Welcome to 2014!  Cold weather is getting lots of press right now, what with the “polar vortex” that clobbered California farms a month ago now battering the Midwest and East Coast.  But the same movement of the jetstream responsible for the cold is keeping the rain away from our state.

Extreme cold can be terribly destructive, it’s true, but it rarely lasts for very long.  Drought, on the other hand, is by definition a sustained, long-term phenomena that has lasting repercussions on society and nature.  The longer a dry spell lasts, the longer it takes to get back to normal.

The answer to the question “How dry is it?” in California right now depends on who you talk to.  Meteorologists tell us that 2013 was the driest calendar year on record. But for the officials who control most of our water supply, the “year” starts and ends on October 1st.  The “water year” that ended 10/1/13 was actually just a little shy of normal due to a wet fall in 2012.  And with several months of winter remaining, they say, it’s not time to panic.  Most of the water stored in our states reservoirs comes from a handful of very wet storms.

Still, we are locked in a very dry weather pattern that is actually self-reinforcing, literally a natural forcefield deflecting incoming storms or breaks them into pieces.  Without clouds and rain, water in reservoirs evaporates and soil gets drier and drier, exacerbated by temperatures as much as twenty degrees above normal. Clear winter nights equal frosty mornings, which pull additional moisture out of the ground.  The soil here at Terra Firma has taken on a strange chalky texture that I have only seen in deserts.

Statistics give reason for hope as well as concern. The longer it stays dry, the higher the chances that storms will come.  In nine out of the ten previous years when November and December were as dry as this one, late winter ended up being much wetter.  However, all of those years still ended up significantly drier than normal overall.  Many of the reservoirs in the state are so low that they are unlikely to be replenished completely in a single season.

In the thirty years since the last major California drought, our population has grown exponentially while our water supply has not.  Water conservation has increased efficiency, but much of that saved water is used to keep river levels higher for fish conservation. The state Department of Water Resources says that we need 9 million acre feet of new storage to be water-sustainable — something like 6 new reservoirs.  If you factor in climate change, that number is even higher.  How many of those reservoirs are under construction?  Zero.

Our state government has thrown a tremendous amount of money into making our energy system more renewable and less carbon-intensive.  Water is a much more serious limiting factor for us, and we need a statewide effort to become water-sustainable.