Troubled Waters

It's difficult to avoid the news splashed across recent headlines:

“Gavin Newsom declares drought emergency for most of California."
“A harrowing California fire season is here, fueled by historic drought."
“In California's agricultural heartland, thousands of wells could soon run dry."
“First-ever water shortage declared on the Colorado River, triggering water cuts for some states in the West."

It's also easy to be overwhelmed by it all. Here, we break it down for you.

Drought, Defined

​Quite simply, a drought occurs when there is a duration of abnormally dry conditions. What's not simple is the magnitude of destruction it can create.

“What causes a drought is a dry, warm year," says Gillisann Harootunian, Ph.D., executive director of University Initiatives at California State University, Fresno. “And with climate change, you're getting more warm years, which means the chances of having a warm year and a dry year coincide are increasing. Climate change is exacerbating drought."

“Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.”

–United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

How Much Water Does California Need?

Picture your morning routine: You take a shower, brush your teeth, pour a cup of coffee, refill the dog bowl, make sure the sprinklers are programmed—all activities that require water. Now imagine 39 million Californians doing the same. In 2016, the average resident used 85 gallons of water per day. In all, the state goes through 38 billion gallons per day.

Add to that the approximately 34 million acre-feet of water needed to irrigate 9.6 million acres of farmland each year. This land is vital to the state’s agricultural industry, which adds $20 billion to the economy.​

“California receives 75 percent of its rain and snow in the watersheds north of Sacramento. However, 80 percent of California’s water demand comes from the southern two-thirds of the state.”

–California Department of Water Sources

34 million
acre-feet of water needed to irrigate 9.6 million acres of farmland each year

the average resident uses
85 gallons
of water per day

660 Gallons
of water needed to produce one hamburger

1.1 Gallons
of water needed to produce one almond

Go With the Flow

Where does California get its water? Rain is an important factor. As precipitation falls from the sky, our two main sources are replenished: surface water (lakes, rivers and reservoirs) and groundwater (aquifers). As surface water runs low, water must be pumped out of the ground. Snowcaps also serve as a natural storage source since rain freezes at higher temperatures, melts in the spring and then sends runoff into reservoirs. Dry years mean less rain, which results in less water replenishment.

“Our crops in California don't really like rain during the growing season, but they need water,” says Joe Del Bosque, owner of Del Bosque Farms in the Central Valley and alumnus of Fresno State. “Water falls in the mountains, is captured by reservoirs and is stored there by the state and federal water projects. When we need it, they release it down some rivers and it comes into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where it’s picked up by pumps and distributed to Central and Southern California and the Bay Area.”

“2021 tied for the third driest year on record.”




Types of Drought

Droughts are commonly placed into four categories. Each one is based on the area it affects.

  • ​Meteorological: deals with the shortfall of expected precipitation and how long it lasts
  • Agricultural: impact on crops
  • Hydrologic: impact on water supply
  • Socioeconomic: impact on underserved communities

They are also organized by severity and consequences.

Abnormally Dry (D1):​​​​
Slowing of crop growth, above average fire risk.

Moderate Drought (D2):
Damage to crops, high fire risk, low water levels, some water shortage.

Severe Drought (D3):
Loss of crops likely, very high fire risk, water shortages lead to water restrictions.

Extreme Drought (D4):
Major crop losses, extreme fire danger, widespread water shortages/restrictions.

Exceptional Drought (D5):
Widespread crop loss; exceptional fire risk; water shortages in reservoirs, streams and wells, which  cause water emergencies.

“Since 2000, the longest duration of drought (D1–D4) in California lasted 376 weeks, beginning on December 27, 2011 and ending on March 5th, 2019. The most intense period of drought occurred the week of July 29, 2014, when D4 affected 58.41 percent of California land.”

–National Centers for Environmental Information

Drone foot​age of Folsom Lake captures a dried-out marina in September 2021.​​


PHOTOGRAPHY: Patrick Record

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