack of controls on groundwater pumping.

“Despite increasingly occurring droughts, we could be doing much better than we are doing,” added Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank. “We manage finally to get some statewide rules about groundwater, but they are not going to be implemented for years.” As a result, he said, aquifers are still being over-pumped and land is sinking.

And an overarching question lingers: How will Californians cope as the world continues to warm and the dry spells become ever more common and more severe?

Then and now: How does it compare?

Three-fourths of California is already experiencing extreme drought, a designation that only hints at the trickle down of impacts on people, the environment and the economy. Nature’s orderly seasons are upended: As the winter so-called “wet season” ended, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in 41 counties.

This year’s drought is steadily approaching the peak severity of the last one, climate experts say. It’s a dangerous benchmark: 2012 through 2015 was the state’s driest consecutive four-year stretch since record-keeping began in 1896.

Drought is characterized by deficit — of rainfall, snow, runoff into rivers, storage in reservoirs and more. And all of these factors are in dire shape this year. Some are even worse than they were during the last drought.

Much of the state has received less than half of average rain and snowfall since October, with some areas seeing as little as a quarter. For most of Northern California, the past two years have been the second driest on record.

The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides about a third of California’s water, dwindled to 5 percent of average this month, equaling April 2015’s record-low percentage. That signals trouble for California’s reservoirs — even before the long, dry summer begins.

Already, the water stored in major reservoirs is far below normal as some rivers’ runoff has dipped below the last drought’s levels. Lake Oroville, which stores water delivered as far away as San Diego, has dropped to just under half of its historic average for this time of year.

“We’ve had dry springs before, but that is just astonishing,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles and The Nature Conservancy. “And we’re still a few months out from seeing the worst of things.”

CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization focused on public policy in the state. To read a longer version of this story, visit calmatters.org.

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