El Niño in a Time of Historic Drought

With stories of El Niño rain making the headlines this winter, you may begin to wonder if the California drought is almost over. After all, heavy rains that cause flooding, close highways, and impact our outdoor activities must counteract the effects of drought, right? Well, there is more to the story.

The record drought in California over the past four years has set state water systems back much further than a single good rain season can solve, with long-lasting consequences for both people and nature. El Niño seasons come and go with each decade, but this drought is like none California has ever seen.

“While it is good news that drought improvement is predicted for California, one season of above-average rain and snow is unlikely to remove four years of drought,” says Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center in Newsweek in October 2015.

Native lifeways acknowledged the scarcity of water, and people moved with the seasons. Later on, life for the first homesteaders in the area was difficult due to poor soil conditions, lack of natural rainfall, extreme winds, heat, and cold. While many gave up and left, some stayed, and the desert communities eventually grew beyond their natural means. Humans developed systems to change the landscape, and our ways of using it, for our benefit.

Since the early 1950s, the local water table in Joshua Tree has dropped an average of one foot each year. This is caused by taking out more than goes in. Water conservation efforts are meant to reduce this “over-drafting” of our water table as we deal with less and less water replenishing the aquifer during drought. Recognizing this problem, the state of California has extended water conservation requirements even in the face of a potential small, immediate windfall of rain. California has a long way to go to recover from the drought and from the prior years of water use.

It is also important to remember that a lot of rain all at once—the kind of rain that El Niño can often produce—does not mean immediate replenishment of the aquifer. Hard-packed or water-saturated ground will cause falling rain to run off rather than soaking into the parched soil. The resulting flash floods impact our human infrastructure, but their water will not necessarily make it back into the aquifer, as it travels quickly along the path of least resistance and away from the region.

Deserts, by definition, get scant rainfall. Desert residents and visitors must adjust their lifestyles to accept that rain is rare, and yet be prepared for it when it does come, as every drop counts!

Tips for Saving Water

The National Park Service encourages you to do your part to conserve water while you visit Joshua Tree and the surrounding area. Here are a few simple things you can do to make a difference:

  • When dining out, only order water if you plan to drink it.
  • Reuse linens and towels during your stay as a guest.
  • Take short showers (3-5 minutes) instead of lingering under the spray or taking a bath.
  • Swamp coolers use lots of water. Please turn them off when you’re not in the room.
  • While visiting, if you see what you think is a water leak or a wet area where none should be, contact the local Water District.

Thank you for helping us protect our precious water resources.