Storms Get Headlines, but Drought Is a Sneaky, Devastating Game-Changer

As California and the American West dry up, a way of life is threatened.

The sun beats down on the San Joaquin River and surrounding agricultural fields in California.

If droughts were hurricanes, people might pay more attention to them. Droughts can creep up on us with their prolonged absence of rain, and their effects often are seen as not much more than cracked ground in dry lake bottoms. Devastating storms can be sudden and meteorologically exciting, and they make great television. Droughts are deliberate—a relatively slow evolution in which it can be difficult to capture the devastation in any one moment.

Yet droughts affecting several Western states and especially California—where rainfall and mountain snowpacks have been below normal for three years—can cost as much as other natural disasters and have the potential to affect society for hundreds of years.

California's current drought ranks among the driest on record in the state, but pales compared with ancient "megadroughts" in the West that lasted longer than a century, according to paleoclimatic studies of ancient clues such as tree rings and stream sediments from Western landscapes. Ancient droughts caused civilizations to fall, driving people away in search of water and food.

The grounds of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles are kept lush with frequent watering.

More People in a Dry Region

Unlike ancient times, though, the West now supports millions of people, many in big cities, all relying on this semiarid landscape to provide necessities that droughts steal: ample water, food, energy, and a livable environment.

More than 38 million people live in California—not quite double the state's population in the 1970s, during the previous major droughts in the West. Seven of the United States' most densely populated cities are now in California, and Western states, despite their vast open spaces, have become the most urban of all U.S. regions, holding several of the nation's fastest growing cities.

California, with its gross domestic product of nearly $2 trillion, would have the world's ninth largest economy if it were a country. If this three-year drought continues into a fourth year, early estimates of $5 billion worth of damage to the state's economy will rise, especially as valuable fruit and vegetable industries run out of water.

California faces record temperatures this year, and nearly 80 percent of the state is in what scientists call "extreme or exceptional" drought, prompting officials from the state water control board to call for mandatory water restrictions in urban areas. Voluntary conservation hasn't been enough. In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency and asked California residents and cities to voluntarily cut their water usage by 20 percent. Usage is down only 5 percent this year, however.

The proposed restrictions are modest. Residents in urban areas not previously under water restrictions would be asked to stop wasteful watering of lawns and plants. Washing of driveways and sidewalks would no longer be permitted, and shutoff nozzles would have to be used on hoses used for washing cars to reduce waste. Visible waste or runoff to adjacent properties, streets, or sidewalks would not be allowed when lawns and landscaping are watered.

The state water board will vote on the proposed rules on Tuesday. If the rules are approved, they would go into effect on August 1. Violators would be fined up to $500 a day. Cities such as Los Angeles and Sacramento already have imposed watering restrictions.

State water board chair Felicia Marcus said in announcing the restrictions, "We are in one of the worst statewide droughts in modern times. We will see hundreds of thousands of fields fallowed this year, we have communities struggling for water, we have streams and creeks running dry, and wildlife will suffer. We don't know when it is going to rain again. It's prudent to act as if it won't."

Some wonder why action has taken so long. Peter Gleick, a water issues specialist at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, said in May, "It is the third year of the drought, and we did not act in the first two years as though anything was abnormal."

These almond trees in Firebaugh, California, are being removed due to lack of water.

Drought's Rising Economic Impact

Farmers use more water in California than anyone—at least three-quarters of the state's supply—and they rely on the state's vast network of rivers, dams, and canals that capture and store rain and snowmelt. Most of the water used each summer typically arrives during winter snowstorms in the mountains. But if there isn't much snow, and rain doesn't fall, then California's reservoirs don't fill, creating a water crisis in which farms are among the first to lose their water supply.

In late May more than 2,600 Sacramento Valley farmers who hold what are called "junior water rights"—those awarded after 1914—lost access to irrigation water from rivers for their crops and orchards. Yet in early July, the Sacramento Bee reported that fewer than one-third of these farmers reported complying with the state's demands to stop water use.

When irrigation water is lost, farm workers lose their jobs, harvests shrink as hundreds of thousands of water-starved farm acres lay fallow, and food prices rise. A report released Tuesday from the University of California, Davis projected that this year's drought in California will cause 17,100 people to lose their jobs and more than 410,000 acres to lay fallow. The state's economy is projected to suffer a $2.2 billion hit.

A poignant Los Angeles Times story tells of one farmer who nurtured his young pistachio orchard for years near Terra Bella in the San Joaquin Valley, only to watch it wither and die for lack of water this year.

Drought also endangers fish, birds, and trees. Young trout—which need cold water to survive—were evacuated from hatcheries on the American River because the water was getting too warm, and young migratory salmon have been trucked to the ocean because rivers are too low. Bees, which pollinate an array of crops, are going hungry because fewer flowers abound to make honey.

A "Kingdom of Dust"

As a native Westerner, I've heard for years a maxim that "water flows uphill to money." That certainly is the case now in California. Some water districts and Central Valley landowners with water to spare are selling it at ten times the market price—up to $2,200 an acre-foot (an acre-foot is enough water to cover a football field a foot deep). For those wanting to save an orchard or an expensive landscaped yard, an acre-foot of water comes cheap at that price.

Well-drilling has become big business as farmers seek any water for crops and orchards. Fresno County well-drillers report a doubling of business this year. Yet, as the rush for groundwater accelerates across the Central Valley, the land can sink, or "subside," as water is sucked from the sponge-like aquifer.

Photographer Matt Black, who grew up in California's Central Valley and has documented the life of its farmers and farm workers for decades, said drought is transforming the land he knows. "What was this kingdom of food is becoming a kingdom of dust," Black says.

Expectations rose earlier this summer that a coming El Niño—with ample storms this autumn and winter—might help alleviate the drought. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has downgraded forecasts, tempering hopes that El Niño will help slake the state's thirst. A major El Niño in the winter of 1997-98 brought heavy storms and flooding to California.

Talk now focuses on the odds of a fourth year of drought this winter into 2015. A June study from the Association of California Water Agencies, whose members manage about 90 percent of the state's water, said another year of drought would cause "disastrous consequences," with hundreds of thousands of acres of annual and permanent crop acres idled, and cotton farming ending in the San Joaquin Valley.

Water scientist Jay Famiglietti of NASA and UC-Irvine wrote July 8 in the Los Angeles Times, "Without a few successive winters of above-average precipitation, we have only enough water in storage to get through the next 12 to 18 months, and that's it."

Famiglietti said the public must realize that California's three main water sources—snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada, local groundwater, and imported water from the Colorado River Basin—are all declining, and the time for mandatory water restrictions is now.

In his call for stringent water-use limits, Famiglietti said that this "is a real emergency requiring an emergency response."

He went on, "If Southern California does not step up and conserve its water, and if the drought continues on its epic course, there is nothing more that our water managers can do for us. Water availability in Southern California would be drastically reduced. With those reductions, we should expect skyrocketing water, food and energy prices, as well as the demise of agriculture."

The snowpack around Mount Lassen in northeastern California is significantly reduced this year.

An Enduring Shift in Climate?

The irrigated farms and gleaming cities of the American West—Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego, and Denver among them—all rely on a watery sleight of hand called reclamation.

During the past century, the wettest century in the past 1,000 years, we built thousands of dams and reservoirs in valleys across the West, the largest of them Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams on the Colorado River. These dams allow us to capture and store meltwater from snowflakes falling in the Rockies, Sierra Nevada, and Cascades. In dry months the stored water is released into a vast network of canals, aqueducts, and faucets across the West to supply fields, factories, and burgeoning cities.

This time-delay scheme has been successful until now, but long-term studies indicate that snowpack is slowly shrinking across the region as the snow season shortens and runoff occurs earlier in spring. Climate forecasts—including the recently released National Climate Assessment—indicate that the Southwest can expect shrinking snowpacks, rising temperatures, more evaporation, and reduced streamflows. The number of wildfires also is expected to rise as rain, snow, and soil moisture decline.

In the second half of the 13th century, Native Americans called the Anasazi suddenly disappeared from their homes at Mesa Verde on the Colorado Plateau during a severe drought. Robert Kunzig wrote in the February 2008 issue of National Geographic magazine that "in the last two or three decades of the century, right when the tree rings record one of the most severe droughts in the region, the people left. They never came back."

Philosopher George Santayana said more than a century ago that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We should not forget that what happened to the Anasazi also could happen to us.

We must begin to manage down our water demand in this already overtaxed and drying landscape, or we should not be surprised if nature does it for us.

Drought resources: If you are interested in following ongoing developments in California's water situation, several online resources are available. They include California Drought Watch and the California Water Blog from the University of California, Davis and The California Drought blog from the Pacific Institute, which conducts ongoing water research. Public radio station KQED in San Francisco maintains Drought Watch, and the Water Education Foundation has Aquafornia. Blogger Chris Austin, who created Aquafornia, now edits Maven's Notebook, a rich array of news and resources. Daniel Swain produces the California Weather Blog. State government sources include the California Department of Water Resources and California Drought. The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) has rich online resources.

Dennis Dimick is National Geographic's Executive Editor for the Environment. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and flickr.