Parched California disappointed as El Nino fails to deliver rain

The NOAA has announced El Nino officially is over, Souther California had expected a Godzilla of an El Nino with lots of rain, but this year's edition brought little drought relief, and the upcoming dry La Nina will just make things worse

Little drought relief in California, Nevada, and upcoming dry La Nina will just make things worse

Las Vegas resident Buzz Blankenship, sitting on what once was the bottom of Lake Mead, has to keep moving his chair further and further towards the centre of the disappearing lake (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

This is why Buzz Blankenship worked all those long, lonely hours driving a rig: so he could retire early, and, a couple of times a week, set up his blue-and-white beach chair and his blue-and-white beach umbrella on the shore of Lake Mead. 

Except the shore shouldn't be anywhere near here. A couple of years ago, Blankenship's chair would have been on the bottom of the lake.

"We'd be in a hundred some feet of water right now," Blankenship says. "The shoreline's three-quarter of a mile down from where it was before."

Every year, the shore recedes. So every year, Blankenship has to move his chair closer to the middle of the lake. 

He expected this year would be different. A massive El Nino — possibly the biggest in generations — was supposed to bring much-needed drought relief to Southern California and Nevada. But on Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared El Nino was over. Blankenship is still waiting for the rain.

"There is no El Nino," Blankenship says, smiling. "They lied to us!"

Predictions of 'Godzilla' El Nino

NASA climatologist Bill Patzert is one of those "liars." In August, he said the region could expect a record El Nino that could mean "kayaking down the street in Los Angeles."
NASA climatologist Bill Patzert told the CBC in August that Southern California could expect the 'Godzilla' El Nino. Instead, he says, Washington, Oregon and other areas 'stole' all of southern California's rain. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"This is the Godzilla El Nino," Patzert told CBC News in 2015. "This potentially could be the El Nino of our generation."

"OK, I have to come clean here," Patzert says, standing on the same spot from which he made this prediction 10 months earlier. Patzert admits that the "Godzilla" turned out to be more of a gecko. While northern California did see more El Nino-related rainfall, southern California remained dry. From October 2015 to the beginning of June, downtown Los Angeles received about two centimetres less rain than last year. 

"What a disappointment all right; I almost had to go into the witness protection program," Patzert says, laughing. "But let's be fair here. If we look across the planet, the impact was immense."

So what happened to all that rain? In North America, much of it went north.

Rain went elsewhere

"As the storms moved across the Pacific aiming for the southern part of the United States, essentially a great high-pressure system built over the American Southwest and detoured all of those storms into northern California, Washington [and] Oregon," Patzert says. 

Those areas, he said, 'stole' much of the rain intended for Southern California and Nevada. El Nino did bring massive storms, he says. But to other regions, like Asia.

"More than 60 million people across the planet were impacted," Patzert says. "Economies of entire regions were depressed. But in Southern California the rain never showed."

That's pretty clear at Hoover Dam, the largest reservoir in the U.S.

Rose Davis, spokesperson for U.S. Bureau of Reclamations, says the lake is at its lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Rose Davis, a spokesperson with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation which oversees the distribution of water from Hoover Dam, points to the stone cliffs that ring Lake Mead. Stretching across them are several white lines that look like bathtub rings. Those are the high-water marks, achieved in the late 1990s.

Rings show high-water level

"This white ring is a real clear indication that the water levels dropping," Davis says. "We're heading towards real serious trouble. It hasn't been that low since the lake was filled in the '30s. So it's a great concern to all of us."
The white line indicates the high-water mark reached in the 1980s. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamations, Lake Mead is more than 40m lower now. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

That's because the lake supplies water to 30 million people in three states. 

"If Lake Mead continues to drop, it's possible we could declare a shortage on the river, which means that Nevada and Arizona would take cuts to their water allocation," Davis says. 

And it may cause yet another serious problem.

Hydro generation affected

Along the sides of Hoover Dam are massive intake towers that suck water into the turbines to generate electricity. Most of that electricity heads to California.

"With the water this low, it creates less pressure," Davis says. "And if there's less pressure to push the turbines, we're able to generate less electricity. Right now we've gone about halfway capacity because the lake is so low."

And it's going to drop lower. Next winter, experts predict a new weather pattern will hit: La Nina.

"El Nino's are often followed by what I call 'the cool sibling of El Nino,' known as La Nina," Patzert says. "The impacts are almost 180 degrees what we expect from El Nino. So in La Nina, for the American West and the American Southwest, it's usually what I call the diva of drought." 

Drought... on top of drought? Just when Blankenship thought things couldn't get much worse. He points to a series of buoys about 100 metres from the shore.

"The shoreline will be out to the buoys in two years because it just keeps going down that much," he says. 

The next El Nino could be as much as seven years away. Blankenship says he'll just keep praying for rain, as he keeps moving closer and closer to the middle of the lake.


  • An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Hoover Dam is the largest reservoir in the world. In fact, it is the largest reservoir in the U.S.
    Jun 13, 2016 12:55 PM ET

About the Author

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.