Ah, California: state of glistening swimming pools, gushing water fountains, and drenched backyard slip-n-slides.
Well, not so much, at least for the past five years.
Since 2012, the golden state has been stuck in a seemingly never-ending drought that some experts have said is the worst the state has seen in 1,200 years. For the past five years, dwindling reservoirs, shrinking lakes, and dried-up farm fields have dotted the terrain.
Images like this were a familiar sight:
But now, there are signs that California is emerging from its dry spell, Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, told Business Insider via email.
That’s great news for the state’s rivers and lakes — and for its reservoirs, those large artificial bodies of water that supply households and farms.
But surface water isn’t the only thing Californians depend on for their H2O. In other words, there’s good reason not to get too optimistic about the drought being over too soon, says Lund.
Californians also rely on groundwater, the stuff that accumulates naturally beneath the soil in deposits known as aquifers. Across the planet, most of our land areas have some form of aquifer beneath them. Some are super deep; others are rather shallow. But many of them are being depleted as cities and towns increasingly draw water from them for irrigation and industrial purposes.
Many of the state’s aquifers haven’t completely bounced back from the drought. Some of them, like the ones in the Central Valley, a region that’s critical for the state’s agricultural industry, “might never recover to pre-drought levels,” says Lund.
“Groundwater in the southern Central Valley might rise some, but will remain low, keeping some wells stranded and increasing pumping costs for years and perhaps decades,” says Lund.
And that’s not the end of the story. Many of California’s forests are still desiccated, and if the trends in warmer temperature remain constant, Lund says, “the ecology of many forests might shift to new normal conditions.” Fish, too, need years to come back from the drought. In many parts of the state, the populations of native fish have been decimated and their ecosystems have been severely altered by the drought.
Still, there are some reasons to be hopeful about California’s water-related future, says Lund.
For one thing, there has been a lot of rain, meaning that most of the state’s precipitation and snowpack levels are far above average, despite lingering in 2014 at their lowest level in history. Plus, most of California’s aquifers are actually doing ok, as opposed to some of those in the Central Valley that Lund says may never recover. So long as rain keeps coming, they will continue to be replenished, speeding up the recovery process throughout the state.
But most importantly, says Lund, is to keep in mind that California is a dry state.
“Some speak of drought as permanent for California,” says Lund. “But it is better to think of California being a dry place with permanent water shortages.”
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