A Drop in the Bucket: California’s Drought

Folsom Lake, gripped by drought, is less than ...

Folsom Lake, gripped by drought, is less than 25% full © Justin Smith / Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA-3.0

We Californians have had a pleasant climate these past few months. During the clear spell here in Lake County where I live, temperatures had even been in the seventies—tee-shirt and shorts weather. So far, the winter weather has been, by any standard, stunningly spectacular. One of the most stunning things about this winter is its lack of precipitation (last weekend’s storm was the exception to the rule).  November through March is not supposed to be warm with gentle sunshine; January should have been wet and cold. January 2014 should go into the record books as the driest and warmest January in California since we started putting those figures on paper.

One dry year might not be bad, but California has had two dry years in a row before this one. Greg Giusti, County Director for UC Cooperative Extension, points out that droughts are part of “the reality of living in this climate zone.”[1] California has a Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters.  Giusti said that even if this drought was no worse than the one in the 1970s, its effect could be greater. Besides California now having twice the population when compared with the 1970s,[2] there are now legal requirements to consider the needs of wildlife.

“This is our hurricane Sandy,” Giusti said. California’s precipitation is currently trending lower than the 1923-24 record, which at 10.5 inches was the lowest precipitation ever measured in California; 1977 was 11.6 inches.[3] And this season, with two-thirds of this rainy season done, that record may fall. Last weekend’s storm did not end our drought. It was the equivalent of putting eight ounces of water into a five-gallon bucket.

This third dry year in a row has caught the attention of Sacramento. On January 17th, Governor Brown declared a state of emergency, calling for a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water use.[4] The State Water Project, which provides water to 25 million Californians and roughly 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland, is run by the Department of Water Resources. On January  31st, the Department of Water Resources announced for the first time ever in the SWP’s  54-year history—a zero allocation to all 29 public water agencies that buy from it.[5] While last weekend’s storm helped, “…it would need to rain and snow heavily every other day from now until May to get us back to average annual rain and snowfall,” state officials said in their press release.

Droughts stress all living systems: people, animals, and plants all need water for their survival. For most of us, a drought will be an expensive inconvenience. We may have to drill new wells or even have water trucked in. We certainly will pay higher prices for food. For those in agriculture, drought can be devastating.

Crops and livestock need ample water to grow, so drought hits agriculture especially hard. Steve Tylicki, general manager and viticulturist at Steele Wines, says in his forty years of experience in agriculture, this is the worst he has ever seen it, and it is even worse than the drought of 1976/1977.[6] Their vines will be pruned to withstand the drier soil conditions. After this pruning, he expects the vines will produce around 20-25 percent less than average. In his vineyards that do not have water for irrigation or frost protection (most water in established vineyards is for frost protection) he expects a 40 percent crop reduction this year.

My neighbor asked me if this drought was the result of Global Warming. It is certainly due to the ever-changing nature of the earth’s climate; how much of that change can be attributed to humans is an open question. Drought has visited California before. Two mega-droughts occurred in what is now California long before we started to put massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. One mega-drought started in 850 A.D. and ended in 1090. After a 50-year break, another mega-drought came in that lasted until 1320.[7] That is 240 years and 180 years, respectively. If this drought ends after this year, we will count ourselves lucky. Three years, in the cosmic scheme of things, is a mere drop in the bucket.


[1] Personal conversation,  31 Jan 2014
[2] U.S. Population by state, 1790-2102
http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0004986.html (accessed 1 Feb 2014)
[3] One Hundred Years of Rainfall Trends in California | WATERSHED.ORG
http://www.watershed.org/?q=node/86 (accessed 7 Feb 2014)
[4] California’s Governor Declares Drought State Of Emergency : The Two-Way : NPR
http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/01/17/263529525/california-s-governor-declares-drought-state-of-emergency (accessed 25 Jan 2014)
[5] Press Release:
DWR Drops State Water Project Allocation to Zero, Seeks to Preserve Remaining Supplies: Severe Drought Leads to Worst-Ever Water Supply Outlook  http://www.water.ca.gov/news/newsreleases/2014/013114.pdf (accessed 31 Jan 2014)
[6] Personal conversation,  31 Jan 2014
[7] California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say – San Jose Mercury News  http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_24993601/california-drought-past-dry-periods-have-lasted-more (accessed 29 Jan 2104)




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