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California’s drought is in its fourth punishing year, but the state’s water supply started declining at least a decade before the drought started.

That conclusion comes from a senior NASA scientist whose review of satellite images also determined that the state’s reservoirs are down to about a year’s supply of water.

“As our ‘wet’ season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions,” Jay Famiglietti wrote in an op-ed published last week in the Los Angeles Times. “January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek, too.”

As if that’s not unnerving enough, there’s no assurance that Year 4 will be the last drought year.

To the contrary, climate scientists see a mega-drought looming for the Great Plains and Southwest that could last a generation.

The latest warning comes from a study published in the February issue of the journal Science Advances: “Our results point to a remarkably drier future that falls far outside the contemporary experience of natural and human systems in Western North America, conditions that may present a substantial challenge to adaptation.”

After a December drenching, North Coast reservoirs are in relatively good shape, as least as compared to a year ago. But the Sierra snowpack is near historic lows, and the state’s major reservoirs are too.

With the traditional rainy season past, hopes of a boost from El Niño conditions in the Pacific fading and conservation efforts flagging, state officials are tightening the tap.

On Tuesday, the Water Resources Control Board voted to restrict lawn watering to twice a week and to prohibit watering for 48 hours after any measurable rainfall. The board also instituted new rules for restaurants and motels. For the second consecutive year, many farmers will receive no deliveries from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project. More stringent restrictions, including mandatory rationing, are increasingly likely.

All of these are short-term measures. Famiglietti and other experts say California needs to start thinking about the next drought.

One recurring suggestion from readers is a moratorium on new homes. While water supplies must be a factor in planning for development, it’s also true that California’s population growth has been driven by its birth rate rather than migration in recent years. Failing to provide housing for upcoming generations is tantamount to telling those children they’ll need to pack up and leave the state when they grow up.

There are better options.

A new report from by the Public Policy Institute of California recommends four priorities: improving data collection to better understand the sources, amount, distribution and use of water; establishing clear objectives for public health and environmental protection; conservation and developing more resilient water supplies, including tighter groundwater regulation and expanding markets for water trading; and modernizing drought management systems to protect wetlands and other natural resources. A better understanding of the state’s water supply, coupled with clear priorities, would allow for more optimal distribution of water in times of abundance as well as times of drought.

Scientists don’t know if the present drought is a result of climate change, and it may not matter. California has a history of erratic rainfall, so climate change or not, there’s no reason to expect anything different.

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