It’s official. California is now under the most severe level of drought since the federal government began issuing regular drought reports in the late 1990s. The U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday reported that July was the driest month ever with 58 percent of the state experiencing an “exceptional drought,” the harshest finding based on a five-level scale.
This is the first year that any part of California has seen that level of drought, according to Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center which issued the report. Reservoirs throughout the state are, reportedly, one year short of ordinary levels and that means that it will take several years of regular rainfall to restore past levels. The report—a joint effort of the drought mitigation center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration—found that moisture in the state’s topsoil and subsoil is almost gone.
“It’s hard because the drought is not over and [California] is in the dry season,” Svovoda explained. “Our eyes are already on next winter. Outside of some freakish atmospheric conditions, reservoir levels are going to continue to go down. California is a good one to two years behind the eight ball.”
The drought’s wide-ranging effects are being felt statewide from Central Valley irrigation, to this week’s wildfires threatening the giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park, and the constant watch for wildfires in the Southern California mountain ranges.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said this week that some meat and produce prices will rise as much as 6 percent as farmers in the Central Valley must pay more money to water crops and feed livestock. Beef prices have already hit an all-time high nationwide; dairy products and produce prices are rising each week as the drought has continued to ravage farms. Avocados could increase as much as 35 cents each, lettuce could increase up to 62 cents per head, and tomatoes may jump by 45 cents (up to $2.84 per pound), according to analysis conducted last month by the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Fast food outlets Chipotle and In-n-Out Burger have already raised prices, partly blaming the drought.
As the fresh water keeps draining, so has the state’s tourism dollars. Kern River officials shut down the rafting operation this year because they found that attempting to paddle downstream would be too dangerous in navigating the exposed river rocks. Lake Mead at the Nevada and Arizona borders has seen a sharp decline in visitors; it is at its lowest level since Hoover Dam opened and the supply of water is disappearing rapidly.
Closer to home, Santa Barbara introduced a program last month to reduce or stop watering in public parks where once green swatches of lawn look more like burlap today. The Pasadena city council on Monday declared a local water emergency, establishing a 20-percent conservation goal and implementing the city’s Level 1 Water Supply Shortage Plan calling for mandatory water waste restrictions effective immediately. Level 1 means residents can water their lawns three days a week in the summer, one day per week in the winter and requires that leaks be repaired within 72 hours. Repeat violators may face a fine of $500 for residential customers, and up to $1,000 per violation for commercial accounts with Pasadena Water and Power.