Firefighters battle the Bernardo Fire near San Diego in 2014. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

The U.S. national drought early-warning information system, called NIDIS, gave a rundown Thursday on when much of the Southwest will experience conditions that heighten the potential for wildfire.

Drought is one of the main drivers because less water means drier soils, drier plants and drier air, all conditions that fuel wildfire.

According to NIDIS projections, above-average wildfire potential creeps into the San Diego region (mostly along mountain ridges or high altitudes where winds are strong and fuel is plentiful) come September.

Map showing heightened wildfire potential for southern California come September 2022. / NIDIS-NOAA

That doesn’t mean wildfires haven’t already been too close for comfort this year, though. There were dozens of wildfires statewide so far in 2022, a handful of which were uncomfortably close in nearby Riverside County, according to CalFire. 

As of May 31, the San Diego area was in severe drought, the middle of the pack among the five stages of drought intensity defined by the U.S. Drought Monitor. And 2020 to 2022 marks the second driest two-year period in California since 1896. The thirst of the Southwest is mostly fed by snow gathering in high mountain ranges like the Colorado Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas, which melt and feed major rivers thereby filling up reservoirs built behind dams to keep water around longer. 

The problem is, due to climate change, rains and snows are falling at more unpredictable times and amounts. Temperatures are also more unpredictable, swinging drastically between more intense highs and lows. For instance, it was almost a normal year for the snowpack that feeds the upper Colorado River (San Diego’s main water source supply) due to a big snows and colder winter temperatures, said Dan McEvoy of the Desert Research Institute. But that melting snow didn’t help fill up the already low reservoirs on which Southwesterners depend.

“It’s the combination of the dry soils, the warm temperatures and the thirsty atmosphere that’s not allowing this precipitation to make it into the reservoirs as runoff,” McEvoy said. 

The San Diego County Water Authority, which manages the region’s water supplies, was quick to note that the national Drought Monitor doesn’t dictate what happens in San Diego.

It’s up to local water systems to instruct whether residents need to worry about water supplies, the Water Authority tweeted. The state of California, and San Diego for that matter, is suffering from hydrological drought — meaning dry soils, warm temperatures, thirsty atmosphere, all the things aforementioned by McEvoy. But the Water Authority has maintained since at least last June that its supplies are “drought proof.” 

While San Diego has drought-proof supplies on paper, its sources — namely the Colorado River — are not immune to hydrological drought. That river provides water to almost 40 million people in two countries, seven states and numerous tribes. But it’s suffered historically dry conditions since at least 2000. Around 82 percent of the Colorado River Basin is in severe drought

On paper, water is allocated from that river based on legal rights established almost 100 years ago. After the bad drought of the 1990s, San Diego secured some of the highest rights to that water via a contract with Imperial Valley, meaning it now has first dibs on river water over entire western states. 

“It’s going to take an even more severe drought to get into the cuts on the Colorado River that affect San Diego County,” said Kelley Gage, director of water resources at the Water Authority.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently asked local water suppliers to require conservation and as of May 24, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted emergency water conservation regulations that ban irrigating turf at commercial, industrial and institutional properties — basically watering landscaping is off limits. The board also required individual water agencies to level-up on plans for conserving water during droughts and shortages, like enforcing local water-use bans and investigating where water waste might be happening.

San Diegans will feel the effects of this differently, based on where they live and which of the region’s 24 water agencies serve them. Each have different plans for handling drought this severe.

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1 Comment

  1. Let’s just always lead with the fact that too many houses are in the wrong place. It is not Nature’s fault. There is NO natural source of ignition in San Diego during the dry season. We don’t have dry lighting. It is 100% human caused and the homes are the problem.

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