Why Southern California has largely been spared by the state’s worst drought conditions

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If the drought is so bad, why aren’t we feeling it in LA so far? Photo by Shutterstock.

Los Angeles received less than half its average rainfall last year, most of the state is in a drought emergency, and Governor Gavin Newsom has asked all residents to reduce their water usage by 15%. But a stroll through any well-watered neighborhood in Southern California would suggest otherwise.

“I don't think there's quite the urgency, and we haven't had our politicians step up this time, [and] the voice of the drought hasn't been amplified as much at this point,” says Nick Setyal, who lives in South LA’s Windsor Hills neighborhood. His dry and brittle brown yard stands out among his nearby houses with neon green lawns. 

“If you walk around the neighborhood … people have a lot of pride in their lawns and how their homes appear,” he says. “I'm choosing just to let it go a little bit brown. I'm just watering once a week and making sure the grass is cut.”


Nick Setyal’s brown lawn stands out on his street. He’s watering it once a week to cut down on his water use. Photo by Caleigh Wells

Remember the last drought from 2011 to 2019? Several years in, California required mandatory water cuts of 25%. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens ripped up half their lawn. An oil change didn’t necessarily come with a complimentary car wash anymore. We were told to run only full laundry loads, or try out a “military shower,” which is when you turn off the water while you soap up. Whole neighborhoods and golf courses let their green spaces turn brown. 

So far in Southern California, the golf courses are almost as green as they were when it rained a lot a couple years ago.

Some Northern California communities have already issued mandates to cut back water use, and some homeowners have seen their wells run dry.

Why isn’t it as bad in SoCal? According to Alex Hall, the director of UCLA’s Center for Climate Science, there are several reasons.

  • The last drought went on for six years. We’re only two years into this one. 
  • Southern Californians get their water from multiple sources, including the Colorado River, the LA aqueduct, and the Sierra Nevadas. So if one source runs dry, we have other options.
  • Southern California relies more heavily on recycled wastewater and groundwater, so our reservoirs are still mostly full after the very wet winter of 2019.
  • Our water usage is 16% lower than it was in 2013.

Hall said this drought is just as severe as the last one so far, and it could get just as bad down the line. 

“The question is, going forward, will we continue to have dry years? And that is really what's going to determine the impact of the drought,” he says.

Local officials say Southern Californians have enough water to carry us through next year. But Hall says he thinks there should be a statewide mandate to reduce water. The climate is getting drier, and there’s no harm in preparing for that now.

“It's good for people to have a sense of shared sacrifice. And I think it highlights the connection between us and these far-flung water resources that ultimately we all share,” he says.

Long Beach homeowner Lianne Rugeroni says she wishes water restrictions were mandated this time too. That way, the people who cut back wouldn’t stick out like Setyal’s yard does.

“I feel it's inconsiderate to let your yard go because so many people are out walking around. And if you wanted to be able to sell your house, you don't want to have your next-door neighbor having a house that looks like a dust bowl,” she says. “There are a few houses in the neighborhood like that. And you know that they are an eyesore at this point.”

Rugeroni has a grape arbor, more than 15 fruit trees, and she just gave her extra cucumbers and tomatoes to a neighbor. So it’s important for her to grow things. She says she didn’t face pressure to keep it green during the last drought when everyone was required to cut back on their water consumption.

“It was almost like if there was one house that had a green lawn in the neighborhood, everybody kind of gave him the skunk eye, like, ‘Hey, you're using more than your fair share.’ And our neighborhood is very tight and people would gossip, ‘Did you see they had their sprinklers on? Oh my gosh, and they're watering every day.’ And so we were kind of all in it together.”

Almost all of California today is in “severe drought,” but with Newsom’s recall election two months away, he says he doesn’t want the state to become “oppressive” or a “nanny state.” Until that state mandate comes, the grass will stay greener down here.