Home / News / Crops news / Drought Continues to Hammer California; Little Relief in Sight

Drought Continues to Hammer California; Little Relief in Sight

Jeff Caldwell 08/28/2014 @ 10:27am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

John Steinbeck and Sonora Babb painted vivid pictures of the Dust Bowl in their novels The Grapes of Wrath and Whose Names Are Unknown. The stories showed the migration of impoverished farmers west from the Great Plains to California, where some found work and others found more pain in the orchards and fields of the Golden State.

Now, eight decades later, Mother Nature has flipped the script and has sharply depleted the water supply of the nation's top agriculture state just like she did in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and other Plains states in the 1930s. Now, California's agriculture and population in general is in danger of massive losses because of a years-long drought. The drought is yet to cause a human exodus like it did in the Plains during the Dust Bowl, but it is already causing massive cuts in crop and livestock production in the nation's largest agriculture state.

California's agriculture is the most diverse in the U.S. in terms of the number of crops grown. With dramatic cuts in production because of the drought, many expect prices for many products to skyrocket as supplies dwindle. As of midsummer, NOAA data showed 100% of the state's hay, cattle, and winter wheat crops, for example, were seeing production cutbacks because of the drought; almost 60% of the state's winter wheat was under "exceptional" drought, and 58% of the state's area where cattle are raised was in the same category. That's expected to cause major cuts in the state's cattle herd, which has been around 5.3 million head in the last 2 years. Total crop area in the state has already been sharply reduced; in 2012, just shy of 4.4 million acres were planted to "principal crops," according to USDA-NASS. This year, NASS shows 3.58 million acres planted.

While the dryness that gripped the nation's center two years ago has largely abated, the drought has only intensified in California and neighboring states; Nevada is, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 100% under some form of drought, while 99.8% of California is in the same condition. Of the latter state, 23% is in the worst category -- "exceptional" -- of drought, according to a report from the California-Nevada Climate Applications Program (CNAP) administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS).

Graphic courtesy U.S. Drought Monitor

Drought is nothing new to California, though. A CNAP report shows there's a water shortage -- though not as severe as the one underway right now -- in the state about three times a decade. And, research shows there have even been "megadroughts," or those that last as long as 100 years, in the past. More research is being conducted right now to determine what conditions could trigger another of these massive dry spells in the future.

"The year 1977 is often used as a model of extreme dryness in California. Statewide accumulation in water years 1974-77 was 45 inches statewide, compared to an average of 70 inches," according to a CNAP report. "The three-water year period of 2011-14 has less accumulated precipitation than the period 1974-77, and so sets a new record for low three-year statewide precipitation accumulation totals in the historical record."

Precipitation is surprisingly just one piece of the California drought puzzle. On top of consecutive years with sharply below-normal rainfall, there's been an atmospheric angle, one in which the adjacent Pacific Ocean has played a role.

"The immediate cause of California’s 2014 drought can be traced to the altered route of atmospheric water vapor, which is necessary for strong winter precipitation in the state. Ordinarily, water evaporates from the ocean in the warm Tropical Pacific Ocean and winds carry that water vapor to the U.S. West Coast," according to a CNAP report. "However, in 2014 the water vapor transport split into two branches and ended up going either north or south of California. Why did the water vapor diverge from its usual route across the Pacific? One reason was the presence of a 'ridge' of high atmospheric pressures off the northwest coast of North America. This ridge steered water vapor away from California."

Last spring, climatologists reached agreement that El Niño was making a comeback. When the Southern Oscillation Index swings away from La Niña and toward El Niño, that typically means more moisture for the West Coast of the U.S. So, will that do much to ease the Golden State drought if El Niño does return? The short answer is: It depends.

"El Niño typically brings wetter-than-normal conditions to much of the southern half of California and the interior Southwestern U.S. As the summer of 2014 progressed, it looked likely that any El Niño that formed would be relatively mild," according to a CNAP report. "There is a severe deficit, which manifests in low reservoir levels and dry soil, with attendant hardships on farmers and other users. The heavy precipitation needed to erase the current drought has historically only been seen during particularly strong El Niños, but even then it is not guaranteed; some strong events have near-normal precipitation. Precipitation in the northern parts of the state are less affected by El Niño than the South Coast drainage. Overall, records suggest that if an El Niño develops, only a strong event is likely to have a chance of erasing the current drought."

A report by CNAP researcher Mike Dettinger outlines the likelihood that El Niño will alter current drought conditions, and the numbers aren't pretty.

"Any way you dice it, we are still going to end up about 10 inches short of where we should be as a state. Looking only at El Niño (presumably wet) years, [research] shows there is a 21% chance we won’t even get to fill in the hold from water year 2013/2014," according to a CNAP blog post outlining Dettinger's research. "And we see the 8% chance that we might fill in the hole and get back to normal."

Looking ahead through fall, the chances of the drought easing in California are slim. According to the NOAA Climate Prediction Center, an area stretching from the eastern half of Nevada to western Kansas, south to west Texas and north to the Canadian border has chances for "above-normal precipitation." On top of the Golden State's exclusion from that area, temperatures are expected to be above-normal as well, according to NOAA Climate Prediction Center meteorologist David Miskus. This adds up to the likelihood that the drought will "persist or intensify" through late fall and early winter.


More California Drought stories & features from around the Web

California drought eases but only in desert, weekly report indicates
Published: 8/28/2014
On Assignment: Focusing on the effects of California's persistent drought Severe drought conditions are evident as hundreds of houseboats are dwarfed by steep banks that show the water level down 160 feet from the high water mark at Bidwell Canyon Marina on Lake Oroville in June. Officials say that Lake Oroville is only at 43% of capacity.


California Drought Brings On A Downpour Of Pseudoscience
Published: 8/29/2014
August 27, 2014 // 06:15 PM EST A dowser, dowsing. Image/ Wikimedia Across drought-stricken California, farmers, vintners, and plenty of others are desperate for water. The phenomenon is nothing new, of course, as humans have a long, weird history of trying to conjure water out of the ether through mystic or technic means.


Porterville Residents Without Water As Wells Go Dry During California Drought
Published: 8/27/2014
PORTERVILLE (CBS13) — Hundreds of people in a California town have no water after wells ran dry during the state’s drought. The small town of Porterville in Tulare County has about 7,300 residents, and at least 300 homes have been without water for weeks. My kids had to wear dirty clothes to school this morning,” said Elizabeth Baker.


California Drought Portrait: Our Shrinking Reservoirs
Published: 8/26/2014
It’s no surprise, really: Water levels in California’s reservoirs continue to drop as the thirsty state waits for the first sign of fall rains. Last week, Getty Images photographer Justin Sullivan took an aerial tour of some of the reservoirs, including Lake Oroville. For instance, as recently as April 2013, Lake Oroville was roughly 90 percent full.


How Serious Is The California Drought?
Published: 8/25/2014
Rising rates would hurt bonds and equities but would support gold. This was clearly seen in the 1970s when rising interest rates corresponded with rising gold prices. Gold becomes vulnerable towards...


California Drought: Wells Literally Running Dry In One Central Valley Community
Published: 8/27/2014
Like most journalists in Northern California, Rebecca Corral has been. For residents of the Central Valley community of East Porterville, many of whom use private wells as their source of water, thesituation is decidedly dire. “In this particular community, the wells are running dry,” said Denise England, a senior administrative analyst with the Tulare County Water Resources Department.


California Drought: Devastating Photos Show Lakes Drying Up
Published: 8/25/2014
As California closes out its eighth month of a drought State of Emergency, effects of the water shortage are being felt across the state. Hundreds of residents in rural San Joaquin Valley have become the first Californians to run out of tap water


California drought stressing bees, keepers
Published: 8/25/2014
– California’s record drought hasn’t been sweet to honeybees, and it’s creating a sticky situation for beekeepers and honey buyers. “Our honey crop is severely impacted by the drought, and it does impact our bottom line as a business,” said Gene Brandi, a beekeeper in Los Banos, a farming town in California’s Central Valley.


California drought driving food prices higher
Published: 8/22/2014
How high will food prices go?


"How serious is California drought? Check out these before & after pictures, taken only 3 years apart."
Published: 8/22/2014
Worst drought in recorded history in California. "And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way." - John Steinbeck, East of Eden Meanwhile: California couple conserving water amid drought could face [ ].


CancelPost Comment
MORE FROM JEFF CALDWELL more +

Midwest Temps Dip; Frost Chances Remain Low By: 09/11/2014 @ 6:29am The system that brought monsoon-type rainfall to parts of the Midwest over the last few days has…

Don't Neglect Safety This Harvest By: 09/10/2014 @ 8:57am Harvest is here (or close, depending on your location). It's about the craziest time of the…

Storing Grain Outside This Fall? Keep It Dry… By: 09/10/2014 @ 6:51am If crop output projections reach fruition this fall, there could be a lot of corn and soybeans…

MEDIA CENTERmore +
This container should display a .swf file. If not, you may need to upgrade your Flash player.
Farm Science Review, Day Two