How bad is the drought?
By many measures, it's the worst in California since record keeping began in 1895. At least 82 percent of the Golden State is now in a state of either "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, and experts are considering adding a new top level to that scale to reflect the unprecedented lack of available water. As California's lakes and streams have shriveled up and wildfires have raged across the state, some towns have been left entirely without water: In August, officials in East Porterville gave out 15,000 gallons of bottled water to residents who'd opened their taps to find a trickle of dirt running out of the faucet. California's farmers — who produce almost 70 percent of the country's top 25 fruits, nuts, and vegetables — have been forced to rip many of their plants from the parched land and are likely to cut 17,000 agricultural jobs. "It is [an] unparalleled crisis," says Jeffrey Sutton, an irrigation official in the western Sacramento Valley.
What's causing the drought?
Nearly three quarters of California's freshwater comes from the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which replenishes the state's rivers and lakes as it melts during the spring. But over the past two winters, a mass of high-pressure air has blocked Pacific winter storms from reaching those mountains, reducing the snowpack to just 20 percent of its average. Throughout the state, rainfall has been just 42 to 75 percent of normal since 2011. It's unknown whether climate change is playing a direct role in the precipitation problem, but many climatologists do believe that global warming may be exacerbating the drought. The first half of 2014 was the hottest on California record — with the average temperature 4.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm — and the sizzling temperatures have evaporated any scarce moisture left in the ground.
How are Californians coping?
California's Water Resources Control Board now imposes a $500-a-day fine on people who overwater their lawns or wash their cars without a water-saving nozzle on the hose. Local jurisdictions are also imposing restrictions; Los Angeles limits lawn watering to three times a week. But the biggest burden has fallen on the state's farmers, who use 80 percent of California's water: Some have been forced to buy some of their fellow farmers' allocations at high prices, while others, like Shawn Coburn, are ripping out their tomato and pomegranate crops to save the water for trees and vines that can't be fallowed in the short term, like avocados. "This year, I'm going to watch stuff die," says Coburn. The majority of farmers, though, are resorting to groundwater to save their crops.
How does that process work?
The drought has prompted farmers to race to drill wells into the Central Valley's aquifers and access the underground water reserves. "He with the biggest pump or deepest straw wins," says Felicia Marcus, chair of the state's water board. But though this groundwater will replace about three quarters of the current deficit from rivers and streams, pumping is certainly not a sustainable solution to the crisis: Sucking water out of aquifers has caused the ground to compact and sink almost a foot a year in some regions of the San Joaquin Valley, causing $1.3 billion of infrastructure damage to roads, bridges, and pipelines. Worse, these depleted aquifers can take decades to replenish. Aware that the drought is likely to continue, California's lawmakers are seeking longer-term solutions.
What's being discussed?
In November's elections, voters will decide whether to approve Prop 1, an emergency $7.5 billion water bond that would expand the state's reservoirs. California lawmakers have already passed a historic bill that would regulate groundwater for the first time in state history. The controversial legislation, which awaits the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown, was largely supported by the state's urban residents — some of whom resent sharing scarce resources with farmers of produce that requires a lot of water, such as almonds. Farming communities are just as angry, blaming lawmakers for allowing urban development in some of the state's driest regions and claiming that the groundwater is part of their property. "When you're legislated out of something that's been in your family for generations, it's hard to stomach," said rancher Gavin Iacono.
When will the crisis be over?
The forecast doesn't look good. Indeed, some experts fear that this California drought — which is part of a wider drought across the West that's lasted for 14 years — could represent the beginning of a historic megadrought: a decades-long period of extreme dryness that geological studies show occurs in the region every 400 to 600 years. If this current drought isn't the start of a megadrought, one is probably on the way: A new Cornell University study estimates a 20 to 50 percent chance of a 35-year megadrought by the century's end. Nonetheless, California's population is expected to grow to 50 million by 2050, making the effects of that potential water crisis even more severe. "[The current drought] is a glimpse of things to come," said the Cornell study's lead author, Toby Ault. "It's a preview of our future."
The state's thirstiest nut
Almonds are now the most eaten nut in the United States, with people across the nation consuming 10 times the amount they did in 1965. But few people realize the cost that goes into their production. In California, where 82 percent of the world's almonds are produced, it takes a whopping 1.1 gallons of water to produce a single kernel; indeed, the water used by almond farmers could supply 75 percent of California's population. But with global business booming, especially in China, almond farmers have continued to plant trees in spite of the drought — in the process causing water to be diverted from the Klamath River, threatening the salmon that feed the local Yurok tribe. "Not only are they asking the Native Americans to sacrifice their culture," says Yurok member Frankie Myers, "but we're doing it so we can sell almonds to the Chinese."