Droughts in California

Of all the regions in the United States, there are only a handful of places where droughts are common—and California is one of them. Yet, this is both the most populous state in the United States and it is also one of the biggest agricultural producers in North America. That’s why water becomes such a big concern throughout the region.

Current and Historic California Droughts

Just how prone to droughts is California? As of October 2021, every county in California is under some type of drought condition, with 45.7% of the state listed as being in an “exceptional drought.” According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an exceptional drought is the worst that it can be. As per NOAA’s designation, conditions are as follows:

  • Fields may be abandoned
  • Orchards may be removed
  • Low vegetable yields are to be expected
  • The honey harvest will be poor
  • The fire season is more costly, with a larger number of fires and more acres burned
  • Fish rescue and relocation may begin
  • Forests begin to die off
  • Wetlands dry up
  • Survival of native plants and animals drops, with widespread wildlife death

As you can see, this level of drought comes with a lot of negative consequences—and it’s not the only time in California’s history that it has happened. This same region experienced exceptional drought between 2014 and 2017, and records going back to 2000 show that conditions have ranged between abnormally dry and “extreme drought” (which is just one severity level below “exceptional drought”) in almost every year of that period.

Going back further in history, notable droughts have been recorded between 1987 and 1992, 1976 and 1977, short periods between the 1940s and 1960s, and between the 1920s and 1930s.

What Causes Droughts in California?

Droughts in this region are in large part related to the area’s climate. Looking back through paleoclimate records spanning more than a millennium, researchers can see that dry periods are quite common throughout California’s history. This is a naturally arid region of the world, with precipitation limited mainly to seasonal rain and snowfall that occurs in the winter mostly over the northern part of the state. If one year’s rainy season is exceptionally dry, this can throw the area’s climate into an extreme drought.

Water Scarcity During California Droughts

Infrastructure-wise, there are a few issues that contribute to water scarcity during droughts in the California region. To start, there is a distinct lack of new infrastructure in place to help mitigate water shortages. In fact, since 1979, there have been no new large-scale water projects built within the state even though food production has ramped up and the population has doubled since that time.

Compounding this, is the fact that distribution systems are often inefficient. California’s water network runs on a system of pumps that move water southward. When winter’s storms do come, much of the water that could be collected from those storms is instead lost to the Pacific Ocean because the pumps in place can’t handle these larger flows of water.

Another issue is that most reservoirs within California are made for flood control rather than water storage. River channels and dam spillways associated with these reservoirs are not designed to allow for a reservoir to be drained rapidly into retention ponds. Thus, when major storms hit, reservoirs have limits on the amount of water that can be released, and how much water they can capture.

What are Some Solutions for Droughts in California?

Many solutions have been proposed or attempted, some with good results and others proving ineffective. For instance, in 2014, California banned landscape irrigation—but shortly thereafter, the governor realized that the lack of administrative fees collected for landscape irrigation led to a lack of funds that could be devoted to building water infrastructure. The ban was repealed, and these days, people are resorting to a variety of other methods to address water shortages.

Most of these mitigation procedures revolve around adapting to the climate rather than attempting to change the climate itself. Water desalination is one method of adaptation, though there are often issues that must be overcome. Desalination requires large amounts of energy, for one thing. Another problem is that the concentrated brine produced by the desalination process requires careful storage and treatment since it can cause severe environmental problems.

Wastewater recycling as well as ground water, surface water, and storm water storage are all methods that work, too. Of these, rainwater and snowmelt storage may prove some of the most effective ways to ensure that California’s population and food producers have enough water. However, in order to bring water storage levels up, it will require vast investments into infrastructure to channel and store water supplies.

What Does the Future Hold?

Despite the droughts, there is no indication that farming, or population numbers will wane anytime soon in California—and that means more infrastructure will need to be built in order to accommodate increasing populations and increases in farming. It’s likely that a huge part of that infrastructure will require creating manmade reservoirs and channels to direct water and to keep it in storage for future use. Expect BTL Liners to be at the forefront of innovation as investments are made to shore up California’s drought defense system.


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