Southern California Experiences la Niña-Related Dry Spell

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Barely any rain and it’s already mid-December? Malibu is experiencing drought conditions—but a drought it is not. That’s a key difference: a “drought” can actually only be declared by the Governor of California; his declaration releases key relief funding for several agencies. “Drought conditions,” on the other hand, is a classification that marks a series of factors that could lead to a drought down the line. 

Malibu and the rest of Southern California are seeing those conditions now. The National Weather Service said that the area had moved into “D0 – Abnormally Dry” conditions on  Thursday, Dec. 10, based on such factors as weekly rainfall data, information from agencies such as the National Drought Mitigation Center and reports from farmers having to irrigate pastures that would normally turn green simply from rain. With that announcement, Southern California joined much of the rest of the state in experiencing some degree of dryness, with the most severe conditions—”D3 – Extreme Drought”—being found in Northern California. Those Northern California areas suffered from a lack of precipitation last year in addition to this year, whereas Southern California’s last year saw “near normal to slightly above normal” rainfall, according to hydrologist Jayme Laber of the National Weather Service (NWS). 

Laber forecasts from the NWS’s Oxnard office, covering an area that stretches from San Luis Obispo down to the northern edge of Orange County. While he acknowledged that Malibu’s normal rain season is heaviest in January, February and March, he said the “slow start to the season,” which normally begins in October or November, edged Malibu and the rest of the greater LA area into the D0 category. That partially has to do with lack of snowpack in the Sierras, which filters down into reservoirs in Northern California, which in turn affects Southern California areas like Malibu that draw water from Northern California through the State Water Project. 

Malibu’s water is imported from Northern California and from the Colorado River via the Colorado River Aqueduct. About 45 percent of Southern California’s water supply comes from these two sources, a Water District 29 representative told The Malibu Times via email. The remaining water comes from various local sources.

Laber also said the dry conditions are a symptom of a natural phenomenon called La Niña, which has to do with cooler sea surface temperatures along the equator and trade winds. 

“At this current time, temperatures are slightly cooler than normal,” Laber said. “If they were warmer than normal, we’d be talking about El Niño,” which is La Niña’s better known counterpart. 

Scientists only started documenting La Niña events around 1950, Laber said, but based on that small data set, Southern California is “in a moderate, dipping into strong, La Niña.” 

But that was nothing to worry about, Laber said: “Drought or dryness tends to run in cycles. You get wet years, then dry years.”

Good news: Southern California’s “robust system of reservoirs” generally has enough water supply to handle one or two dry years, Laber said, adding that more than two years of dry conditions could- trigger a drought declaration.

As for Central and Northern California, Laber said that while those areas are experiencing “severe drought and extreme drought,” “it hasn’t gotten to the point where it’s impacted the water supply yet.” 

That means water rates will not be going up—at least not by much. “There will be a Pass-Through Rate increase of 3 percent going into effect January 1, 2021, which covers the increase in purchased water prices,” the water district representative wrote. 

This increase is minuscule in comparison to others in recent memory, such as when prices increased exponentially during the 2015 drought. Since that parched year, “there have been many lessons learned by our agency, as well as by the wholesale water companies from which District 29 purchases their water,” the representative wrote. “Since the last drought, there has been a lot of work to bank water locally, recycle water, and build a more resilient water supply for the varying weather conditions by both West Basin Municipal Water District and Metropolitan Water District, which sells water West Basin Municipal Water District.”

The district currently has a conservation plan at the ready which “identifies 10 levels for various drought conditions with varying charges,” meaning if a drought were to be declared, the steep rate hikes of 2015 would occur more gradually, if at all. 

But the water district reiterated Laber’s point that California remained pretty far from those crisis levels as of December 2020.

The City of Malibu also does not consider the dry conditions part of a drought. The city will continue to water Malibu Bluffs Park utilizing recycled wastewater from the Wastewater Treatment Plant and will continue to irrigate Legacy Park’s plants using a mix of reclaimed water and domestic water, according to an email sent by a city spokesperson to  The Malibu Times. 

But while officials said there was no immediate cause for concern, Malibuites would still do well to be conscious of their water usage. 

“Customers should adjust their sprinkler controllers to ensure they are not over-watering their lawns, check their homes and property to verify they do not have water leaks such as leaking or broken sprinklers, dripping faucets or leaking toilets,” the water district representative wrote. 

Now would also be a great time to take advantage of the slew of rebate programs available, which reward consumers for utilizing such things as “high efficiency clothes washers, weather based irrigation controllers and rotary sprinkler nozzles.” 


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