Researching current events: The California drought—is America running out of water?

A dry riverbed in California. (Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

A dry riverbed in California. (Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

With 2014 just one month underway, Federal officials already have designated parts of 11 states as natural disaster areas due to lack of rainfall. The California drought is causing a great deal of concern, particularly for farmers and ranchers who have, and will continue, to bear the brunt of the lack of water. Researching California’s past struggles with drought may yield insight into the current problem, but historical reflection may not yield answers to the current problem. Climate change is also likely to be affecting the rainfall amounts in the West. All of this may leave you wondering—is California’s drought just the beginning of America running out of water?

Historical droughts

California is no stranger to drought. Over the last 1,000 years, scientists have determined that the state has endured many long stretches of drought, some lasting 10 to 20 years, with several “megadroughts” that lasted for even longer periods. Paul Rogers wrote of a “240-year-long drought that started in 850 and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years” in “Scientists: Past California droughts have lasted 200 years” on January 31, 2014, for MSN.com.

The current drought is only three years old, but the consequences for California’s farmers have already been severe and will be devastating in the long-term if the drought were to continue for even 10 years. Rogers reports that “farmers use 80 percent of the water consumed by people and businesses” in the state. Continued drought means many farmers would go out of business, and food costs would rise.

Snow and rain

In 2013, California received less rain than it has in over 150 years. Typically, February through April is considered the state’s wettest part of the year. Eric Holthaus wrote for SlateCalifornia’s Devastating Drought Isn’t Going to Get Better Any Time Soon” on January 30, 2014, about rainfall and snow predictions for the future.

The National Weather Service’s forecasting models for that period show continued dry weather, with no significant rain chances until October 2014. Holthaus writes, “Normally in late January, there’s roughly 15 feet of snow on the slopes of the Sierras, which will be turned into mountain streams and cities’ water supplies in springtime. This year, there’s only a foot and a half.”

Wildfire season

The other concern with the California drought is the potential for an even more severe wildfire season. Firefighters are already battling wildfires in Southern California, and running out of water in the state only increases the chances for more, and bigger, wildfires. The Associated Press reported in “Severe Drought among Worst Ever to Hit California” on January 18, 2014, in The Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Ill.) that “Previous super-dry years led to catastrophic wildfire seasons in California in 2003 and 2007.”

Urban vs. rural

In addition to exacerbating wildfires, the California drought is also pitting the northern parts of the state against its southern brethren. Reservoir levels are higher in Southern California than in the middle or northern parts of California. In the Associated Press article, comments from Governor Jerry Brown addressed the conflict when he asked Los Angeles to conserve water. “The drought accentuates and further displays the conflicts between north and south and between urban and rural parts of the state,” Governor Brown said, asking the entire state to work together during this crisis.

Rogers predicts in his MSN.com post: “In urban areas, most cities would eventually see water rationing at 50 percent of current levels.” Other changes would include bans on watering lawns, as well as efforts to build new water supply projects like wastewater recycling plants or desalination plants should the California drought persist long enough and the state continue running out of water.

Want to learn more about environmental and earth sciences? Check out Questia—particularly the section on drought

How will the drought in California affect the state and the rest of the U.S.? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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