A Quick Guide to California's Drought Crisis

craggy, dried farmland, the effect of a long and painful drought

After years of extreme drought and spikes in wildfire occurrences, it's safe to say that America's "Golden State" is certainly losing it's luster. 


Water restrictions across the state have certainly left their mark on Californians with large, green property, very little land, and everything in between. The California Water Action Plan is the state's most recent official water policy and requires all citizens to step it up, and turn off the tap. With ten steps and rigid rulings meant to bring down water usage to the maximum, the state government is throwing all hands on deck for a project, that if successful, could very well save the state's water supply for the near future at least. Under this plan, the governor has taken action by supporting passed legislation to aid regions across the state. Executive Order B-29-15 includes a statewide, mandatory 25% reduction in water usage as well as a sub-plan to replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought tolerant landscaping such as rocks and pebbles, artificial grass, bark, and wood-chips.


According to the National Weather Service, drought is a "deficiency in precipitation over an extended period, usually a season or more, resulting in a water shortage causing adverse impacts on vegetation, animals, and/or people." It can cause a certain area to become very dry which can impact farmland, water sources, groundwater, streamflow, and many other components of the natural environment dependent on regular water replenishment. As opposed to aridity, the type of permanent weather feature prominent in deserts wherein low precipitation is quite normal, droughts are temporary, and while they can last for extended periods of time, they are subject to dissipate and vanish eventually. Famous past droughts include the American Dust Bowl, a period of the 1930s wherein at least 50 million acres of land were affected and "black blizzards" of dust ran rampant across the Great Plains due to mismanaged soil and bad farming practices, and The Dry 50s (1950-1957), another midwestern drought that plagued Texas with hot temperatures, scarce rain, and frightful dust storms.   


For the past five years, the state of California has been facing the worst on and off drought conditions that the state has seen in about 1,000 years, according to the American Geophysical Union.The drought started in about 2013 to 2014, and even those numbers themselves are bare estimates, considering the numerous factors that go into defining a true, substantial drought such as precipitation and groundwater levels, reduced streamflow, and lack of soil moisture. Many scientists, scholars, and average individuals have entered the guessing game over when the drought will run its course. Only a few certain weather events could, in reality, bring water back to California. Markers of an official end to the drought could include a replenished groundwater supply, making up for rainfall deficit, and refilled reservoirs. Unfortunately these events could take anywhere from a year to fifty years to become visible, leaving California, for now, in the grips of the dryness and heat of drought.


All across California, areas are being impacted by the drought crisis with certain cities and populations facing larger hits than others based on proximity to the coast or usage of the land. Along the San Joaquin River, water levels have been dramatically dropping and as a result, the native flapping salmon populations that were once plentiful and populous, now rely on the aid of the local government for key steps of the salmon's life cycle such as rearing through artificial hatcheries and trucking fish downstream to make their vital migrations. In the town of East Porterville of Tulare County, a region that claims 12% of the state's dried up wells, residents have been forced to dump buckets of water into toilets to flush and use portable showers.  The East Coast of the U.S. is also heavily affected by the drought due to California's role as the nation's "breadbasket", growing over a third of the country's vegetables and two-thirds of the country's fruits.


There are two main methods of thought when it comes to the reasons for California's drought crisis and this guide is going to focus on the largely agreed upon opinion of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NOAA report claims that while the drought was not caused by global warming, it's certainly been heavily supported by the effects of global warming, including increasing evaporation of water in the soil. NOAA also claims that a major reason for the commencement of the drought is due to a an altered path of atmospheric water vapor that's essential to winter precipitation events within the state. Instead of going towards the West Coast, this water vapor branched north and south due to a "ridge" of high atmospheric pressure which steered the water vapor away from the coast and thus triggering a massive, large-scale drought.


This guide is meant to inform and spread information about one of America’s most detrimental drought periods of the last century. Here are a few resources for those who wish to learn more.

Article by Sam Falb
Art by Amy