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As The West Craves Drought Relief, El Nino May Do More Harm Than Good


News of the historic drought in the West is giving way to a lot of hype over predictions of a strong El Nino forming in the Pacific Ocean.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is pretty exciting news.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The excitement is brewing on the equatorial Pacific.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There's new evidence that El Nino is on the rise.

BLOCK: People are desperate for this drought to ease up. And historically, a strong El Nino brings powerful storms and lots of rain to the West Coast and Southwest. Good news, right? Well, maybe not, as NPR's Kirk Siegler explains.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Not going to lie - getting a little tired of being the guy who delivers you all the bad news about this drought. So I'm going to let Bill Patzert be the buzz kill this time.

BILL PATZERT: Well, that's - you know, that's a great myth, of course, is El Nino is the drought buster.

SIEGLER: Patzert is a climatologist here at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. He's considered one of the world's foremost experts on El Nino.

PATZERT: It doesn't happen that frequently, and most of the time, El Nino disappoints you. El Nino is a very disappointing lover, all right?

SIEGLER: Patzert says it's true that this latest El Nino could bring a lot of rain to California and other areas. The last big one in 1997 and '98 dumped more than twice the annual rainfall in San Francisco and LA alone. And for sure, that would be welcome here, but the problem is the infrastructure. You've been hearing about how the water systems in the West aren't built to handle this crippling drought. Well, they're not really built to handle a drenching El Nino either.

PATZERT: Because we're engineered here in Southern California - if we get heavy rainfall, we're engineered to move it as rapidly as possible to the oceans.

SIEGLER: And Northern California, where most of this state's water supply comes from, is engineered to capture and store snowmelt in reservoirs and canals that stream off the Sierra Nevada. That's the other main reason why scientists don't think this El Nino will be a drought buster. See, historically, it brings warm winter storms and more rain than snow to the high country.

JEANINE JONES: Our water infrastructure was developed on the premise that we are a snowpack-dominated state in terms of our mountain hydrology.

SIEGLER: Jeanine Jones is California's interstate water resource manager. Now, what most of us call winter, she calls flood control season. That's when water managers typically draw down reservoirs so they can plan around snowmelt throughout the spring and distribute out the water as needed come summer.

JONES: We'd rather have it sit up there in the snowpack and gradually melt down in the spring.

SIEGLER: This could all get turned on its head during an El Nino if big rains come.

JONES: Because the system isn't sized to handle that much water.

SIEGLER: The only good news is that most Western reservoirs are way below their historical averages already, so there is some room if a big El Nino materializes. But scientists like Bill Patzert at NASA say all of this - extreme drought to possibly epic floods - should be a teaching moment for the West.

PATZERT: The bigger picture is we have to really think about how we use and allocate water here in the West.

SIEGLER: After all, Patzert says, we're learning that the last century was probably an abnormally wet period for this region. The West was developed and built out too fast, and that creates a big problem.

PATZERT: There's too many of us using too much water, all right? And it can no longer continue along the path that we've used in the past.

SIEGLER: With climate change, Patzert says, water systems need to be reengineered so they're more resilient to extreme weather, like the kind that could arrive on the West Coast soon. Krik Siegler, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.