U.S. News

01.24.14

California May Have Its Driest Season in 500 Years

The Golden State is so parched that bears can’t hibernate, wildfires are erupting, and towns are running out of water. And this is supposed to be the rainy season.

SAN FRANCISCO—Weird things are happening in California. Bears, normally hibernating at this time of year, have climbed out of their caves to search for food. Some visitors to Tahoe are renting bikes, not skis.

As the East Coast digs out from its latest snow dump, Californians can only look on enviously. Here, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the state’s great water-supply source, stands at a scary 13 percent of normal. California suffered its driest year on record in 2013, but what’s yet to come is even more terrifying. Federal forecasters predict that the drought will continue or intensify through at least April—by which time, the “rainy” season will be over.

The Golden State should probably be panicking more than it is. Reservoir levels are falling, but only a few cities, including Sacramento and the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, have mandated water-use reductions. Both have instituted cuts on the order of 20 percent for every household. Governor Jerry Brown has asked everyone to make voluntary cuts, but as drought-stricken Midland, Texas, learned a few years ago, voluntary never quite does it. (An only-in-California water-saving tip I’ve seen: go around in the buff, to save on the need to wash clothes.)

The problem is a huge atmospheric ridge of high-pressure that’s been hovering off the coast for an unprecedented 13 months. Storms can’t break through, so they go around and over it. The really worrying part, as the Christian Science Monitor explained this week, is that the longer the ridge hangs around, the sturdier it gets. Nobody knows when it will disband. (And no, we also don’t yet know if all this is linked to climate change, but California will doubtless be glad to trumpet a connection.)

“This could potentially be the driest water year in 500 years,” says B. Lynn Ingram, a University of California at Berkeley paleoclimatologist.

Assuming the drought continues, it’s going to have huge and complex effects. Among them:

* Farmers are going to fallow land or pump lots of groundwater, depleting the aquifers for future years. (And water-stealing illegal pot-growers may get pursued more vigorously.)

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Some towns may run out out of water; the small community of Willits in Mendocino, has only a 100-day supply left.

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Summer wildfires were bad last year (remember the huge Yosemite blaze?)—but with the state even crisper, things may now get worse.

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Some rivers will go dry. (Fish always seem to have the last dibs on water in times of drought.)

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Air pollution will continue to be a problem. The unusually hot, stagnant air has made it the worst pollution season ever in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s triggered purple alert days in Bakersfield, worse than the usual red—and that’s may continue for awhile. Bay Area winter pollution is also nearing a record.

Then there’s politics. Water was already bound to be a big topic this year in California, what with the state’s $25 billion proposal to fix the Delta, the confluence of two rivers where much Sierra Nevada water flows through. It’s an incredible sum—far more than, say, the $2 billion in extra spending that Texas agonized over last year. But voters may be more open after a few dry years.

California suffered its driest year on record in 2013, but what's yet to come is even more terrifying.

It bears emphasizing that the drought is not solely a California problem. It’s a long-term Western problem and a big one. Some Oregon towns also recorded their driest year on record in 2013. If you look at a drought map, you’ll see that rainfall is below average for a huge swathe of the West. The New York Times ran a depressing piece recently on the shrinking of the Colorado River, a key source of water for California and other Western states.

Another state worth watching in the context of drought is Texas. That state had its lowest rainfall (and its second-hottest weather) in recorded history in 2011. The rains have returned to much of the state, but some reservoir levels are still worryingly low. The lakes that supply Austin, for instance, are just 38 percent full, far below normal for this time of year. Unless big storms hit, summer evaporation and lawn-watering is going to push things back into the critical mode. West Texas is in worse shape, with its big remaining reservoir less than 14 percent full.

At some point, what with population growth and climate change, the western United States will face a water reckoning. That time may be now.