California’s Latest Drought
- California is in the midst of a major drought.
After months of record-low precipitation, Governor Brown declared a statewide drought emergency in January 2014, calling for increased conservation, expedited water trading, and the provision of emergency drinking water supplies. Droughts are a recurring feature of California’s climate, and 2013 is now the driest calendar year on record, with a total of just 30% of average statewide precipitation. The previous record low was in 1976 (56% of average). In 2014, January saw almost no precipitation, even though it is typically our wettest month. And after two relatively dry years, California currently has near record-low reservoir storage. Even if average rainfall returns by the end of the 2014 rainy season (April), this winter will likely be one of the driest in history.
- Effects of the drought will be felt differently around the state.
Households and non-farm businesses account for about 20% of human water use in California. Despite the drought, major metropolitan areas in Southern California and the Bay Area are still doing relatively well, thanks to significant investments in conservation, supply diversification, and new infrastructure that allows communities to share water during emergencies. But in northern and central parts of the state, communities that do not have diverse water sources will be facing sharp cutbacks in water use. One important way to conserve is to reduce water for landscaping, which currently makes up roughly half of all residential water use.
- The drought will be particularly hard on the agricultural sector.
Most farming in California depends on irrigation, which usually accounts for about 80% of human water use. Extra groundwater pumping can replace some of the reduced surface water deliveries, but large cuts in crop acreage will be unavoidable. Farmers will try to cut back on the least profitable activities first, but some may also be forced to reduce the fruit, vegetable, and nut crops that generate higher revenues. Although agriculture makes up a relatively small share of the economy (1–2% of state gross domestic product), water cutbacks will cause hardship in many farm communities—and in sectors that support farming, such as fertilizer sales and industries that process farm products.
- The environment is also being hit hard.
Some coastal streams are so depleted that scientists are worried about the disappearance of coho salmon and steelhead trout. More generally, the state is facing difficult tradeoffs, such as whether to hold cold water in reservoirs to maintain endangered salmon or to release this water either to protect smelt in the Delta or to support wildlife refuges. The state has already relaxed environmental flow standards to reserve some water supplies for farms and cities and is under pressure to do more.
- Some smaller rural communities will need special help.
By summer, at least 17 small communities could run out of drinking water and need emergency supplies. Many small farm communities will be severely affected by job losses related to the drought and will need income support.
- Droughts present both challenges and opportunities.
Past droughts have helped push California to improve water management by increasing conservation and investing in new supplies such as recycled wastewater, groundwater storage, and stormwater collection. In addition, tools such as water marketing—which allows water to be leased to maintain high-revenue activities—have increased efficiencies in water system management. The current drought presents the opportunity to make continued progress in these areas and others. This drought also may be a harbinger of future weather patterns: climate change simulations indicate that droughts are likely to increase in frequency and severity.
Sources: California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Department of Public Health (community data), California Department of Water Resources (water use data), U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (GDP data) and Western Regional Climate Center (precipitation data).