El Niño May Spell Relief for California's Drought While Wreaking Havoc Elsewhere

Warm waters off the coast of South America might bring needed rains to the Golden State by winter.

Photo Credit: CLS Design/Shutterstock.com

All of California is under drought conditions and will likely remain that way through Autumn. However, late in the year the state may get some relief with the formation of El Niño weather events. In fact, federal scientists are saying that there is a 4-in-5 chance that El Niño will return, bringing heavy rains to the region. 

But what's a bit of good for California might create disastrous weather elsewhere, including heavy rains, floods, droughts and abnormally high temperatures. 

El Niño refers to a recurring weather pattern that develops in the southern Pacific near South America. Usually, scientists can predict El Niño a few months before it occurs. Researchers say it can spark droughts in Australia and increase rain and floods in parts of the U.S.. and South America. Land areas bordering the Pacific Ocean are the most affected. El niño is Spanish for "the boy" and the capitalized term El Niño refers to the infant Jesus, because periodic warming in the Pacific near South America is usually begins near Christmas.

While rains will bring relief to California, it may not be enough to bring the some regions of the state out of a persistent drought.  For the first time in 15 years, every county in California suffers from a water shortage. 

The U.S.. Drought Monitor, a weekly map of drought conditions produced jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Agriculture, and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says that the entire state now suffers from conditions ranging from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought.” The heavy-population centers all suffer from “extreme drought” or “exceptional drought.” 

The drought is hitting the farm industry and its workers particularly hard. The Central Valley, one of the world's richest food-producing regions, is up against what geologists are calling the 500-year drought. Fresno County, the heart of the Central Valley’s San Joaquin Valley farm belt—and the number one farming county in the nation—may lose up to a quarter of its orchards and fields this year for lack of water. Growers in Shasta Valley were expected to have only enough water to irrigate what equals a single irrigation on about half of their acreage.

The state's farmers will leave about 800,000 acres idle this year, according to estimates by the California Farm Water Coalition, which will negatively impact the state's entire economy. 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.”

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.

Some California municipalities are already having to enact water restrictions, with one city, Montague — which is located near the Oregon border — saying that it will run out of drinking water by the end of the summer. Officials are saying that this is the first time in more than 80 years that the city has suffered such a shortage. On the other end of the state, San Diego has reached “level one” water supply status, which means that there is a likelihood that there will be a shortage and a consumer demand reduction of up to 10 percent to ensure that supplies will meet anticipate demands over the next several months.

The most recent occurrences of El Niño were in 2006 and 2009. 

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.


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