For the first time in at least 15 years, all of California is officially in drought.
According to the April 22 release of the U.S. Drought Monitor, every last inch of California is in a state of “moderate” to “exceptional” drought — the first time in the monitor’s 15-year history that’s occurred. Indeed, the vast majority of California’s territory is now either at “extreme” or “exceptional,” which are the two most severe levels.
The total amount of drought covering the U.S. also increased, from 37.9 percent of the country last week to 38.4 percent this week. The southwestern United States once again saw almost no precipitation. Forecasts for the next two weeks also anticipate drier-than-normal conditions across the Southwest, the Great Plains and the Midwest.
In northern California, the city of Montague requested that all outside watering be reduced until further notice — the first time it’s done that in 80 years, as the community risks running out of water by the end of the summer. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week that half the Sierra Nevada’s snowpack melted in one week, thanks to temperatures that went as high as 12 degrees above average. In an indication of how much damage the ongoing drought has already done, the agency said all the melt gave just a slight boost to reservoir levels.
California’s crops and agriculture are also taking a pounding. Mike Wade, the California Farm Water Coalition’s executive director, told USA Today that the direct and indirect economic costs of the drought are already estimated at $7.48 billion, including 800,000 acres of farmland left idle and 20,000 job losses.
On top of all this, a recent study out of Utah State University has linked both the drought in the western U.S. and the frigid winter that just hit the eastern U.S. to climate change. The author of the work, climate scientist Simon Wang, looked at a twin set of pressure systems — one of unusually high pressure off America’s Pacific coast, and one of unusually low pressure over the Great Lakes — called a “dipole.” The combined effect is to drive warm and severely dry weather across the southwest, and unusually cold and snowy weather across the northeastern United States.
Wang found the difference between the two system’s extremes has been increasing over the last few decades. And after drawing on a number of computer models and historical data sets, he also found the severity of the increase could not be explained without the influence of humanity’s carbon emissions.
Previous research has also shown that the affect of climate change on the North Pole’s temperatures could alter the jet stream, pulling colder air farther south more often.
Good news was not entirely absent, however. The expansion of the drought on the state-wide level does not mean no precipitation anywhere, and several communities in California that were in danger of running out of water within 60 days back in February were lucky enough to see some rain. Between that and intervention by the state government, the number of towns at risk dropped from 17 in January to 3 now.