California faces water shortages and wildfires as "mega-drought" gets even worse

The fire danger is “about as high as it can be," one meteorologist warned

Published January 16, 2014 8:15PM (EST)

The year 2013 was California's driest on record, featuring the least rainfall since the state started keeping track in 1849. And so far, 2014 is off to a bad start.
A full 63 percent of the state is in extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor -- up from 23 percent just last week and extending into northwestern Nevada. Precipitation for the water year (which begins October 1) is less than 20 percent of normal levels in the areas of most extreme drought. Up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, snowpack -- a major repository for the state's water supply -- is between 10 and 30 percent of normal, with many locations now in the bottom 5th percentile. Two of the state's lakes are only 36 percent full; the San Luis Reservoir in Central Valley is down to 30 percent.

“It’s really serious,” Gov. Jerry Brown said Monday. “In many ways it’s a mega-drought; it’s been going on for a number of years.” Any day now, he's expected to announce that California is officially in the midst of a drought.

Citing the dry conditions and gusty winds, a meteorologist warned Tuesday that the fire danger in many parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties is "about as high as it can be," a prediction borne out Thursday when a massive wildfire ignited 40 miles east of downtown L.A. Three people were arrested in connection with the blaze, which scorched over 1,700 acres and destroyed at least two homes.

Already, some Northern California communities are rationing water supplies. "With climate change occurring we have to assume that we could see long-term shortages of water in California," Sacramento City Manager John Shirey told the LA Times. "We just have to change, I think, the mind-set here and everywhere — we're going to have less water to rely on."

The state's counting on a few big winter storms to restore it's water supply. "If we do manage to get a few decent storms, we could definitely get enough water to stave off the worst consequences of a really extreme water shortage," said Stanford University's Daniel Swain. "But if we don't, we've essentially lost the whole water year."

By Lindsay Abrams

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Drought Water Shortage Wildfire