Declining water levels in Lake Powell are visible in the 'bathtub ring' on the surrounding landscape, 16 June 2015. Photo: Michael Friberg / ProPublica

By Abrahm Lustgarten, Lauren Kirchner, Amanda Zamora, and ProPublica
26 June 2015

(Scientific American) –

Why do I keep hearing about the California drought, if it's the Colorado River that we're "killing"?

Pretty much every state west of the Rockies has been facing a water shortage of one kind or another in recent years.  California's is a severe, but relatively short-term, drought. But the Colorado River basin—which provides critical water supplies for seven states including California—is the victim of a slower-burning catastrophe entering its 16th year. Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California all share water from the Colorado River, a hugely important water resource that sustains 40 million people in those states, supports 15 percent of the nation's food supply, and fills two of largest water reserves in the country.

The severe shortages of rain and snowfall have hurt California's $46 billion agricultural industry and helped raise national awareness of the longer-term shortages that are affecting the entire Colorado River basin. But while the two problems have commonalities and have some effect on one another, they're not exactly the same thing.

Just how bad is the drought in California right now?

Most of California is experiencing "extreme to exceptional drought," and the crisis has now entered its fourth year. This month, signaling how serious the current situation is, state officials announced the first cutback to farmers' water rights since 1977, and ordered cities and towns to cut water use by as much as 36 percent. Those who don't comply with the cuts will face fines, but some farmers are already ignoring the new rules, or challenging them in court.

The drought shows no sign of letting up any time soon, and the state's agricultural industry is suffering. A recent study by U.C. Davis researchers projected that the drought would cost California's economy $2.7 billion in 2015 alone.

In addition to the economic cost, the drought has subtle and not-so-subtle effects on flora and fauna throughout the region. This current drought may be contributing to the spread of the West Nile virus, and it's threatening populations of geese, ducks, and Joshua trees. Dry, hot periods can exacerbate wildfires, while water shortages are making firefighters' jobs even harder.

And a little bit of rain won't help. NOAA scientists say it could take several years of average or above-average rainfall before California's water supply can return to anything close to normal. [more]

California's Drought Is Part of a Much Bigger Water Crisis



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