Water Year


5466003319_e4e8e12581_zIt’s October, the start of a new water year. A water year is one of several ways to measure rainfall. This way, water year 2016 starts now–when we hope the rain will begin–and will end in September. A rainfall year runs from July to June, a buffer of dry season on either side of when the rain might come. Other places just use a calendar year, from a cross-your-fingers-that-its-rainy January, to summer dryness, then rain again, we hope. We hope.

Different groups use different calendars: The National Weather Service in California used to use the rainfall year, but switched recently to a water year, following suit with the US Geographical Surveys and many other water and weather agencies. Hydrologists often like the rainfall year, because streams and rivers can run dry in October. Others prefer the simplicity of measuring the rain that falls during a standard calendar year, beginning in January.

I’m not sure which way I would choose, if I were doing the choosing. A water year gives you the best odds for good early numbers; then you’re just watching the clock run down unless there are some late-breaking summer storms. The rainfall year eases you in with dryness, then it’s strong in the middle. The calendar year perhaps is when we need a last-minute miracle. It’s probably a good thing I’m not in charge of a water agency, because I’d probably keep changing the system so that the numbers would look good—or at least, not so bad.

I do the same thing with time even when I’m not hoping for rain; I’m always choosing different clocks so that everything turns out the way I want. I don’t really make resolutions at New Year’s, but I do try to shape the year to come. But if that hasn’t gone well, I start again on my birthday, which falls on the spring equinox. Still not happy? I’ll try the fall, when school goes back in session, providing another chance to start over, whether or not I’m the one who’s getting new pencils and following the bell schedule.

I like the calendars that measure time in other ways. I like the lunar calendar, the shape of the moon from dark to crescent, to half and gibbous, to full and back again. I like the names of the moons that I find in almanacs, where October is the Traveling Moon, the Dry Grass Moon, the Hunter’s Moon, the Dying Moon.

I like the names of water measurements, too. There’s the word fathom, the six-foot length that describe the depth of ocean and our ability to know or not know what lies beneath. There are the acre-feet of reservoirs, which make me think of a giant stepping through the hills, creating a holding pond for rainfall with each footprint.

Time, too, has its charming increments: the jiffy, the Tatum, the fortnight, the dog-year. There’s a song from the musical Rent that meters out a year’s 525,600 minutes into cups of coffee, bridges burned. Even in the un-measurable units of love.

There was a small storm this weekend, a steady afternoon rain that brought .41 inches, a daily rainfall record—a good way, I think, to begin our water year. I want to measure this year, and every year, in droplets and inches, rain barrels and gallons. Acre feet, feet of snow. I will divide it any way I can as if somehow I can make more of what we have too little of: water, and time.


Image: Tad Zapasnik, via Flickr/Creative Commons

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