Horrid California Drought Gets Worse

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 31 2014 1:52 PM

Horrid California Drought Gets Worse

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California's drought grows worse.

Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

New data released on Thursday from the U.S. Drought Monitor show a massive expansion of the worst level of drought conditions—“exceptional”—into Northern California over the last week.

California’s worst drought in 500 years began in 2011, and watching its spread is stunning:

California drought
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Exceptional drought now covers a majority of California, from Los Angeles to Mount Shasta, including the whole of the vast Central Valley, where America grows the bulk of dozens of agricultural commodities.

According to Brad Rippey, author of this week’s Drought Monitor report, the drought is creating lasting consequences. “California is short more than one year’s worth of reservoir water, or 11.6 million acre-feet, for this time of year.” For perspective, 11.6 million acre-feet of water is equivalent to 3.8 trillion gallons—enough to provide eight glasses of drinking water per day for everyone on Earth for three years. That’s a lot of water.

The news comes after California announced statewide fines associated with water waste earlier this week, after earlier voluntary measures proved ineffective. From Time:

The new rules—the first statewide curbs on water use since the current drought began nearly three years ago—can lead to fines of up to $500 per day for using a hose to clean a sidewalk, running ornamental fountains that do not recirculate water and other wasteful behaviors.

Last week, a separate study by NASA and the University of California-Irvine found that more than 75 percent of Western water loss over the last 10 years came from excessive groundwater pumping. California is the only state that doesn’t restrict groundwater use, though state lawmakers are proposing legislation motivated by the worsening drought to change that. In my Thirsty West trip through the state earlier this year, it was clear that the continued expansion of politically powerful industrial agriculture is worsening the state’s water woes.

Should the drought get even worse over the coming months—which it may, now that a super strong El Niño is off the table—there isn’t any room left to upgrade it now that the official drought scales are maxed out. The painful phase of this drought has begun. It’s time for sacrifices.

Farmers: You’ve had your chance. It’s time to submit to restrictions on groundwater pumping, if only to ensure your future survival in the state. Cities: Prepare to pay more for food as a result. It’s a best-case tradeoff in a worst-case scenario.

The alternative is ugly: hordes of San Francisco hipsters invading stodgy Marin County, the last bastion of sub-exceptional drought.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.

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