California experienced an extraordinary drought from 2012–2015 (which continues into 2016). This study, from an operational perspective, reviewed the development of this drought in a hydroclimatic framework and examined its characteristics at different temporal and spatial scales. Observed and reconstructed operational hydrologic indices and variables widely used in water resources planning and management at statewide and (hydrologic) regional scales were employed for this purpose. Parsimonious metrics typically applied in drought assessment and management practices including the drought monitor category, percent of average, and rank were utilized to facilitate the analysis. The results indicated that the drought was characterized by record low snowpack (statewide four-year accumulated deficit: 280%-of-average), exceptionally low April-July runoff (220%-of-average deficit), and significantly below average reservoir storage (93%-of-average deficit). During the period from 2012–2015, in general, water year 2015 stood out as the driest single year; 2014–2015 was the driest two-year period; and 2013–2015 tended to be the driest three-year period. Contrary to prior studies stating that the 2012–2015 drought was unprecedented, this study illustrated that based on eight out of 28 variables, the 2012–2015 drought was not without precedent in the record period. Spatially, on average, the South Coast Region, the Central Coast Region, the Tulare Region, and the San Joaquin Region generally had the most severe drought conditions. Overall, these findings are highly meaningful for water managers in terms of making better informed adaptive management plans.
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