Drought 101 : Understanding Our Climate

“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”   —Joan Didion

Thank you for joining Saturate.

We wanted to begin our exploration by gathering some context. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll be presenting you with Drought 101, a breakdown of everything you need to know about our water landscape.


Welcome to California, You’ll Love the Weather.

The climate west of the Sierras can be perplexing to non-native Californians, and few of us can truly call ourselves natives. Even if you were born here, chances are you imported a perception of climate norms developed by the greeting card aisle of Walgreens.

Out here, our climate has its own unique rhythms. We can only adapt to life out west if we begin to live in step with our ecosystem—so let’s understand it. Get ready to have way more interesting conversations about the weather.

It’s a Mediterranean Climate!

Most of California’s population enjoys what the Koppen Classification System calls a “Mediterranean Climate.” This includes your friends in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, and basically everywhere west of the Sierras. This zone is typically understood as having two distinct seasons: dry, warm summers, and a wetter winter. However, despite a defined wet season, statistically, at least a drop or two of rain falls in coastal California every month of the year. Temperatures vary, but typically aren’t drastically different from winter to summer. And everyone that lives here knows it can be cool and foggy on the 4th of July and hot as hell on Halloween.

Add to that a ton of micro-climates along the coast, and you get a complex climatic zone.

None of this is weird or abnormal—it’s just different. And holiday calendar be damned, the extreme cycles of our climate last much longer than 365 days.

It Can be Pretty Extreme.

For those of you who haven’t lived in California for more than 5 years, listen up!

First, it is important to note that in a Mediterranean climate there are nearly as many dry years as there are wet.

The last 4 rainy seasons have been extremely dry, and that’s an understatement. So when you hear Los Angeles transplants say things like, “It LITERALLY never rains in LA!”, it’s best you respond by asking them when they moved here, and if they remember getting drenched in 1997-1998, soaked in 2004-2005, and flooded in 2010-2011. They most likely won’t.

Let's look at Los Angeles as an example. The average rainfall in the LA area varies, but typically ranges from 15-20 inches depending on your microclimate (remember, we have a lot of them in California, even within the same county). Some communities of the nearby San Gabriel mountains can receive 4 feet of rain in one year! That’s a decent amount of rain, considering Las Vegas typically receives less that 4 inches per year and Lima, Peru quite literally gets ZERO. However, all of those numbers are average rainfall, which is aggregated over 100 years of seasonal weather data. So, digging into it a bit more will really help us understand drought. In 2006 it only rained 3.21” in LA, yikes! And, the last four years have yielded well below average. It may seem like it rained a bit this winter, but it was still pretty weak in comparison to the average.

And it’s also been wet before too, very wet! Since around 1900, many years have yielded well above 25 inches of rain, with some winters dumping close to 40 (more than NY and Chicago usually get). Remember 2010? Now that is serious water!

So that’s a small sigh of relief. But, there’s still a little something called climate change.

What About Climate Change?

Yes, it’s real. Though nobody really (fully?) knows exactly how it will specifically impact our ecosystem moving forward. And it doesn’t completely render our past climate trends obsolete. Most climatologists agree that due to climate change, California and the American West can expect significantly less snow, and what snow does fall, will fall at higher elevations.

While we can’t assume that wet years will be plentiful, we can expect more rain at some point. And we want to think constructively about the wet years.

Bottom line, we cannot count on the snow to keep our sinks running, which is the foundation of our current water system. It’s time to quickly move into the 21st century and adapt to capture more rainfall.

Long Story Short…

So, to review, here are the take-aways: 

  1. We live in a Mediterranean, semi-arid climate in California. 

  2. Many years are very wet and many are very dry. 

  3. We rely on snowfall, but climate change means less snow for California and the West, so it’s time to adapt.

How Can We Live More In Step with our Ecosystem?

Now that we’ve accepted our California climate, we want to understand how to the most of the water that falls. In our next installment we’re going to showcase Los Angeles’ miracle of a storm drainage system that allows over 10 million people to live with little fear of flooding (aka The Los Angeles River). Many of you complain that you don’t want LA to turn into the dry-scape of decorative gravel, twiggy trees and cactus of Las Vegas (no offense Vegas). We get it, it’s nice to have a little green, and we can have plenty of it with what rain we get. We just can’t let it all flush to the ocean 30 minutes after every downpour. Until next week, here’s to our water!


Why Does California Let Billions of Gallons of Fresh Water Flow Straight into the Ocean?

“The biggest misconception is that it doesn’t rain in California. The fact is, it does rain, even in Los Angeles and southern California. But we throw away most of that water because rather than collect it, we let it drain into the sea.” —Andy Lipkis, TreePeople

Wedge of Warm Seawater Known as 'The Blob' Blamed for Marine Havoc

“I think we may be shifting from a cool, dry phase to a warm, wet phase, which is usually the drought-buster.”
—William Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.