Background and Effects of California’s Drought

By: The Infocast Water Team

The past decade overall has been very dry, but the years 2012-2014 were especially concerning. Water year 2011 was the first wet year of any significance since 2006, and it helped to improve statewide reservoir storage, which in turn helped ameliorate the effects of a very dry 2012.  While water year 2013 got off to a good start with late November/early December storms, a record dry January through May resulted in a return to dry conditions for the central and southern parts of the state. Agriculture suffered, especially rangeland grazing, as water supplies for farming were reduced.

The 2013 calendar year was the driest on record for communities up and down the state, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In May 2013 Gov. Jerry Brown directed the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board to expedite water transfers.

During 2012-2014, all of California’s counties were included in USDA drought disaster designations at one time or another. In 2014, Northern California started to experience the effects of the below-average precipitation. Parts of Northern California went for over 50 days without any precipitation—during a time when the region should have been getting the most rain of the year.

Happily, a fully supplied Colorado River during this period meant complete water deliveries to contractors in the Colorado’s lower basin. But with little to no rain in late 2013, the governor formed a drought task force, followed by a proclamation of a state of emergency in January 2014. The announcement directed state agencies to take specified actions and called on Californians to cut their water usage by 20 percent. Then in March, measures were enacted to provide almost $700 million for drought relief, with roughly 80 percent of that funding being dedicated to local agencies for integrated regional water management projects. April brought more efforts to take action against the drought, including directing urban water suppliers to limit wasteful water-use practices and increased groundwater monitoring. Even above-normal late spring rains could not avoid record low allocations for some state water contractors—in fact, water year 2014 marked the first time that contractors in at least one division received a zero allocation of their Class 1 water. The summer of 2014 saw water distributed in rural communities hardest hit with bulk water haulage and bottled water supplies. The Office of Emergency Services was also authorized to use funds from the California Disaster Assistance Act to provide water to households for drinking and sanitation.


This article is one of a series, based on information contained in a white paper entitled “California’s Most Significant Droughts: Comparing Historical and Recent Conditions”.

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