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Graywater? Snowpack? A glossary of drought jargon

A 'water policeman' with the Water Conservation Response Unit in Los Angeles, patrols a neighborhood in Studio City, California on August 19, 2014 looking for homes or businesses wasting water during California's drought.
A 'water policeman' with the Water Conservation Response Unit in Los Angeles, patrols a neighborhood in Studio City, California on August 19, 2014 looking for homes or businesses wasting water during California's drought.

We’ve told you that eating less beef saves more water than taking shorter showers, given you a lawn replacement guide, and shared some tips on #DroughtShaming etiquette.

But a complex issue like drought comes wrapped in its own jargon. If you've caught yourself wondering what terms like "graywater," "snowpack" or "acre-feet" mean, read on.

Drought glossary

acre-foot: the amount of water that would cover one acre to a depth of one foot, or 326,851 gallons

dam: a human-created barrier that diverts or confines water

desalination: the process of removing salt and other minerals to make seawater drinkable. Desalination plants are popping up across California, but some experts say the process is expensive and can be harmful to marine life and the environment.

drought: the lack of moisture over an extended period of time, causing water shortages that adversely affects people, wildlife and vegetation. NOAA, USDA, and the National Drought Mitigation Center monitor droughts across the U.S., but only state, county, or city/municipal governments can declare whether any particular area is in a drought, based on water supply and demand.

graywater: water from the shower, sinks, washing machines, dishwashers and other household activities (other than toilet waste) that passes through a recycling system and can be used to wash cars, water lawns and fill toilets 

groundwater: precipitation that infiltrates the soil and seeps downward. It supplies wells and springs.

Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI): a drought-monitoring tool that uses temperature and precipitation data to determine relative dryness and reflect long-term drought. Maps indicating monthly PDSI measurements are available from NOAA.

precipitation: rain, hail, snow or sleet

rain barrel: a system that collects rainwater from the roof. Rain barrels are typically composed of a drum, a hose and a screen to keep debris out.

reservoir: a lake, basin or other natural or manmade body of water used for the storage and release of water for later use

runoff: precipitation that ends up in streams

snowpack: the total snow that remains unmelted on the ground in a given winter. It serves as a natural storage reservoir, typically providing one-third of the water used by California’s farms and cities throughout the year.

Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI): a drought-monitoring tool that shows shortfall and excess in precipitation. Maps indicating SPI measurements over different timescales are available from the NDMC and HPRCC.

State Water Resources Control Board: also known as the State Water Board, it’s responsible for California’s water quality protection and water allocation. It enforces water use regulations and leads other conservation initiatives.

tiered pricing: a system in which heavy water users pay more and water savers pay less

U.S. Drought Monitor: a map that displays drought conditions across the U.S. Experts from the USDA, NOAA and NDMC produce a single USDM map every week.

water district: a local government agency that provides drinking water and maintains water supply at safe levels. Service areas range from a city block to regions that cross county lines. The University of Riverside and the Water Resources Institute at California State University, San Bernardino maintain a list of water districts in California.

water year: a 12-month period for presenting data pertinent to a hydrologic or meteorological phenomena. The USGS water year runs from October to September, designated by the year it ends.

watershed: an area within which all precipitation will drain toward a single outlet, such as a river, lake or stream. Also called a "drainage basin"

Sources: California Department of Water Resources, Environmental Protection Agency, High Plains Regional Climate Center, National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Drought Mitigation Center, National Integrated Drought Information System, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Resources Defense Council, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College, United States Geological Survey, University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, “What’s So Special About Special Districts? A Citizen’s Guide to Special Districts in California,” California Senate Local Government Committee 

What did we miss? Let us know in the comments.