Special Report

10 Cities Running Out of Water

After multiple unusually dry years across the western, southern and central United States, more than 80% of California is now in a state of extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. An average of nearly 90% of Bakersfield, Calif., has been in a state of exceptional drought over the first seven months of 2014, more than any other large urban area.

Based on data provided by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a collaboration between academic and government organizations, 24/7 Wall St. identified large U.S. urban areas that have been under persistent, serious drought over the first seven months of this year. The Drought Monitor measures drought by five levels of intensity: from D0, described as abnormally dry, to D4, described as exceptional drought. For the first time in the Drought Monitor’s history, 100% of California is under at least severe drought conditions, or D2. It was also the first time exceptional drought of any kind — the highest level — has been recorded in the state.

Unlike last year, when the large urban areas with the worst drought were either in Colorado, Texas or New Mexico, this year they are all in California. Further, while last year exceptional drought covered no more than 72% of any of the urban areas with the worst drought, this year exceptional drought covers at least 75% of all the urban areas on our list.

Brad Rippey, a meteorologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), explained that nearly all of the state’s rain falls “from late autumn into the spring, so once you get past April, California is pretty much locked in with drought.” While drought in the state tends to be seasonal, the situation this year is far from normal.

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency in January, and conditions have not been this dry since the mid to late 1970s. Mark Svoboda, climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of the Drought Monitor, described the state’s multiyear dry spell as a “once in a generation type of drought,” and one of the three worst droughts in over a century.

While the level of drought this year is alarming, it has not come as a surprise. Atmospheric pressure over the Northeastern Pacific Ocean has remained persistently high the past several years, preventing winter storms from reaching California. The infamous “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” — a pressure region in the Pacific Ocean — has acted as an “invisible dome that just doesn’t let moisture come into California,” Svoboda said. This has led to “two consecutive winters of very low snowpack, higher temperatures, and early melts.”

Despite the water crisis, California is coping exceptionally well. According to Svoboda, the state’s water supply is 20% greater than what it was during the 1970s’ drought, “which is pretty remarkable because they’ve doubled [in] population.”

At any rate, such extreme drought conditions have had ripple effects on the state’s environment and local economies. California has a dry season and a fire season, Svoboda noted. With the drought, however, the state is dealing with a “year-round fire season instead of a seasonal fire season,” which obviously puts an enormous strain on not just water supplies, but everything else that goes into fire-fighting operations.

According to a recent University of California study, the drought will cost the state an estimated $2.2 billion and more than 17,000 jobs. The economic impact will be even higher in California’s Central Valley, where many of the cities with the worst drought conditions are located. The Central Valley is known for its vibrant agricultural industry, which is also a primary source of specialty crops such as fruits and nuts for the nation.

Rippey added that agriculture is just one of several industries affected by the drought. The tourism and recreational industries, as well as any business relying on hydroelectric power, are also under considerable strain.

As a result of the severely dry conditions, nearly all urban areas in California have made considerable water conservation efforts. These measures usually include mandatory limitations on water consumption, rationing, reallocations of water to the most essential crops, and distribution of guidelines for everyday water use, for example.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the USDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 24/7 Wall St. identified the 10 urban areas with populations of 75,000 or more where the highest percentages of the area was under “exceptional” drought conditions in the first seven months of 2014. All data are as of the week ending July 15.

These are the cities running out of water.

10. Fresno, Calif.
> Exceptional drought coverage (2014): 75.1%
> Extreme drought coverage (2014): 100%
> Population: 654,628

Over the first seven months of this year, around 75% of Fresno was engulfed in exceptional drought, the 10th highest proportion among large urban areas. Such a drought can cause water emergencies brought on by shortages in reservoirs, streams and wells, as well as widespread agricultural failures. The remaining one-quarter of Fresno that was not in exceptional drought did not fare much better, as 100% of the city was in a state of extreme drought. Extreme drought also often results in crop failures, water shortages and restrictions on usage. Starting August 1, Fresno residents will be permitted to water their lawns just twice a week. Like much of the Central Valley, Fresno relies heavily on its agricultural industry, which is particularly vulnerable to drought. According to a recent news report, Fresno County is no longer California’s leading agricultural producer, with overall crop values falling by more than 2% last year. Fresno has also been the site of numerous wildfires in recent months.

9. Visalia, Calif.
> Exceptional drought coverage (2014): 75.3%
> Extreme drought coverage (2014): 100%
> Population: 219,454

Visalia is the county seat of centrally located Tulare County, a national leader in agricultural production. Tulare County officials declared a state of emergency at the beginning of the year due to the severe drought conditions. Local officials cited damaged fruit trees and a range of economic impacts, particularly on businesses linked to agriculture. As Rippey explained, California’s Central Valley, which includes Visalia and Tulare County, is a unique source of specialty crops such as fruits, nuts and vegetables. Like Fresno, 100% of Visalia is engulfed in extreme drought, and more than 75% of the region has been in a state of exceptional drought since the beginning of the year.

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8. Madera, Calif.
> Exceptional drought coverage (2014): 76.1%
> Extreme drought coverage (2014): 100%
> Population: 78,413

Madera is among the smaller urban areas reviewed, with just over 78,000 residents. Like the rest of the state, the city is undergoing unprecedented drought conditions. Madera County implemented the fourth stage of its water conservation measures at the end of May. Residents are now prohibited from all outdoor water use, and pools must be filled from water originating outside the service area. The Madera region is a top producer of grapes, almonds and other nuts, all of which require extensive irrigation even under normal weather conditions. While the agricultural industry is the most vulnerable to drought, municipalities are also affected. Madera County recently proposed an increase to water and sewer rate in several districts, likely due to the growing scarcity of fresh water throughout the area.

7. Santa Cruz, Calif.
>Exceptional drought coverage (2014): 76.3%
>Extreme drought coverage (2014): 96.4%
> Population: 163,703

Santa Cruz, the largest city in Santa Cruz County, began rationing its water supply in May in an effort to reduce water consumption by 25%. Households are allowed to use a certain allotment of water and are subject to fines and penalties for excess usage. Just over half of the Santa Cruz urban area was engulfed in severe drought last year, the third highest drought intensity level. During the first seven months of 2014, nearly 100% of the area was under extreme drought conditions, and more than 76% under exceptional drought. The level of exceptional drought, previously unheard of in California, encompassed a relatively small area until the end of February. Since then, however, 100% of the region has covered by exceptional drought every week.

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6. Merced, Calif.
> Exceptional drought coverage (2014): 78.3%
> Extreme drought coverage (2014): 100%
> Population: 136,969

Merced City and the surrounding region typically receives five inches of rain between July and the end of the year, according to the National Weather Service. Last year, just one inch was recorded for the area. Nearby Lake McClure has been drawn so low, the Merced Irrigation District has formed plans to relocate all boats docked on the lake. More than 78% of Merced has been in exceptional drought since the beginning of the year. The entirety of the Merced urban area has been covered by exceptional drought since the middle of February as the region began feeling the effects of the unusually warm and dry winter season.

5. Santa Maria, Calif.
> Exceptional drought coverage (2014): 78.6%
> Extreme drought coverage (2014): 100%
> Population: 130,447

Like most of California, exceptional drought was not recorded in the Santa Maria urban area until mid-February. Since then, 100% of Santa Maria has had exceptional drought — making the area especially vulnerable to crop failures, water shortages and water emergencies. The state of California usually allocates water during periods of drought. Earlier in the year, however, the state suspended all water shipments. While the drought problem in Santa Maria is among the worst in the nation, the region has better-than-average ground water supplies, according to local news.

4. Gilroy–Morgan Hill, Calif.
> Exceptional drought coverage (2014): 79.4%
> Extreme drought coverage (2014): 96.4%
> Population: 98,413

Gilroy–Morgan Hill is located in Santa Clara County in Northern California. Like a few other California urban areas with the worst drought, extreme and exceptionally dry conditions were not recorded at all last year. Over the first seven months of this year, nearly 80% of Morgan Hill was engulfed in the highest level of drought. As a result, the region is among several with an increased risk of wildfire. Just last month, the Curie Fire burned around 125 acres. Local officials have enacted a number of restrictions to preserve the water supply. The area’s nearly 100,000 residents are not permitted to wash vehicles or to clean pavement with hoses, for example. Restaurants and other establishments in the area are also required to serve drinking water only upon request.

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3. Salinas, Calif.
> Exceptional drought coverage (2014): 85.3%
> Extreme drought coverage (2014): 96.4%
> Population: 184,809

Salinas City is the county seat of Monterey County, where nearly 5,000 acres burned this past June in one of several wildfires recorded in recent months in the county. According to the city’s website, the Salinas Valley is the “Salad Bowl of the World,” as it produces approximately 70% of the nation’s lettuce. But as Salinas recorded just a fraction of the average 15 inches of rainfall usually recorded during the wet season, many crops will likely continue to suffer. More than 85% of the Salinas urban area was engulfed in exceptional drought through the first seven months of this year, on average.

2. Hanford, Calif.
> Exceptional drought coverage (2014): 85.4%
> Extreme drought coverage (2014): 100%
> Population: 87,941

Already at the end of January, in the midst of a traditionally wet period that usually replenishes reservoirs and groundwater supply, 63.7% of Hanford was experiencing exceptional drought. By the end of July, conditions deteriorated, bringing the average exceptional drought coverage to more than 85% of the region. Now, the risk of crop failure, water shortages and water emergencies is even more widespread. With higher water bills and increased strain on local industries, the impact the drought has had on residents is tangible. Growing unemployment among farm workers, for one, will increase the need for food and financial assistance during drought in the region, according to the Hanford Sentinel.

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1. Bakersfield, Calif.
> Exceptional drought coverage (2014): 89.3%
> Extreme drought coverage (2014): 100%
> Population: 523,994

With nearly 90% of the region engulfed in a state of exceptional drought, Bakersfield’s more than half a million residents are enduring the worst drought conditions among large U.S. urban areas. While the drought has persisted over multiple years, less than 40% of the urban area was enduring extreme drought and none of it was under exceptional drought last year, on average. According to the Bakersfield Californian, area residents were having difficulty curbing their water usage as early as February, with consumption rates increasing in some areas despite worsening drought conditions. At that time, the city seemed optimistic. With its relatively large population, the city has been able to justify shipping in water from other areas. Unlike most other California urban areas, Bakersfield has not imposed rationing or other restrictive policies.

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