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Almost 100 percent of California in ‘extreme’ drought condition

San Joaquin River endangered

Merdies Hayes | 4/11/2014, midnight

The latest update from the U.S. Drought Monitor revealed that 99.81 percent of the Golden State is in the grip of drought. The snowcap across the entire state is a paltry 35 percent of normal, as water systems and residents continue to feel more strain from the Central Valley “bread basket” to the weekly shopping basket.

In April 2013, only one-fourth of the state was experiencing drought conditions; this is the first time that the Drought Monitor has used the “extreme” classification since its inception in 1999. The intensification of the drought has resulted primarily from the lack of precipitation, as well as a burgeoning population. The coming summer months mean everyone from the Oregon to Mexican borders will have to brace for water shortages and expect an even more intense wildfire season.

“This is not trending in the right direction,” said Mark Svovoda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “It’ll take multiple years to recover from the drought. There is hope that this year will mark the low point, and that a possibly developing El Nino pattern will bring a wet winter next year, but the jury is still out on that. In truth, this is going to be a rough year.”

State officials have instituted considerable conservation methods, and residents are cooperating by curtailing their water usage. Because drought conditions may be akin to a “creeping phenomenon,” according to the words used by the NDMC, this emergency is unlike an earthquake or tornado because it does not strike suddenly and there is no natural way to repair damage except to wait for rain.

The build-up to the current drought began in 2012 which saw a below-average water year, according to records of water allocations from the State Water Program. Therefore, allocations were reduced accordingly and regulators believed the future impact would be relatively limited because state reservoirs were reportedly constructed to factor in drought conditions.

By 2013, the drought conditions had become the worst ever. Some cities had rain deficits of 30 to 40 percent and when the dry season came, water levels at state reservoirs were significantly drawn down. The brief storms in March have not resulted in easing the strain on reservoirs as water levels up and down the state range today from about 20 to 50 percent of capacity.

“Heavy rain and snow would have to fall throughout California everyday for the remainder of April to reach average annual rain and snowfall levels, which is highly unlikely,” according to the state government’s weekly drought briefing. “Even with such precipitation, California would remain in drought conditions, due to low water supplies in reservoirs from the previous two dry years.”

The San Joaquin is America’s most endangered river. The nonprofit American Rivers organization said this week that the northern California waterway is facing two big legislative and management decisions. The first is that the Water Resources Control Board is updating its Bay Delta Water Quality Plan which governs the enormous estuary that connects the San Joaquin River to the Pacific Ocean. The estuary is a natural habitat for fish, including the economically important Chinook salmon. Because the water board has the power to increase flows down the San Joaquin into the estuary—thereby improving water and habitat quality—pressure is growing from agricultural interests to maintain the water for irrigation and hydration for livestock. Second, there are attempts in Congress to overturn a settlement agreement to restore the San Joaquin. After 20 years of litigation, the settlement is threatened by the pressures on the river’s water. Planned water releases for the restoration of the San Joaquin have been put off until 2015.

About 80 percent of California water is devoted to agriculture, therefore conservation by farmers is said to be a key. The water resources board suggests farmers install drip rather than spray irrigation, plant annual crops like lettuce that can be tailored to wet and dry years, avoid planting nut trees which must be watered no matter what the weather conditions, and even line canals so that water doesn’t seep into the soil instead of irrigating crops.