The West Coast Drought Situation

The West Coast Drought Situation

Feb 2nd 2023

2020 was a challenging year, so it was hard to keep track of the obstacles we all faced. That can leave some people wondering: Is California in a drought? 2021 should provide a definitive answer. That goes for the rest of the Pacific coast too.

In recent events, it looks like this is more than just a California drought. 2021 is likely to continue with a West Coast drought of historic proportions.

Oregon, Washington and California have had another dry winter and start to spring 2021. The fear of drought and the prospect of another scary fire season have caused residents of these states to take every measure they can to be prepared.

I guess you could say we are resigned to having another multi-year drought. This blog will help point out some of the water conservation measures all of us should take to be prepared.

As the saying goes, those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Develop a drought plan before you become desperate.

From Bad to Worse

The 2020 water situation was bleak. Water trucks were running nonstop. Ponds were being used down to the last drop unless they were being filled by a nearby river.

The largest local lakes near us in Northern California, Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma to the south of us, are only about one-third full. Most of their water is allocated for agriculture.


We are at the northern end of the wine appellation districts in California. Many of the vineyards depend upon the water flowing out of these lakes for irrigation.

The vineyards again are going to have a tough time keeping the grapes adequately watered. The newest and fastest-growing type of legal agriculture, cannabis, also requires a lot of water until harvest in the fall. Commercial and organic farming and fruit tree crops also need an adequate water supply.

A Precious Resource

The demand for our most precious resource, water, never stops. State and local agencies are working around the clock to enforce the regulations on the books to ensure that everyone and every business gets their fair share.

In other parts of the United States, farmers have always depended on regular weekly rainfall to keep their crops growing. Not so in the Western states.

Last year, 2020 was very dry. When the runoff is low in the first dry year, the following year tends to be lower still. Here in California, the depth of snow in the Sierra Mountain range can give us a good idea of what's in store for America's breadbasket, California's Central Valley.

The snowpack is often referred to as California's "frozen reservoir." As of April 1, the depth was only half the average, with most of the rainfall and snowfall behind us for the year. We are looking at lower water tables, wells running dry and more stringent water-saving measures becoming necessary.

Tree Thinning

Another major result of the recent drought years is the poor health of California's forests. When trees get inadequate rainfall year after year, they first start to shed leaves and needles. Then entire branches get weakened and die. Finally, entire mature trees that have taken many years to reach full size will succumb.

These standing dead trees present an extreme fire hazard. If you own acreage with conifer trees, you should thin the trees to a minimum of 10 feet apart. This requires a lot of hard physical labor, but it will help the remaining trees get an adequate amount of water from what rainfall there is. The ground underneath will still be shaded by the remaining trees' branches.

Defensible Space

In California, it is required by law to create a defensible space of 100 feet around your home. You should create a "lean, clean and green zone" by removing all flammable vegetation within the 30 feet immediately surrounding your home.

Clear out all small wood litter (dying branches, dead leaves and needles) and dead seasonal grasses by raking the ground away from these buildings down to bare earth. Large trees do not have to be removed if all the plants beneath them are taken out. Remove all lower branches at least six feet from the ground. If you're landscaping, use fire-resistant plants.

Yard Care

Stack woodpiles at least 30 feet from all structures and remove all vegetation within 10 feet of woodpiles. Remove or move all construction materials away from structures.

Contact your local fire department to see if debris burning is allowed in your area, what the regulations are and if you need a permit. Make sure there is a hose with an adequate water supply located nearby.

Emergency Water Supply

Maintain an emergency water supply that meets fire department standards regarding the following:

  • A community water/hydrant system
  • A cooperative emergency water storage tank with neighbors
  • If your water comes from a well, consider an emergency generator to operate the pump during a power failure.

Your Home Access, Design, Construction and Roof

All materials need to be researched and followed. See how to make your home safe at

Speaking about these recurrent droughts and the inability of conifer forests to regenerate after a fire sweeps through, that has me thinking 2021 would be a good year to visit some of our fragile national forests and parks. In the Southwestern portion of the U.S., the current thought is that up to 30% of forests are in danger of converting to shrubland. With rainfall not being what it used to be, smaller, slow-growing trees that have survived for centuries are dying because of drought or wildfire.

They are having a tough time coming back. Every time I visit my mountain property, I see large, beautiful oaks, pines and Douglas fir trees looking sick and dying.

There are the worrying effects of climate change in the Amazon, where the dry season has lengthened and logging is rampant, in Canada and Siberia, where higher temperatures are regularly occurring, and even in Europe, where the forests are strictly managed.

Closer to home, we hear the chilling reports of the death and dying of almost half of all trees in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountain range in the last 10 years. Those of us who have lived through California's driest four-year period (2014-2017) since records have been kept and have experienced the burning of many of our friends' homes and property caused by forest fires are aware of the danger.