Space & Innovation

California Drought by the Numbers

Numbers don't lie, and the data underlying California's drought do not have anything good to say.

Numbers don't lie, and none of the figures coming out of California's drought have anything good to say.

Let's start with the number zero. Late last month, the state hit an inauspicious milestone: the snowpack in the Sierra mountains, an important source of water during the summer months, stands at 0 percent of normal. The snowpack usually provides water during the summer months as it melts, but now California will have to rely on its increasingly strained aquifers.

But this isn't the only discouraging metric coming out of the now four-year-long megadrought. Let's take a look at the numbers.

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Why no snow? The past winters have simply been too warm.

This previous winter in California -- the hottest seasonal temperatures ever recorded in the state -- averaged around 5.9 degrees warmer than the 20th-century normal according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data. The year 2014 also set a record for the winter season, with average temperatures around 4.4 degrees above normal.

The consistent pattern of rising temperatures since the 20th century is driven in part by climate change, and the warmer weather is contributing to drier conditions. Year-to-date, 2015 marks the third driest year observed in California, with a mere 5.28 inches of precipitation, 7.67 inches short of the average.

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Back in April, California Gov. Jerry Brown instituted the state's first-ever mandatory water restrictions, instituting a 25 percent reduction in water used by cities and town.

Californians are using less water, but they're falling short of the mandated target, according to data released last week. The same month Brown ordered the cutback, California residents only managed to reduce their water use by 13.5 percent.

The new regulations went into effect June 1, but don't restrict water use by the agriculture industry, a limitation that drew criticism.

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When a crisis as big as the current megadrought emerges, and the subsequent strain and rationing follow in its wake, inevitably those affected and even armchair Californians are looking for scapegoats for a situation that is essentially the result of a warming world and a lack of systemic planning to adapt to those conditions.

Agriculture in particular has been singled out, with some outlets incorrectly suggesting the industry consumes 80 percent of the state's water supply. In reality, farming accounts for roughly 40 percent of the state's total water consumption, with the majority allocated to protected rivers, streams and wetlands. As Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) clarifies, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water allocated for human consumption.

Farmers, however, aren't to blame for the current situation, and indeed many of those most affected by the drought are farmers themselves, though some within the profession certainly aren't helping. In 2010, 43 percent of California farmland used some form of flood irrigation, an inefficient and relatively cheap method that uses a lot of water. Drip irrigation is more costly, but conserves water and can improve yields, as one farmer relayed to the Sacramento Bee after he made the switch.

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The megadrought currently taxing the state of California is the worst such natural disaster for the region in some 1,200 years.

To put that into perspective, the last time what's now California saw a comparable drought, the Mayans fell into decline; Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III; and Vikings began large-scale raids into the British Isles, Ireland and continental Europe.

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This year's drought will cost 18,600 full- and part-time jobs, many of which are directly related to the farming industry, according to an analysis by the University of California-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences (PDF). That number represents a 9 percent increase of the previous year, when the drought resulted in the loss of more than 17,000 jobs across various industries. Those jobs translate to roughly $1.2 billion in lost wages.

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All those farm laborers and workers in supporting industries are short on jobs because farmers have had to leave fields fallow in order to code with the water shortage. An estimate 564,000 acres will be left unsown this year, according to UC-Davis researchers.

Because crop aren't being planted, overall production goes down, and prices for these goods go up. In other words, fallow fields means pricier produce at supermarkets throughout the United States.

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With the water shortage showing now signs of easing, lush, green lawns are out. Astroturf and native vegetation is in.

As part of the effort to reduce water consumption, California's governor called for the removal of 50 million square feet of lawn, which should save more than 2 billion gallons of water annually. The state has gone even further to offer residents a $2 rebate for every square foot of lawn removed, and some cities are providing their own incentives as well.

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The total cost of this year's drought to California is estimated to be around $2.7 billion, with $1.8 billion alone coming out of the state's agriculture industry, according to UC-Davis researchers.

The majority of the losses come in the form of forgone crop revenue or the additional costs of pumping groundwater, which farmers rely on even during wetter seasons, although it won't replenish nearly as quickly during drier months. Other support industries, such as fertilizer suppliers or truck drivers, account for the broader economic impact.

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For California to recover from its drought and get back to normal, the state would need an estimated 11 trillion gallons of water to make up for the shortfall, according to a presentation by NASA scientists who analyzed satellite data on groundwater. That number only accounts for drought conditions up until the end of last year, which means the real total now is even higher.

To put that number in perspective, that's enough water to fill more than 16 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. It's 1.5 times larger than the largest reservoir in the United States. It's more than an entire year's worth of water used by California homes and municipalities.

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