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Sunday, March 3, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Drought conditions worsen in California

Unless a March miracle occurs — and meteorologists don't see one coming — a third consecutive year of drought is in the cards for the Golden State.

(CN) — The two large storms that broadsided California in October and December brought optimism that the dry weather that has plagued the state would be relegated to the past. 

But after a dry January and February, that optimism has been replaced with a sense of gloom. 

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor released its weekly report showing that 68% of California is in severe drought and 100% of the state is suffering from abnormally dry conditions. 

The authors of the report said 37 million Californians are living in areas severely impacted by drought. 

Thursday's news comes on the heels of an announcement by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that the federally managed water system will not deliver any water to California’s main agricultural region due to the lack of water. 

“It’s devastating to the agricultural economy and to those people that rely on it,” said Ernest Conant, regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “But unfortunately we can’t make it rain.”

The Central Valley Water Project takes water that runs off from the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and transfers it via a series of pumps and canals to farms in the Central Valley, where the soil is fertile but precipitation scant. 

But as California enters year three of below-average rain and snowfall, those deliveries have stopped occurring, forcing some farmers to pull their orchards or let their fields go fallow. 

Last year, as California suffered a second consecutive winter of cloudless skies and little rain, the bureau began by delivering 5% of historical water deliveries but ended the year by stopping all deliveries. This year, even the 5% is off the table. 

“Last year was a very bad year. This year could turn out to be worse,” Conant said.

While the water year begins in October in California, it is the lack of precipitation in the calendar year that is perplexing water officials in the state. 

“2022 year-to-date precipitation averages less than 25% of normal throughout much of California and the Great Basin,” the drought monitor report states. 

The Sierra snowpack, which provides California with much of its water for agricultural purposes, is about 75% of normal heading into the pivotal March 1 reading slated for next week. 

The report further mentioned if the faucet stays turned off for March, many territories in California and Nevada will be downgraded to more severe drought categories. 

The lack of water has also been particularly deleterious for native populations in California riverways. 

Thousands of young salmon died in the Klamath River due to the lack of cold water running into the watershed from melting snow. 

The Westlands Water District, which covers a major agricultural region near Fresno, Calif. released a statement this week expressing disappointment that no water deliveries will reach farmers in their region. 

"The district is disappointed with the allocation but is aware that hydrologic conditions, including low CVP reservoir storage conditions at the beginning of the water year and record low precipitation in January and February, and Reclamation’s obligation to meet delta water quality and outflow standards imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board, prevent Reclamation from making water available under the district’s contract,” the district said in a release.  

More than 200,000 acres of farmland in the district has been fallowed, meaning thousands of acres worth of food crops will go unplanted. 

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Categories / Environment, Regional

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