A burned home and pickup truck lie in the Foresta community in Yosemite National Park in California on July 29, 2014.
Just when Californians thought it couldn't get worse, the three-year drought that has enveloped the state intensified a little over the past week. Scratch that; it intensified a lot.
The percentage of the state in the worst category of drought — known as "exceptional drought" — skyrocketed from 36.5% to 58.4% in the past week alone, according to statistics released on Thursday. This sets a record dating back to 1999, when the U.S. Drought Monitor began assessing drought conditions. This means that the majority of the state, which is the top agricultural producer in the United States, is now in the worst possible drought conditions.
Mark Svboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska told Mashablethat until 2014, California had not seen any areas of "exceptional drought." In addition, 100% of the state is now in "severe drought" or worse, which has not happened since the Drought Monitor began either, he said.
Longer-term drought records show that this drought is more severe in many ways than a landmark drought in the late 1970s, and is comparable, if not worse than, events that occurred since instrument records began in the mid-19th century. (Longer-lasting intense droughts have taken place in California's history, based on tree ring records and other data.)
“It’s really hard to compare two droughts," Svboda says, noting that California now has about twice as many people living and working there than the state had in the late 1970s.
"I think we’re looking at a once in a generation type of event.""I think we’re looking at a once in a generation type of event."
Until Thursday, northern California had been weathering the drought better than the central and southern portions of the state, mainly due to heavier rainfall and mountain snows there during the wet season in 2013-14.
However, that is no longer the case, wrote Brad Rippey of the Agriculture Department, who helped prepare the Drought Monitor this week.
Increasingly, drought indicators point to the fact that conditions are not appreciably better in northern California than in central and southern sections of the state. In addition, mounting evidence from reservoir levels, river gauges, ground water observations, and socio-economic impacts warrant a further expansion of exceptional drought (D4) into northern California, the Drought Monitor report said.
At the end of June, California's 154 reservoirs were storing just 60% of the historical average amount of water. This is not a record low for this time of year — that occurred in 1977 — but reservoir storage has fallen so low that California is now "short more than one year's worth of reservoir water, or 11.6 million acre-feet," the report stated. One acre-foot is equal to about 325,851 gallons.
The state's soils are extremely dry and wildfires have erupted statewide since the winter, giving the Golden State a year-round wildfire season instead of the typical season that peaks in the fall. Record hot weather has not helped, with the state experiencing its warmest year-to-date on record, which helps dry out the parched soils even more.
The running 18-month statewide average precipitation total for California from January 2013 to June 2014 is the driest such period on record (17.3 inches), which was lower than the 18.99 inches during the same period in 1976-77. In addition, the same period in 2013 and 2014 has been the warmest on record, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In addition, the state and the University of California at Davis released a report that found the drought is causing the largest water loss in the state's history, and is forcing farmers to suck an increasing amount of unregulated and difficult to recharge groundwater to keep their fields irrigated.
So much groundwater has already been tapped to keep crops irrigated in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Basins as well as the Tulare Lake Basin that a NASA satellite system has detected the associated changes in land elevation. As groundwater is lost, the land itself has sunk in these areas.
The study found the drought will cost the state $2.2 billion in agricultural impacts alone.
The drought has prompted the state government to step in with unprecedented water regulations. On July 15, the California Water Resources Control Board passed an unprecedented emergency regulation to crack down on excessive outdoor water users. The rule targets the habit of most Californians to use more water outdoors than indoors, and permits steep fines of more than $500 per day on those who violate the restrictions.
The board estimates the restrictions, which take effect in early August, could save enough water statewide to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year.
The state has little hope for meaningful drought relief until the next wet season begins in October, but even then, it's unclear if Mother Nature will deliver the hefty rainfall needed to dig California out of its current water deficit.
Tags: CALIFORNIA DROUGHT, CLIMATE, HEAT WAVE, RECORD HEAT, U.S., US & World, WILDFIRES