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.
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