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The California Drought

The California Drought

The Tuolumne River flows 149 miles westward through the Sierra Nevada foothills before converging with the San Joaquin River in the Central Valley. You can see where the normal water level is by the markings on the bridge pylons. Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey.

It’s been called the California drought, but it affects much of the western United States. For more than four years, there has been little rain and snow in the region, but that’s just part of the problem. These areas have also experienced record high heat, which has baked away what little moisture remained in the soil. It’s a drought double-whammy.

How bad is it?

It’s not good. In California, nearly the entire state is experiencing “extreme drought” or “exceptional drought,” which is a step above extreme. It is dry, dry, dry. In fact, on January 17, 2014 California State Governor, Jerry Brown, declared a drought state of emergency.

The darker the color, the drier it is. That dark, dark red—that’s really, really bad. Image Credit: The National Drought Mitigation Center.

One study from the University of Minnesota and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found it’s the worst drought in 1,200 years. What?!

Wait, how do you know about droughts from so long ago?

A blue oak tree. Image source: Wikimedia commons, user Yath.

To get historical data about past dry years, we can use data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a computer climate model called the North American Drought Atlas. We can also look at tree rings from old blue oak trees that are hundreds of years old.

History in the trees

You may have heard of using tree rings to learn about the past, but what are scientists looking for? There is information in the thickness of each ring. Thick rings mean that there was a wetter year and the tree was able to grow faster with plentiful water available.

Scientists don’t have to cut down the whole tree to see the rings, either. They can just insert a hollow drill into the trunk and pull out a sliver of the tree and see the rings that way.

Image source: Geograph project collection, Pauline Eccles.




So what now?

Right, the drought is really bad, and it’s not like we can control the weather and make it cool down and rain. (But that would be nice.) With no end in sight for this historic drought, it’s all going to come down to planning and conservation. California in particular has a lot of water needs, as much of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown there.


Saving Water Wherever Possible

Since people will still want strawberries, tomatoes and grapes, the water savings are going to have to come from other areas. People will need to replace water-wasting grass lawns with drought tolerant plants, take shorter showers, and fix leaky faucets. The drought affects everyone in these areas and beyond, and getting through it will need to involve everyone, too.