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Drought Update for California Decision Makers: CAP and CCCC

California's arid ecosystem requires tight water conservation during normal arid conditions -- and extreme conservation during droughts. 2008 has been declared a statewide drought emergency!

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Governor Schwarzenegger Proclaims Drought for California 2008

The percent of normal precipitation for the last two years (June 2006-May 2008) shows much of California at less than 60% of normal. Following two straight years of below-average rainfall, very low snowmelt runoff and the largest court-ordered water transfer restrictions in state history, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on June 4 proclaimed a statewide drought and issued an Executive Order, which takes immediate action to address a dire situation where numerous California communities are being forced to mandate water conservation or rationing.

The lack of water has created other problems, such as extreme fire danger due to dry conditions, economic harm to urban and rural communities, loss of crops and the potential to degrade water quality in some regions.

Californa Drought: An Update -- 2008

California wildfires June 2008 Visitors from wetter climates often comment that the West is "always in a drought." Arid ecosystems make that observation relative.

During “real” Western droughts, broad areas of the West are subjected to drier conditions than normal, imposing—at least temporarily—arid climatic conditions on many semiarid and even humid areas. In response to these climatic conditions, the hydrologic balances between waters that run off and those that evaporate back into the atmosphere are transformed temporarily in ways that color the entire region’s water supplies and vegetation.

The West is relatively well-adapted to aridity. However during real droughts broad areas that are normally semi-arid or humid are subject to drier conditions. During droughts, the balance between waters that run off and those that evaporate back into the atmosphere are transformed temporarily. These changes color the entire region's water supplies and vegetation.

Actual evapotranspiration (AET) is the combined flux of water to the atmosphere from soil surfaces and plants by evaporation and through plants by transpiration. AET depends on the availability of both water and energy. “Green water” is a name given to AET

Potential evapotranspiration (PET) is the atmospheric demand of water from the soil and free water surfaces, and represents the amount of evapotranspiration that would occur if water were not a limiting factor. “Blue water” the name given to the remaining fraction of water that is not consumed by evapotranspiration (P-AET). Blue water is thus the water that runs off into streams or recharges into aquifers.

Drought shifts the flow of water from blue to green. In most cases, drought reduces the overall availability of water for evapotranspiration in a region, lowering efficiency and total Actual evapotranspiration (AET).

Distribution of Blue and Green Water in the West

The California Drought of 2002

During drought years like 2002, the blue water fractions of the water budgets of the river basins decline, except for the Lower Colorado River basin.

The water budget of the Lower Colorado is so arid in the long term that a drought year does not much change the overall (fractional) partitioning between blue and green water yields.

The water budget of the Upper Colorado also varies only moderately from the long-term pattern in drought years like 2002.

Elsewhere, the drought year 2002 resulted in reductions of the blue-water fractions of about one-third of the long-term blue-water components. Shifts towards smaller fractions of blue water reflect the tendency for runoff and recharge to decline even more in a drought year than does precipitation.

Green water is the water that evapotranspires (prior to any routing to other areas) and amounts to the remainder of the precipitation after blue water has been subtracted. The largest sources of blue water in the West are the high-altitude or high-latitude zones of energy-limited AET, so the basins with the largest and wettest energy-limited areas yield the largest fractions of blue water.

Blue water is also a higher fraction of the supply of water from precipitation in coastal watersheds along the west coast than in the basins of the interior West.

Shifts in the mean aridity of the west, associated with climate change, even if small compared to the historical year-to-year variations, will be superimposed onto those kinds of variations. That superposition is likely to yield new extremes, both in the areas subjected to unusual aridity and in the severity of drought episodes, so that future drought extremes may be particularly challenging.


The 2008 Climate Action Team Report work is in progress and a sneak peak at some preliminary results is offered here.

Our Changing Climate: Assessing the Risks to California (PDF)

The California Applications Program (CAP) and the California Climate Change Center (CCCC) aim to develop and provide better climate information and forecasts for decision makers in California and the surrounding region. California Applications Program (CAP) and The California Climate Change Center (CCCC).

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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