Drought— an extended period of limited or no precipitation— is a
fact of life in California and the West, with water resources
following boom-and-bust patterns.
No portion of the West has been immune to drought during the last
century and drought occurs with much greater frequency in the
West than in other regions of the country.
Most of the West experiences what is classified as severe to
extreme drought more than 10 percent of the time, and a
significant portion of the region experiences severe to extreme
drought more than 15 percent of the time, according to the
National Drought Mitigation Center.
Experts who have studied recent droughts say a drought occurs
about once every 10 years somewhere in the United States.
Droughts are believed to be the most costly of all natural
disasters because of their widespread effects on agriculture and
related industries, as well as on urbanized areas. One of those
decennial droughts could cost as much as $38 billion, according
to one estimate.
Because droughts cannot be prevented, experts are looking for
better ways to forecast them and new approaches to managing
droughts when they occur.
As water regulators continue to rapidly drain Folsom Lake to
bolster supplies downstream, crews have begun construction of a
floating barge that could keep water flowing to the city of
Folsom this fall. … At current outflows, Folsom Lake would
reach record-low depths within weeks.
More than 10,000 acres of scenic meadows, forests and trout
streams in the Sierra Nevada 10 miles west of Lake Tahoe have
been preserved in a deal in which environmentalists hope to
prove that thinning out overgrown forests can increase
California’s water supply.
Mindful that only nature can whip a drought, those who study
and manage water in California are focused not on the current
epic, but on better preparing the state for the next drought,
and the drought after that, and the drought after that.
In the desert of California, where the Colorado River for
decades has turned barren ground into an agricultural bounty,
farmers are being paid not to grow crops on a portion of their
land so that water can be shipped to thirsty cities on the
With Lake Mead’s elevation hovering just three feet above a
critical threshold that would trigger mandatory cuts in water
supplies, Colorado River watchers are anxiously awaiting new
projections from the Bureau of Reclamation due out Monday that
will guide operations on the drought-stricken system for the
The current El Nino, nicknamed Bruce Lee, is already the second
strongest on record for this time of year and could be one of
the most potent weather changers of the past 65 years, federal
In California, after four dry years, people are hungry for wet
weather, not only prattling on about precipitation but also
tracking monsoons on the Internet and schooling themselves on
the fine points of the jet stream — all in hope that the
climatic pattern named after a child delivers an adult-size
punch of moisture this winter.
The strengthening El Niño in the Pacific Ocean has the
potential to become one of the most powerful on record, as
warming ocean waters surge toward the Americas, setting up a
pattern that could bring once-in-a-generation storms this
winter to drought-parched California.
California officials launched two initiatives Wednesday to
boost residential water conservation: The nation’s toughest
water efficiency standards for showerheads and a $30 million
rebate program to rip out grass lawns and replace old toilets.
State officials are estimating that Bidwell Canyon’s three
available concrete lanes will close this week when the lake
level drops 220 feet below the top of Oroville Dam. The dam is
considered full at 900 feet above sea level.
Fish concerns will force Tulloch Lake to drop sooner than water
agencies had announced in a milestone spring accord, while
construction work meant to ensure that 7,000 people won’t run
out of water for drinking and fire protection has not yet
The gutted cinder-block homes slated for demolition in the
western Fresno County town of Five Points are a haunting symbol
of [Diana's] Toscano’s struggle during one of the worst
droughts in California’s history: finding enough children to
keep the local Migrant Head Start Center from shutting its
The [Guadalupe] river that runs through America’s
10th-largest city has dried up, shriveling a source of civic
pride that had welcomed back trout, salmon, beavers and other
wildlife after years of restoration efforts.
Unlike the large industrial farms that give California its
reputation as the salad bowl of the nation, urban farmers don’t
have to let fields sit fallow to reduce water use. The
small-scale operations leave room for more creative approaches
to drought-friendly growing practices.
The drought that’s been desiccating California for the past
four years has added new urgency to a decades-old debate about
the best way to secure reliable water supplies for a growing
population: new dams or efficiency measures.
Heeding the call to conserve water, tens of thousands of
Southern California residents and businesses replaced their
lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping with the help of $340
million in grants from the Metropolitan Water District.
The imminent danger from the devastating Rocky Fire in Lake
County diminished Thursday and residents began to return to
their evacuated homes, but Gov. Jerry Brown made clear in a
visit to the area that California is still in danger.
While Southern California remains on track for a wet winter,
the forecast for Northern California is still cloudy. …
Precipitation in the top half of the state, where many of
California’s big reservoirs are located, is most important
water-wise, especially with supplies diminished after four dry
Gov. Jerry Brown, who called a state of emergency last week and
visited the [Rocky Fire] area Thursday, blamed climate change
for hot weather that contributes to drier forests and increased
The drought in the West could be creating conditions in the
Klamath River straddling Oregon and California for a repeat of
a 2002 fish kill that claimed tens of thousands of adult
salmon, biologists said.
Feeding on tinder-dry terrain and woodlands that have been
parched by drought, the Rocky Fire is now 106 square miles …
In the last three years, rain levels in California have been 24
to 30 inches below normal, according to the National Weather
Service’s Climate Prediction Center, meaning the state has been
missing about two years’ worth of rainfall.
Lawmakers are seeking budget solutions amid a superheated
political climate as the wildland fires now raging across
California, Washington and other Western states burn through
federal dollars as well as forests. A new report warns the
funding problem will worsen.
Tourists are flocking to the old Mormon settlement of St.
Thomas, which was inundated by Lake Mead when the Hoover Dam
was built and has slowly revealed itself in recent years. …
In many ways, unearthing the past is a ritual of the drought
Despite the drought, local farmers this year will get 44 inches
of water per parcel instead of 40, Oakdale irrigation leaders
decided Tuesday, because customers so far have used much less
A Sacramento judge has given California water regulators the
go-ahead to enforce pumping restrictions on a small Central
Valley irrigation district, a decision seen as validation of
the state’s broader authority to restrict water during the
A federal plan to prevent a potential fish kill this summer on
the lower Klamath River drew criticism on Monday from Hoopa
Valley and Yurok tribe officials, who condemned the proposal as
a lukewarm response to the threat of rising water temperatures
and deadly parasites.
Last fall, farmers working the flat land along the Colorado
River outside Blythe, California, harvested a lucrative crop of
oranges, lettuce and alfalfa from fields irrigated with river
water. But that wasn’t their only source of income.
Publicly and privately, California lawmakers are pushing to get
a big water bill off its current glacial pace. But history
cautions that California legislation this ambitious always
takes time, and plenty of it.
It’s something of a relief, if a mixed one, that the drought
has surged into the role of the latest scourge to freak out
California. … But it’s mixed, of course, because the drought
carries its own dangers, and the ultimate solution — rain —
remains wholly out of the power of politicians or everyday
Working with the nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises, the drought
relief program will furnish a tank and small pump to restore
water for homeowners with dry wells. … The costs are covered
by the $1 billion drought relief package approved by Gov. Jerry
Brown in March, officials said.
Despite record heat, drought-conscious Californians managed to
slash urban water use by 27% in June and demonstrated once
again that they were on track to meet Gov. Jerry Brown’s
historic 25% conservation order, state water officials said
Despite the hottest June on record, Californians cut back on
their water use statewide by by 27.3 percent statewide compared
with June 2013, a reduction that exceeded the level ordered in
the governor’s emergency drought regulations.
Drought-ravaged Californians and the water agencies that serve
them cut water use 27.3 percent in June — the second time that
communities statewide met the governor’s 25 percent goal, but
the first time they did so under the threat of fines.
With recent fish counting surveys on two Klamath River
tributaries showing alarmingly low numbers for one of the last
wild Chinook salmon runs, local fisheries experts are growing
increasingly concerned about the effects of the ongoing
statewide drought and the possibility of a devastating fish
kill in the near future when fall-run salmon begin to enter the
As the state suffers through its fourth year of drought, most
Californians say the lack of water is the single most important
environmental issue facing the state, a dramatic increase over
the number who expressed similar concerns a year ago. A survey
by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California reported
that 58 percent of Californians ranked the drought as the top
issue — up 23 points from July 2014 and up 50 points from July
Almost 40 years after it began operation, California’s
four-year drought has turned the state’s fourth largest
reservoir, capable of storing 2.4 million acre-feet of water,
into a shallow brown pool that holds 343,000 acre-feet, less
than 15 percent of its capacity.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein filed her long-awaited legislative
response to California’s water crisis on Wednesday, hoping to
broker a compromise that has eluded Congress through four years
of fallow fields and brown lawns.
Nearly two-thirds of Californians say global warming is
contributing to the state’s drought, but there’s a distinct
partisan divide, according to a survey released Wednesday. …
When it comes to drought-fighting measures that hit closer to
home, the survey found strong support …
Voter concern over California’s drought is “extremely high
and intensifying,” according to a new poll, while a majority of
respondents said they would willingly pay “a few more dollars a
month” to improve state water infrastructure.
Saying it might cause more harm than good, East Bay water
officials Tuesday rejected the idea of giving homeowners a
break for ripping up live grass and replacing it with plastic
turf — drought or no drought.
When it came down to it, the number crunchers at the
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California knew they
saved a lot more water for every dollar spent subsidizing
low-flush toilets than drought-friendly lawns.
Through July 25, the California Department of Forestry and Fire
Protection had responded to about 3,900 wildfires in 2015 –
about 1,300 more fires than the agency typically fights by
July’s end, preliminary state data show. California fire
officials blame the drought and historically dry conditions.
The depletion of groundwater stores also is a problem familiar
to farmers struggling with drought in California, where pumping
for irrigation has put the state’s Central Valley Aquifer under
the most strain of any aquifer in the U.S., according to NASA
While Lake Tahoe’s iconic blueness and clarity often garner all
the attention during annual State of the Lake reports, it was
the lake’s increasing rate of evaporation in 2014 that most
surprised the report’s author this year.
Normally, rivers from interior California help push back that
saltier water and keep the Delta fresh, which is important for
people and fish alike. But this year the rivers are low, which
allows the Bay water to move toward the east and invade
portions of the tidally influenced estuary.
Almond farmers who planned a mid-summer getaway may need to put
those plans on hold. Already the nuts are at the phase of hull
split, which comes just before its time to shake the trees.
Butte County Agricultural Commissioner Richard Price said all
crops are early this year.
[Donna] Johnson is known as the water angel. … The
72-year-old is her town’s biggest advocate, sitting in on
drought funding meetings with county and state leaders,
shepherding reporters from around the globe so no one forgets
Almost half of the city [of Sacramento] utility’s nearly
126,000 residential connections don’t have meters tracking and
tallying how much they use. Because of this, there’s no way of
precisely knowing how much water goes missing because of leaky
pipes, loose connections, theft or at city hydrants.
The drastic drop in acres burned in the past year is in large
part because of an increase in the number of crews and
aircrafts CalFire was able to obtain through the state
declaring a drought emergency last year, officials say.
Firefighters battled flames in mountainous terrain Thursday
above opposite sides of the Sacramento Valley, signaling the
start of what could be a particularly combustible fire season
in drought-stricken California.
California’s vast network of reservoirs, canals and rivers is
among the world’s most engineered water systems, but it is
tough to prove when water is illegally siphoned because of
sparse metering, infrequent reporting and a complex web of tens
of thousands of water rights.
Most of us hardly think about it, but when we turn on the tap,
we’re not just using water — we’re also using energy. And you
may be surprised to learn just how much. … It takes a lot of
power to get water to our taps — conveyance from the source,
treatment, and distribution — not to mention cleaning the
wastewater we send down drains.
The El Niño hitting the mountains of the north is critical
because California’s vast waterworks rely on rain and snow from
the Sierra to supply farms and cities. By contrast, much of the
rain that falls in Southern California ends up in the ocean.
Rejecting the pleas of California officials worried about water
conservation, the state Supreme Court on Wednesday left intact
a lower court ruling that makes it tougher for cities and water
districts to impose punishing higher rates on water wasters.
Ever since we crossed the first bridge into California’s delta,
I’ve been in a world that ambles and rambles and moves with the
river. … There are 1,100 miles of sloughs and tributaries and
55 islands surrounded by the water that California is fighting
Regulators proposed a record $1.5-million fine Monday against a
Northern California irrigation district after it allegedly
diverted more than 670 million gallons of water illegally — a
rare enforcement action that escalates the legal battle between
Gov. Jerry Brown and the state’s oldest water rights holders.
California regulators are seeking a $1.5 million penalty from a
Tracy-area water district for allegedly illegally tapping the
delta for farmers and thousands of homes, marking a significant
escalation in the state’s push to get big users to go along
with drought-forced reductions.
State drought regulators went on the offensive against another
agricultural irrigation district Monday, proposing a $1.55
million fine against a Delta-area agency accused of diverting
water illegally over a two-week period.
When it comes to watching water use as California’s four-year
drought drags into midsummer, water districts statewide are
turning to software apps that show both customers and utilities
gallon-by-gallon details unavailable a few years ago.
A 2-inch-long brass cylinder, the modest-looking plumbing
device is to water wasters what handcuffs are to shoplifters
and parking boots are to motorists piling up unpaid tickets.
And now water agencies struggling to meet California’s tough
new conservation rules have the devices at the ready and are
giving them a fresh look.
It’s hard to know how many people are scrambling to get water
this summer. … If the long-term solution is waiting for well
driller to deepen a well, the quick-fix is calling a man with a
truck who will deliver water.
Rain, sometimes heavy and accompanied by thunder and lightning,
fell over Southern California on Sunday, the second wave of a
rare summer storm system that brought a weekend of beach
closures, power outages and warm, muggy air to the parched
Mark DuBois did the impossible for five days in May 1979. With
boats and helicopters combing the Stanislaus River canyon
searching for him, the rising water of New Melones Reservoir
practically lapping at his feet and chained to a rock in the
canyon, DuBois hid beneath a small ledge to avoid detection and
Ralph Petroff is changing the way California homes use water.
As executive chairman of Nexus eWater, Petroff last week
unveiled the first housing subdivision in the United States
with on-site water recycling standard in every home.
With California’s historic drought evaporating the livelihood
of thousands of Mexican migrants, Mexico will start offering
them emergency rent assistance, clothing, food and even a plane
ticket back home, said the region’s new consul general in her
first major media interview.
The House of Representatives’ passage Thursday of an ambitious
and controversial California water bill now starts a round of
maneuvering that will show whether a divided Congress can get
its act together and legislate.
Nearly 40 million people in seven states depend on the
[Colorado] river, a population some forecasts say could nearly
double in the next 50 years. … In the decades to come,
federal officials say, significant shortages are likely to
force water-supply cutbacks in parts of the basin, the first in
the more than 90 years that the river has been managed under
the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
Paul Matuska is the closest thing the American West has to a
water cop, and his beat includes Needles, Calif., a beleaguered
desert town midway between Flagstaff, Ariz., and Los Angeles.
… Mr. Matuska, a hydrologist, is one of about a dozen
accountants for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which
controls water distribution along the lower half of the
Healdsburg’s Aaron Mandell wants to build a $30 million
desalination plant in the San Joaquin Valley that would use the
warmth of the sun to distill former irrigation water and reuse
it on thirsty farms. … “I think everybody is trying to
stretch the supplies every way they can,” said Jennifer Bowles,
executive director of the nonprofit Water Education Foundation
Jay Famiglietti is a Senior Water Scientist with NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Lab and a Professor of Earth Systems Science at UC
Irvine. We asked him if California is seeing an intersection of
the drought and climate change.
A week after getting slapped down in court, California drought
regulators went back on the offensive Thursday in their
campaign to curb water use, launching a crackdown against a
small irrigation district that allegedly took water illegally
from a river in San Joaquin County.
At a time when water levels in Lake Mead were getting so low
that officials prepared for drastic cutbacks, it started
raining. A series of powerful storms pummeled the mountains
that feed the Colorado River, a key source of water for
California, Arizona and Nevada.
More than a third of the largest groundwater basins in the
world are being depleted faster than they are getting
replenished, and there are little to no accurate data showing
just how much water is left in them, according to two new
studies published Tuesday.
California water regulators flexed their muscles by ordering a
group of farmers to stop pumping from a branch of the San
Joaquin River amid an escalating battle over how much power the
state has to protect waterways that are drying up in the
State water officials on Wednesday softened their approach to
telling thousands of California farmers to stop pumping from
rivers to irrigate crops during the drought but warned that
stiff penalties still await anybody who takes water they don’t
have a right to use.
State officials, who are already urging people to let their
grass yards wither during the drought, passed new rules
Wednesday essentially banning them from being planted around
new commercial buildings, while limiting grass to about 25
percent of the landscaping at new homes.
Today [July 15] the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB)
issued a letter rescinding and clarifying its previous
curtailment notices. Today’s letter walks away from the strong
language of the previous curtailment notices issued by the
SWRCB, which the Sacramento Superior Court found coercive and
in violation of constitutional due process safeguards in a
ruling last Friday. … Friday’s ruling was a setback for
the SWRCB and it demonstrated the difficulty in swiftly
administering the water rights system during the ongoing
Although treating wastewater generally ranks alongside police
and fire safety, schools, and transit as the top priorities of
any sensible city hall, new ideas about cleaning up sewage
almost never attract headlines or TV airtime. … It has taken
a four-year drought in California to change that.
The California Water Commission is scheduled to consider new
rules Wednesday that would significantly slash the amount of
water that can be used by landscapes surrounding newly built
houses, businesses and schools.
By now, most customers of a water district know the new
conservation rules. … However, what about people who live in
more rural areas and in smaller water districts that have
different water conservation rules?
While harvesting 350 acres of wheat, farmer Deke Dormer
collected 819 eggs in his field. The eggs were then placed
in egg cartons, taken to incubators for hatching, and will
be returned to wetlands when the ducklings are old enough
to survive on their own.
Federal officials Tuesday will begin releasing a disputed
allotment of San Joaquin River water from Millerton Lake to a
group of west San Joaquin Valley growers with water rights
dating back to the 1870s.
Frank Cody wasn’t surprised to learn that at least 12 million
trees across California recently have died from a lethal mix of
bugs and long-term drought. Business is booming for the South
Lake Tahoe tree service business owner.
Health officials haven’t reported any infections in California
yet this year. But as the West Nile season begins, summer
temperatures rise and the 4-year-old drought drags on, the
virus has now been detected in birds in 31 California counties
— six more than were reported at this point last year.
In a significant ruling that could hinder California’s ability
to order mass water cutbacks, a judge told state drought
regulators Friday they can’t slash the water rights of four
Central Valley irrigation districts until each had a chance to
During the July 4 weekend, the U.S. Forest Service issued
urgent instructions to hikers and campers to be exceedingly
cautious in lighting campfires across California’s tinder dry
Sierra Nevada mountain range.
The chances that California will begin clawing its way out of
the drought with a wet winter got a bump Thursday with a
federal report showing an El Niño weather pattern continuing to
strengthen in the Pacific.
When Gov. Jerry Brown called on drought-weary Californians to
reconsider their love of thirsty, nonnative landscaping, some
businesses and homeowners responded by tearing out their
It’s been nearly 60 years since a species went extinct in the
Delta, but the latest survey of the diminutive Delta smelt
makes their demise “increasingly likely” this year, a leading
expert said this week.
For salmon to survive in Butte Creek, the fish will need as
much water as they can get from Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
… PG&E showed the Enterprise-Record that water system
Tuesday during a helicopter tour.
California water regulators heard proposals for a statewide
drought fee and hefty fines for water-guzzling homeowners as
part of a Wednesday workshop discussing how to implement Gov.
Jerry Brown’s order for water pricing to maximize conservation.
Starting Wednesday, outdoor showers at all state beaches are
shut off as a way to conserve water during the drought,
California State Parks officials announced this week. The move
is designed to save up to 18 million gallons of water annually.
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials are seeking
an increase in rates over the next five years in a bid to boost
water conservation amid California’s drought and expand repairs
of crumbling water mains and electricity infrastructure.
This 2-day, 1-night tour traveled through the San Joaquin Valley
to explore the impacts of California’s unprecedented four-year
drought on the nation’s breadbasket and what steps are being
taken to avert disaster.
California Gov. Jerry Brown called for an overhaul in water
pricing as part of his sweeping drought order, and regulators
on Wednesday will discuss how to best do that in light of legal
questions over rates designed to encourage conservation.
Modesto is poised to take a big step Tuesday in its project to
send highly treated wastewater to drought-stricken West Side
farmers as soon as 2018, though the Turlock Irrigation District
remains a staunch opponent over concerns of how the project
will affect its groundwater basin.
Soquel Creek Water District leaders are looking at purchasing a
new piece of water main-flushing technology as one of several
potential water-saving projects that they could fund through
fees paid by new district development permits.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials, who operate the Central
Valley Project, relied on a faulty gauge in April and
overestimated the amount of cold water behind Shasta Dam. That
error might seem trivial, but not in this fourth parched year
of the drought.
For most of the 1900s, the bureau’s [of Reclamation] system —
which grew into the largest wholesale water utility in the
country — worked. But the West of the 21st century is not the
West of Roosevelt.
He’s a fifth-generation cattle farmer, who bought land in the
1960’s — with water rights that were granted before 1914. But
two weeks ago, the pumps were turned off and there’s no water
now in his irrigation canal.
Bruce Nelson was just a baby when Lake Mead was at its
mightiest. That was 1983 — ancient history to the 32-year-old
whose family has run marinas here for three generations — when
the lake gushed over Hoover Dam like a desert Niagara Falls.
Billboards and TV commercials, living room visits,
guess-your-water-use booths, and awards for water stinginess -
a wealthy swath of Orange County that once had one of the worst
records for water conservation in drought-stricken California
is turning things around, proving it’s possible to get people
to change their ways.
For many Californians, the state’s long drought has meant small
inconveniences such as shorter showers and restrictions on
watering lawns. But in two rural valleys, the Coachella
southeast of Los Angeles and the San Joaquin to the north,
farmworkers and other poor residents are feeling its impact in
a far more serious and personal way.
Strands of silver hair fell into Annie Costanzo’s face as she
wielded a sledgehammer against the brick walkway in her
backyard. Plumes of dust and debris filled the air, and
reddish-pink shards scattered in the wake of the 64-year-old
sculptor’s latest water conservation project.
Californians trembled two years ago as 200-foot flames from the
Rim fire sent up pyrocumulus clouds visible 100 miles away from
the central Sierra Nevada. Burning from August to October, it
left a charred footprint nearly the size of Los Angeles — a
reminder that the state had just passed through two dry
Californians in May shot past Gov. Jerry Brown’s water
conservation targets in response to the drought emergency — a
profound shift in behavior for a state that until recently
prized its hot tubs, lush landscaping and spotless cars.