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Is California entering a megadrought? Water experts weigh in

Despite the rain and snow to close out 2021, California could be entering a third drought year in a row, according to UC Davis.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Despite the rain and snow that closed out 2021, California could be entering a third drought year as weeks of dry winter weather open the new year.

The state has experienced drought in 15 of the last 20 years, according to UC Davis. Experts say California is in the grip of a "megadrought." 

"It looks like, with a warming climate and climate change, it’s going to become more like this," said Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.

Lund said there is still academic debate around whether the state has actually entered a "megadrought," or periods of drought lasting decades or even centuries. 

But there is widespread agreement that the higher temperatures in the state due to climate change are making smaller droughts bigger. 

"There is not a big change in total average precipitation in California, but what we have seen is that it comes more as rain than as snow," Lund said. "And so, we have less runoff in the spring, and also, the higher temperatures cause more of that precipitation to evaporate away before it can become streamflow or reach large aquifers."

Water resource experts say Californians should think in terms of adapting to climate change. Dry forests lengthen fire season, which makes more fires and larger fires more common. 

The drought also impacts one of California's major economic engines, agriculture. 

"I think particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, there’s going to be probably half a million to a million acres of irrigated lands that have to become fallow," Lund said. 

But despite the debate over the term, "megadrought," water conservation practices remain key. 

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