Brian Hamilton: Mixed messages on the drought | TheUnion.com

Brian Hamilton: Mixed messages on the drought

Heading back up the hill from the airport, the large digital billboard on Interstate 80 — usually warning us all to be ready to “chain up” due to unsettled weather — seemed like a mixed message from the state of California Sunday night.

“Severe drought … Limit outdoor watering,” the sign displayed.

It seemed liked solid advice, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether Caltrans hadn’t gotten the memo that statewide mandatory water restrictions had been lifted. Considering that news, the drought’s over. Right?

Wrong. Of course it’s not over.

Apparently buoyed by the El Niño system that offered relief this past winter by bringing the Sierra’s snow pack back to within 10 percent of average, the State Water Control Resources Board rolled back mandatory statewide restrictions, leaving cutbacks in the hands of local water districts.

Locally, that’s of course the Nevada Irrigation District, which in April reported its snowpack to be at 102 percent above normal. On June 17, NID announced the state had reduced the mandatory restrictions for its treated water users from 33 percent to 0 percent, but encouraged continued conservation from its customers.

“We still need to practice water conservation, prevent water waste, and think about keeping plenty of water in our reservoirs,” NID Water Operations Manager Chip Close said. “Conservation is still a very important tool in managing carryover water storage for future years.”

That’s certainly true and conservation efforts here in Nevada County were lauded by NID in meeting the state’s mandated cutbacks. But considering it was just two years ago that Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the drought, it seemed incredibly shortsighted for the state to roll back restrictions essentially based on one winter, following four consecutive years of drought.

After all, a recent study suggests that “even if the state receives above-average amounts of rain and snow for the next few years, the snowpack will not replenish to its pre-drought levels until 2019.”

And, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday, the Department of Water Resources projects only three-fourths of normal runoff from snowmelt, “shorting the rivers and reservoirs that typically provide a third of California’s water — and cementing a fifth year of historic drought for the Golden State.” On top of that, El Niño’s “other half” — a La Niña system — is predicted to soon follow, and bring less rain than normal to California. That could certainly set the stage for a sixth year of drought.

Even Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, told The New York Times, the state is “just one dry winter away from returning to where we were.”

Without mandatory restrictions in place, the burden rests on our shoulders to voluntarily do our part. And while my wife regularly reminds me to turn off water while brushing my teeth — and to shorten up my morning shower — I long ago left behind any thoughts of owning a lush lawn. Besides, I’ve come around to enjoy the fact that golden-brown grass requires just one good weed-whacking each summer.

Whether or not I’m fully doing my part to help conserve water in California’s severe drought, I cruised past Caltrans’ sign wondering if anyone else noticed the mixed messages being sent by the state.

Contact Editor Brian Hamilton at bhamilton@theunion.com or 530-477-4249y


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