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Fantasizing About California, or Already Here: 5 Shocking Drought Facts to Make You Rethink the Golden State

Droughts aren’t new to California, but this one is for the ages and comes with a distinct set of troubles.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Willem Havenaar/Shutterstock

 

There are likely a lot of East Coasters wishing they lived in sunny, dry (and comparatively warm) California right now. But Californians know their weather is anything but a blessing these days with a drought that’s being called “unprecedented.”

The situation has even sparked a trip from President Obama, who visited the epicenter of California’s massive agriculture industry, the Central Valley, on Friday and announced $100 million in livestock disaster assistance, $5 million in targeted assistance for hard-hit areas, $5 million for watershed protection programs, $60 million for food banks and 600 new sites for a summer meals program, $3 million in emergency water assistance for rural communities, and a commitment from the federal government to reduce water use and focus nation-wide on climate resilience.

While the funding and programs may be welcome for immediate assistance, solving California’s water crisis will require more than a big checkbook. Water in the West, California included, is contentious and politically wrought. Here are five key things to know if you want to truly understand the impact of California’s drought.

1. We may be facing a mega-drought

California’s Governor Brown declared a drought state of emergency on January 17 when it became clear that 2013 closed out the driest year ever recorded for many parts of the state and the 2014 water year, which began October 1, had thus far been the driest in 90 years.

Droughts aren’t new to California, there have been about nine in the last hundred years and it turns out that last century may have actually been one of the wettest in the last 7,000 years. Unfortunately that time frame is also when we decided how we would divvy up the region’s water resources among all its various consumers. If you think of water like money (and in the west it basically is), then we took a bunch of years of record profit and based those figures on how much payout different stakeholders get each year. But increasingly there is less and less in the bank to start with and the balance sheets are coming out in the red. There is water promised that simply cannot be delivered. We’ve written a check that nature can’t cash. And that situation is likely to get a lot worse.

Right now the state is in the third year of a deepening drought, but it may be part of a much longer trend, one that could last decades, even centuries according to paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram at the University of California at Berkeley. Part of that may have to do with human-induced climate change and part of it, she says, is caused by natural fluctuations that occur with changes in surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. The combination is a double whammy for California and much of the West.

2. We do have to conserve

A few days of rain in early February haven’t been enough yet to make a dent in California’s water shortage. There are still a few more months left in the “rainy” season but the chances that the state will emerge unscathed are practically zilch.

While the governor declared a state of emergency there are so far no statewide mandatory water restrictions (though there are some local ones). On average Californians use 196 gallons of water per day, though use varies across the state.

As Paul Rogers and Nicholas St. Fleur reported for the San Jose Mercury News, not surprisingly cooler coastal areas tend to use less water, like Santa Cruz, which averages 113 gallons person a day and Crescent City, which uses 97 gallons per person a day. But in hotter, drier areas like the the Central Valley and desert areas of Southern California use can hit 591 gallons of water per person a day in Riverside County and 736 in Palm Springs. Although the worst is Vernon in Los Angeles County which only has 112 residents but a per capita daily water use of more than 94,000 gallons thanks to “dozen factories, meatpacking plants and other water-guzzling industries within its city limits,” wrote Rogers and Fleur.

 
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