This week, California lifted some — but not all — of its statewide restrictions on urban water use. This comes as Lake Mead’s water level, affected by the same dry conditions that have devastated California, reached its lowest level on record.
Unlike several past winters, this last one was relatively wet, relieving drought conditions in the northern part of the state and allowing the state to lift some of water restrictions. Conditions in much of the southern part of the state, however, remain unimproved. Southern California did not benefit from the wet weather, and some major counties have now been in a state of exceptional drought — the worst level classified by the United States Department of Agriculture — since early 2014.
Currently nine counties have at least 60% of their total area in exceptional drought conditions. During periods of exceptional drought, losses of crop or pasture as well as water shortages and restrictions are widespread.
In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Brad Rippey, agricultural meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explained that the California winter was indeed a boon for the northern part of the state. “Now, you go to the southern end of the state and it’s like a whole different world. They did not get any sustained precipitation there, and so roughly from the San Joaquin Valley southward there are still major issues in California with reservoirs and rivers.”
As the hottest, driest months approach, Southern California braces for further worsening of already historically poor conditions. Most of these counties have been in a state of exceptional drought for almost 30 straight months. The prolonged drought has dried the lakes and wells around the state, and municipal water reservoirs are at just a fraction of their capacity.
Several of these counties are located in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which is one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, and these county economies disproportionately rely on farming. While just 2% of the nation’s workforce is employed in agriculture, at least 10% of the workforce is employed in agriculture in four of these counties.
Due to the months-long drought, farmers have been forced to allow hundreds of thousands of acres to lie fallow and focus their limited water supplies on a smaller number of crops. The total reduction in crop output in the state is estimated to have reduced California’s agricultural production by some $1.84 billion in 2015 alone.
Another potential problem for residents of these counties is the increased risk of wildfires. The drought has killed many trees, effectively creating kindling for the upcoming wildfire season. “In Southern California, we’ve got the issue of dead and dying trees, millions of them, and that may be manifested in the form of wildfires not just this year but for years to come,” Rippey said.
Conditions may not get better for these counties any time soon. California summers are typically dry and warm, and meteorologists are projecting a 70% chance of La Nina conditions this fall, which means dry conditions are likely to extend even beyond the summer.
24/7 Wall St. identified the driest counties in California based on the most recent drought levels estimated by the United States Department of Agriculture as of the week ended May 17 from the U.S. Drought Monitor. 24/7 Wall St. identified the nine counties with the most widespread exceptional drought conditions.