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No Relief Forecast After One Of California's Driest Years Ever

Originally published on Sun January 5, 2014 10:13 am

It's a near-perfect morning on Venice Beach in Southern California, temperatures in the 60s, with a breeze. You can hear the waves of the Pacific crash against the sand. Only a layer of clouds mars the scene.

Scott and Sue Nolan, visiting from Houston, play kickball in the sand with their son. They are grateful to be in this mild, if not perfectly sunny weather, but Sue Nolan has noticed something's not right.

"One of the thoughts, when we were driving through town was, how are they sustaining all this with what you see so dry everywhere?" she says.

The Nolans are seeing the effects of California's lingering drought. While the East Coast is digging out from a major winter storm, the West Coast is praying for rain. The state just finished one of the driest years on record, and that has water managers, farmers and others worried.

For the third year in a row, rain and snowfall in the state have been extremely low. In a normal year, Los Angeles gets close to 15 inches of rain. In 2013, LA got about 3.5.

The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that almost 95 percent of California is enduring some level of drought. The California Department of Water Resources says much of the drought the state is experiencing can be attributed to climate change.

"We're coming off two years of below-normal precipitation," says Allan Haynes, a hydrologist with the California and Nevada River Forecast Center. "We've had an exceptionally dry past 12 months. In fact, one of the driest calendar years on record in lots of locations."

Haynes says the lack of snow in Northern California affects the entire state.

"It's a very complicated picture as far as how people get water," he says. "But typically, in most cases, it's irrigation — water that comes from somewhere other than locally."

Much of California gets its water from the Sierra Nevada snowpacks. Those snowpacks, though, are only at 20 percent of average levels.

California's water woes might soon begin to affect the entire country; because California is America's No. 1 food and agricultural producer. A drought could push up food prices.

As far as the forecast for future rain, Jeanine Jones with the Department of Water Resources has a bleak outlook.

"Our seasonal forecast says that the odds point to dry," Jones says. "Currently, in terms of the longer-range weather forecast, we're not seeing any significant relief in the next couple of weeks."

Gov. Jerry Brown has convened a drought task force to help the state prepare for what could be a very dry 2014.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. While the East Coast digs out from a major winter storm and the Midwest braces for heavy snow and subzero temperatures, California is praying for rain. The state just finished one of the driest years on record. And that has water managers, farmers and others worried. NPR's Sam Sanders reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: It's a pretty nice Friday morning on Venice Beach in Southern California. It's in the 60s, with a breeze. You can hear the waves of the Pacific crash against the sand. The sun is shining, but there's a heavy ocean cloud layer kind of blocking it out. Scott and Sue Nolan are visiting from Houston, playing kickball in the sand with their son. They are grateful to be in this mild, if not perfectly sunny, weather.

SUE NOLAN: I talked to my mother on Cape Cod, just a few minutes ago, where they're getting, you know, hit by the blizzard, so this is still nice compared to that.

SCOTT NOLAN: What, they have 15 inches?

SANDERS: Nolan says they came here for the sun, and the general lack of any precipitation, but she noticed this trip is a little too dry.

NOLAN: One of the thoughts when we're driving thru town was how are they sustaining all this with what you see so dry everywhere.

SANDERS: The Nolans are seeing the effects of California's lingering drought. Going on three years now, rain and snowfall in the state have been extremely low. The California Department of Water Resources says much of the drought the state is experiencing can be attributed to climate change. In a normal year, Los Angeles gets close to 15 inches of rain. In 2013, L.A. got about three and a half. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that almost 95 percent of California is enduring some level of drought.

ALLAN HAYNES: We're coming off two years of below normal precipitation. And we've had an exceptionally dry past twelve months. In fact, one of the driest calendar year on record in lots of locations.

SANDERS: Allan Haynes is a hydrologist with the California and Nevada River Forecast Center. He says the lack of snow in Northern California affects the entire state.

HAYNES: It's a very complicated picture as far as how people get water. But typically, in most cases, it's irrigation - water that comes from somewhere other than locally.

SANDERS: Lots of people in California get their water from the Sierra Nevada snow packs. Those snow packs, though, are only at 20 percent of average right now. And there's a danger that becomes more commonplace in a California drought - wildfires. The dry conditions could mean more and bigger fires in the future. California's water woes might soon begin to affect the entire country because California is America's number one food and agricultural producer. A drought could push up food prices. As far as the forecast for future rain? Jeanine Jones with the Department of Water Resources has a bleak outlook.

JEANINE JONES: Our seasonal forecast says that the odds point to dry. Currently in terms of the longer range weather forecast, we're not seeing any significant relief in the next couple of weeks.

SANDERS: California's Governor Jerry Brown has convened a drought task force. It will convene weekly to help the state prepare for what could be a very dry 2014. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.