California's historic drought may be even more exceptional than we thought. In a study published yesterday, scientists made a startling discovery about the severity of California's dry spell: They estimated that the Sierra Nevada mountain range's snowpack levels this year are the lowest they've been for 500 years. That's right, since roughly the year 1500.
Researchers knew California’s drought was already a record breaker when they set out to find its exact place in history, but they were surprised by what they discovered: It has been 500 years since what is now the Golden State has been this dry. California is in the fourth year of a severe drought with temperatures so high and precipitation so low that rain and snow evaporate almost as soon as they hit the ground. A research paper released Monday said an analysis of blue oak tree rings in the state’s Central Valley showed that the amount of mountain snow California relies on for moisture hasn’t been so low since the 1500s.
As the epic California drought drags through its fifth year, researchers are now saying the agricultural sector's increased reliance on groundwater could lead to an economic decline that affects all sectors statewide. A new economic analysis conducted by a team from University of California-Davis shows that as the drought continues, the overtapped groundwater reserves will become increasingly expensive and inaccessible: Water shortages in the famous Central Valley could cost the state $2.74 billion in 2015, as well as nearly 21,000 jobs—which would amount to $1.3 billion in losses from California's gross domestic product and a decline of $720 million in statewide labor income.
Rainwater harvesting sounds simple, right? People have been setting out containers to catch rain for thousands of years, but collecting rainwater in our thirsty modern world is a messy business. Here's what you need to know if you're hoping to stick a bucket under a gutter to conserve water and cut down your water bill.
Pretty much every state west of the Rockies has been facing a water shortage of one kind or another in recent years. California's is a severe, but relatively short-term, drought. But the Colorado River basin — which provides critical water supplies for seven states including California — is the victim of a slower-burning catastrophe entering its 16th year. Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California all share water from the Colorado River, a hugely important water resource that sustains 40 million people in those states, supports 15 percent of the nation's food supply, and fills two of largest water reserves in the country.
Rudy Mussi is not the California farmer you've been hearing about. He is not fallowing all his fields or ripping up his orchards due to a lack irrigation water. For Mussi and most of his neighbors in the bucolic Sacramento Delta, the water is still flowing reliably from the pumps and into the canals lining the fields. "If you had to pick a place where you would say, 'Okay, where should I stick my farm?' You'd come to the Delta," he says.
Our pilot, David Kunkel, asked me to retrieve his oxygen bottle from under my seat, and when I handed it to him he gripped the plastic breathing tube with his teeth and opened the valve. We had taken off from Boulder that morning, and were flying over Rocky Mountain National Park, about thirty miles to the northwest. We were in a Maule M-7, a single-engine “backcountry” plane, and Kunkel was navigating with the help of an iPad Mini, which was resting on his legs. “People don’t usually think altitude is affecting them,” he said. “But if you ask them to count backward from a hundred by sevens they have trouble.
During California’s last crippling drought, baseball slugger Mark McGwire became a poster boy for water wasters. The burly first baseman figured prominently in a 1991 Oakland Tribune investigation that showed how residents of upscale neighborhoods skirted the conservation demands facing everyday homeowners. The Top 100 users in the East Bay used 15 times more than the typical household.
California saw this drought coming. Even if people in the state didn't know it would be this bad — now the worst in recorded history — they've known that dry years are inevitable and had all sorts of ideas for how to deal with them. But for all that planning, California's current drought has been a total disaster. Reservoirs are drying up. Crops are wilting in the fields. For the first time ever, towns and cities will face a mandatory 25 percent cut in their water use. The problem isn't that no one foresaw the drought. The problem is that no one has been able to solve an underlying issue that is simultaneously less scary and also much harder than a dry spell: California's convoluted water system and intractable water politics.
There's been a lot of talk lately about the drought in California, especially since this past week, when Gov. Jerry Brown introduced mandatory water cuts for the first time in the state's history. So what exactly makes this drought so bad? And what are people doing about it? Here are a few important points to keep in mind:
California has now suffered through four straight years of brutal drought. Reservoirs have been shriveling. Crops have been wilting in the fields. Cattle herds have been thinning out. And, rather than getting better, things actually seem to have taken a turn for the worse this winter. Typically, the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains get a lot of snow at the beginning of the year that then melts slowly throughout the spring. This system normally provides California with about 30 percent of its freshwater.
Given the historic low temperatures and snowfalls that pummeled the eastern U.S. this winter, it might be easy to overlook how devastating California's winter was as well. As our “wet” season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We're not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we're losing the creek too.
Over the past two weeks, California has gotten a deluge of rain, lifting its reservoir levels and hydrating the soil in a state that is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in history. The chart above shows the state's drought levels pre- and post-storm, and thankfully, there's a little less of the menacing "exceptional drought."
California is drying up. “This is a big deal,” California Governor Jerry Brown said at a ceremony Tuesday as he signed into law a trio of bills regulating, for the first time, the state’s groundwater use. As of Thursday, almost 60 percent of the state is facing "exceptional drought," the most severe level of dryness measured by the U.S. Drought Monitor. But if you’re not living in a community dependent on bottled water rations, farming land that's projected to lose $800 million in crop revenue or watching raging wildfires ravage your drought-parched town, the historic California drought may still feel like little more than a headline.
What led to West's historic water crisis? What can be done to preserve the Colorado River? ProPublica explores the situation, at a glance.