13 Photos of California's Devastating Drought
By Mia Nakaji Monnier
California is home to plenty of weird and wonderful things: sea otters, for example, and burritos stuffed with french fries. But not all is sunny in the golden state. 2015 marks California’s fourth consecutive year of drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 71% of the state is considered to be in “extreme drought,” and only 0.14% is not experiencing drought at all—meaning a whopping 99.86% of the state is at least “abnormally dry.”
In the photo above, weeds grow from the cracked earth that used to be the bed of Lake McClure near La Grange. Images like this are becoming increasingly common in California as the drought continues into its fourth year. Here, we’ve collected 13 more.
1. Though cities feel the effects of the drought through water restrictions, the change in landscape is clearest in California’s rivers, lakes, dams, and reservoirs. This Buzzfeed collection of before and after shots of Lake Oroville and Folsom Dam, gives a striking picture of how much water these sites lost just between the summers of 2011 and 2014.
From a wider angle, the clear waterline at Lake McClure tells its own before-and-after story.
2. The causes of the drought are both natural and manmade. In a study published earlier this month in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers analyzed soil moisture to determine that climate change is responsible for making the drought 15 to 20 percent worse. Dryness is also cyclical, and another study suggests that we may have been spoiled by 500 years of unusually wet conditions in the American West.
Here, Tahoe City looks little like its usual vacation-destination self as the pier at Commons Beach extends over dry land.
"Tahoe City Drought" by AFP via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
3. As temperatures rise, evaporation speeds up, increasing the likelihood that bodies of water will look like this one, the empty reservoir at Sweetwater Dam. In Los Angeles, the city is combating evaporation with shade balls, which act as a barrier between water and sun.
"Sweetwater Dam" byMechanoid Dolly via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
4. California has had a precarious relationship with water even before the current drought. The most populous state in the U.S. with almost 39 million people, California is mostly arid. Los Angeles is notoriously dry, which means that most of the city’s water travels a long distance, from the Colorado River or the Owens Valley.
This is the exposed dam wall and water intake of the San Luis reservoir, which is currently at 22% capacity.
5. Some of Los Angeles’s water also comes from the tributaries of Mono Lake, shown here. The south end of the lake is dotted with the rocky towers pictured here, called tufa, which are calcium carbonate (limestone) structures formed when water from calcium-rich underground springs mixes with carbonates in lakewater.
The tufa were once almost entirely underwater, but as the water recedes, they become increasingly exposed. The Mono Lake Committee has been fighting to restore water levels since 1978.
"Mono Lake Tufa at Twilight" by Derrick Story via Flickr //CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
6. Some of the biggest effects of California’s drought are felt by farmers. Here, a dry irrigation canal lies next to a fallow field in Lemoore.
7. The drought has led to arguments about the water required to grow or raise food, particularly almonds (uprooted in the drought-stricken orchard pictured here) and beef. (Spoiler alert: The Onion wins.) The Los Angeles Times put together this interactive graphic that shows just how much water goes into producing one meal.
8. The drought affects more than just humans and soil. It also disrupts ecosystems, causing ripple effects up and down the food chain. At Mono Lake, for example, salinity has been rising as the water level falls, making the lake less hospitable to brine shrimp, which in turn takes away an important resting stop for migrating birds that typically feed on the shrimp.
Salton Sea has been losing water since before the current drought. As a result, it’s known for its beach full of fish skeletons. As the water level decreases, the algae growth has boomed, as seen here. Note the murky-colored waves.
9. The Salton Sea exemplifies another effect of drought: the spread of pollution through dust. Because the lake contains high levels of pesticides like DDT and arsenic, as it dries, these poisons settle in the dust and become airborne.
Ian Collins via Flickr //CC BY-ND 2.0
10. Other effects of drought include more rattlesnakes in residential neighborhoods, more insects indoors, increased birthrate among stray cats, and price increase for crops like grapes. This vineyard in Kern County has experienced extensive damage from sustained water shortages.
U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr //CC BY 2.0
11. Many argue that it’s unreasonable to expect that this drought will be short-lived. It may in fact be the start of a megadrought, a kind of drought that lasts two decades or longer. Climate change can only exacerbate these conditions.
Here, the Gibraltar Dam in Santa Barbara looks surprisingly dry for a temperate, foggy coastal town.
"Gibraltar Dam, Paradise Canyon High Road River Trail loop" by Harold Litwiler via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
12. California is not the first area to experience serious drought in recent history. Australia went through a drought of its own between 1997 and 2009, and a recent study in the journal WIREs Water analyzed Melbourne’s response with the goal of finding possible solutions for other “water-stressed” regions. Some successful strategies included graywater treatment and rainwater holding tanks.
At Yosemite National Park, the water level has receded so far that families picnic on what would normally be the bed of Mirror Lake.
13. El Niño may bring some drought relief to California this winter, but a sudden influx of rain will pose other challenges. Californians continue to hope that bodies of water, like this area of the Russian River, will eventually be restored to a healthy level again.