Special Report

9 Counties Running Out Of Water


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.

Click here to see the nine counties running out of water.

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.

9. Fresno County
> Pct. area with exceptional drought:
>Metro area: Fresno
>Total population: 974,861
>Pct. labor force employed in agriculture: 10.3%

Nearly 61% of Fresno County is experiencing the worst level of drought. While this proportion represents one of the worst drought levels in both the state and the country, that actually represents a meaningful improvement for Fresno County and its nearly 1 million residents. Before mid-April, the entire county had been in the highest level of drought since the beginning of 2015. In April, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention issued a warning to the county that acres of dry and dead trees pose a serious risk of major wildfires. Cal Fire has started removing dead and dying trees from the area with the hope of avoiding a catastrophe.

8. Kern County
> Pct. area with exceptional drought:
>Metro area: Bakersfield
>Total population: 882,176
>Pct. labor force employed in agriculture: 16.4%

While drought conditions have improved in much of the country and the state of California, conditions in Kern County did not improve. Between 60% and 80% of the county has been in the worst level of drought for more than two years. Last year, Kern River nearly reached its lowest level in decades. The low river flow severely hindered regional tourism that relies on fishing and rafting in the river. A wet winter appears to have meaningfully improved levels in the river this year, but Kern still currently is the eighth most drought-stricken U.S. county.

7. Orange County
> Pct. area with exceptional drought:
>Metro area: Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim
>Total population: 3,169,776
>Pct. labor force employed in agriculture: 0.5%

Orange County’s only natural lake dried up completely last year. The county relies on a large underground basin to supply water for the majority of its population. While Orange County Water District admits that the historic drought has lowered water levels in the basin, it contends that it is still within acceptable parameters. Exceptionally dry conditions in the region can result in other potential issues, specifically dead and dying trees that can increase the risk of wildfire.

6. Los Angeles County
> Pct. area with exceptional drought:
>Metro area: Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim
>Total population:10,170,292
>Pct. labor force employed in agriculture: 0.5%

While drought conditions in northern California have meaningfully improved in recent months due to a wet winter, much of the southern part of the state, including its largest city, remains in exceptional drought conditions. More than 85% of Los Angeles County is still experiencing the highest level of drought as measured by the USDA. Exceptional drought results in widespread crop and pasture loss as well as severe water shortages in reservoirs, streams, and wells. At least 80% of the county has been in a state of exceptional drought since July 2014.

5. San Luis Obispo County
> Pct. area with exceptional drought:
>Metro area: San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande
>Total population: 281,401
>Pct. labor force employed in agriculture: 3.6%

Drought conditions have subsided slightly in San Luis Obispo County in the past few months. From mid-April 2014 through early March 2016, 99% or more of the county had experienced the highest possible drought levels. While this improved slightly to 87.1% exceptional drought coverage, it is still fifth worst drought stricken county — in the state and the country. San Luis Obispo is one of the largest wine-producing counties in state, and the area’s production has suffered due to the drought. The value of wine grapes produced in San Luis Obispo declined by $57.3 million, or 8%, in 2015.

4. Kings County
> Pct. area with exceptional drought:
>Metro area: Hanford-Corcoran
>Total population:150,965
>Pct. labor force employed in agriculture: 16.2%

The vast majority of Kings County has been exceptionally dry for the past 28 straight months. As of May, the worst drought conditions cover all but 6% of the county’s area. Kings County is located in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley, and like much of the valley, disproportionately relies on agriculture. Nationally, 2% of the labor force is employed in agriculture. In Kings County, 16.2% of the labor force is. Agricultural production throughout the valley took a serious hit last year, as hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland were left unplanted to conserve water.

3. Tulare County
> Pct. area with exceptional drought:
>Metro area: Visalia-Porterville
>Total population: 459,863
>Pct. labor force employed in agriculture: 19.3%

Tulare County’s economy is one of the most heavily dependent on agriculture in California. Nearly 20% of the county’s labor force is employed in agriculture compared to just 2% of national labor force. Dairy is by far the county’s largest agricultural product, and dairy farmers across the county and the state have struggled to provide enough water to plant feed for their cows. As a result, dairy farmers across California have been forced to reduce the amount of land they plant to feed their herds and to import feed from out of state at a premium. In February 2014, just as the drought was beginning to become extreme in Tulare, the county declared a state of emergency due to dry conditions.

2. Ventura County
> Pct. area with exceptional drought:
>Metro area: Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura
>Total population: 850,536
>Pct. labor force employed in agriculture: 5.2%

Since March, 2014, at least 40% of the total area of Ventura County has been experiencing exceptional drought conditions. By July 2014, exceptional drought conditions covered 100% of the county, and conditions have not subsided since. Roughly three-quarters of the county’s 850,000 residents import their water, but the remainder do not. And conditions have become increasingly dire. The county’s Lake Casitas, which serves as a reservoir for the region, has dropped 69 feet to its lowest ever point since it was artificially filled in 1958.

1. Santa Barbara County
> Pct. area with exceptional drought:
>Metro area: Santa Maria-Santa Barbara
>Total population: 444,769
>Pct. labor force employed in agriculture: 8.7%

No county in the state has experienced drier conditions for longer than Ventura County. Since August 2013, at least 90% of the county has been in extreme or exceptional drought — the second-worst and worst levels of drought classified by the USDA. For the last 22 months, the entire county and its 444,000 residents have been living in exceptional drought conditions. Lake Cachuma, which is the main water supply for the southern part of the county, could reach its lowest historical levels by the end of the summer and be completely depleted by the end of the year.

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