From Moonscape To Lush: Photographs Capture California Drought's Story

Originally published on April 17, 2017 7:50 am

In California, an extremely wet winter put an end to the state's record-breaking drought. Heavy rainfall also produced welcome spring scenes — like replenished reservoirs and fields in bloom.

"It's a completely different look," says Justin Sullivan, a Getty Images photographer who took before-and-after style photos of drought-stricken areas. "It's just like a velvety green, lush landscape now — compared to just dry, brown, almost like a moonscape before."

Sullivan's photos show how one of the wettest winters on record is bringing the land back to life. In early 2014, Sullivan documented the drought at its worst. He shot photos from a helicopter above reservoirs like Lake Oroville.

"It's a little surprising to see the recessed water in reservoirs that reveals banks that are 50, 60, 100 feet tall," he says on NPR's Morning Edition. "They look like little mini-mountains and then a little river running through them."

Fast-forward to this spring.

Earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to the state's drought emergency. Now, many of those desolate landscapes Sullivan captured look completely different. So he went back and tried to re-create the same shots.

"We just wanted to show the contrast," he says, adding that it was a tricky assignment. "Obviously, landscapes change over the course of three years. Trees grow bigger. So it was difficult to just remember in your mind exactly what lens you used and how you approached it."

Sullivan downloaded the 2014 images onto his iPad and brought it with him when he shot the "after" photos. In trying to re-create the exact same frame, Sullivan had some luck on his side.

In one side-by-side set of photos, the 2014 version shows a man walking his dog. The man is surrounded by dead grass, with the San Francisco skyline in the background. When Sullivan returned to the (now green, grassy) hillside this year, he was able to snap a photo of a woman walking another dog in almost the exact same spot.

"Sometimes they just work out perfectly," he says.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A photographer is capturing California's recovery from drought.

JUSTIN SULLIVAN: My editors had an idea of, like, what about doing before and afters?

INSKEEP: Justin Sullivan works for Getty Images, and his before photos were from 2014. Sullivan shot them from a helicopter above what he calls dried-out moonscapes.

SULLIVAN: Just rolling hills of brown and the recessed water in reservoirs that reveals banks that are, you know, 50, 60, 100 feet tall, that they look like little mini mountains and then a river just running through them now instead of a lake.

INSKEEP: Sullivan hiked on what had once been lake beds.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So that was before. The drought was so bad that Sullivan had to wait years for the after. But now many of those lakes are back.

SULLIVAN: It was sort of mind-blowing. It's a completely different look that's just like a velvety green, lush landscape now.

INSKEEP: And a warning sign set against a yellow-brown background, a sign that read, fire danger high, now sits amid green grass and reads, fire danger low.

SULLIVAN: One of the pictures I shot was of two white horses in this field that's just dead grass. It looks like a vintage photo. When I went to go try to recreate that picture, I went to the same exact spot. And the horses were there again. They weren't the same white horses. They were brown horses now. So sometimes they just work out perfectly.

INSKEEP: Justin Sullivan of Getty Images. And you can see his photos at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "MASOLLAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.