Water

California's Devastating Drought Takes Significant Turn for the Worse

Nearly 60% of the Golden State is experiencing ‘exceptional’ drought conditions, and no relief is in sight.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, a government-funded weekly map of drought conditions, issued a shocking report today indicating that 58% of California is suffering from the harshest of drought conditions. All of the state has been suffering from drought conditions since May, the first time in 15 years.

This is also the first year that any part of California has experienced “exceptional drought” conditions since regular drought measurements began in the late 1990s. Now, nearly three-fifths of the state is under those conditions, with another 22% of California added into this level in the past week.

Heavy-population centers all suffer from extreme drought or exceptional drought.

The severity of the drought threatens California’s $44.7 billion agricultural industry. The state now tops the U.S. with 75% of its rangeland and pastures rated in very poor to poor condition, according to USDA.  The region’s topsoil and subsoil all but depleted of moisture, according to the report.

California’s 154 reservoirs are 60% below their historical average. Although this is not a record for this time of year, the state is more than a year’s worth of water short in its reservoirs.

The state's farmers have idled about 800,000 acres this year. As a result, consumers can be expected to pay more at the grocery store for a wide range of staple foods. The Department of Agriculture warns that “major impacts from the drought in California have the potential to result in food price inflation above the historical average.”

Earlier this month, California imposed statewide water-use regulations for the first time. State regulators approved stringent measures limiting outdoor water, including $500 fines for using an outdoor hose without a shut-off nozzle.

Meanwhile, hopes that the drought would break by autumn have been tempered. The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center downplayed the help that El Niño may bring to the drought-plagued West in its monthly report of Pacific Ocean weather patterns. While the Center is still projecting that sea surface temperatures will be warmer than usual—a phenomenon known as El Niño—it is now saying that the effect will be only "weak to moderate."

The forecast strength of the El Niño was downgraded because Pacific Ocean temperatures near the International Date Line have not continued to rise since earlier this year when they were well above average. While strong El Niño weat​h​er patterns usually create more rain for California, weaker El Niños typically don't bring more rains to the region.

The Center said that there is a 70% chance El Niño will develop by the end of the summer, and an 80% chance that one will develop by the early winter.

​California ​Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January 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.​

Cliff Weathers is a former AlterNet senior editor who has been a writer, editor and political commentator for more than three decades. He served as deputy editor of Consumer Reports for 10 years, focusing on automotive reliability, green technologies and product safety. At his former blog, Left of the Hudson and later at AlterNet, Cliff documented how communities and the environment are impacted by fracking and other extreme forms of fossil fuel extraction. Cliff was one of the first journalists to sound the alarm over the extreme dangers of shipping volatile Bakken crude oil by rail. His articles on technology, green cars, alternative energy and sustainability have appeared in several publications, including Car and Driver, Playboy, Salon and Raw Story. Cliff graduated from Oakland University, where he majored in journalism. Twitter: @cliffweathers.