Atlantic Cities

The Severity of California's Terrible Drought, in One Image

California just suffered its driest year in 119 years, and the horrid drought that's plaguing the state (and much of the American West) still shows no sign of relaxing its withering grip. But how bad is it, really?

Well, it's so dry that "grass-fed beef" is becoming "grain-fed beef," as ranchers can't find any grass to feed their cattle. Things are so parched that the state's municipal water system has announced it can't get water to many farmers. That's a first in its 54-year history, and not a good omen for the state that produces half of America's vegetables and fruits. There's so little snowpack in the mountains right now – snow that supplies about one-third of the water to California's farms and cities – that people aren't skiing up there right now, they're skateboarding

But if you want one image to convey the extreme nature of the drought, try this comparison of photos on for size. They show the water level at Folsom Lake near Sacramento in 2011 and 2014. Spot the difference?

Two-and-a-half years ago, this reservoir was at 97 percent of its capacity (and 130 percent of its historical average for summer). But last month it was as if somebody had pulled out a massive sink plug and drained the lake into a quagmire. The lake was at a mere 17 percent capacity, and 35 percent of its historical average, with vast stretches of its basin the concrete color of the nearby Folsom Dam.

This stark comparison was released to the public this week by the California Department of Water Resources, which announced that it will continue to partner with NASA to monitor and prepare for the diminishing water resources. The agencies will be performing a number of collaborative projects this year, such as flying over the Tuolumne River Basin to determine the health of this source of H2O for 2.6 million people in the Bay Area. Explains NASA:

The airborne observatory measures how much water is in the snowpack and how much sunlight the snow absorbs, which affects how fast the snow melts. These data enable accurate estimates of how much water will flow out of a basin when the snow melts. Last year, observatory data helped water managers optimize reservoir filling and more efficiently allocate water between power generation, water supplies and ecological uses.

The space agency has already been poking into the drought, as shown in the below map of anomalies in California's vegetation. In a typical year, running from February 1 to January 31, California gets a statewide average of 22.5 inches of rain. But over that period this past year it's been about 7 inches, a piddling drizzle that's left many areas almost as devoid of plantlife as the Utah salt flats.

Huge bands of below-normal plant growth, shown in shades of brown, stretch down the state's midriff. Meanwhile, lots of above-average vegetation growth is happening in the Sierras, as depicted in green. That's a bit worrisome, according to one NASA researcher: "Since there is not much snow this year, the evergreen vegetation appears anomalously green. In fact, that is bad news for this time of the year."

Top image: President Obama walks with California Governor Jerry Brown, left, and local farmers Joe and Maria Del Bosque during a February 14 visit to the drought-stricken state. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press). Bottom map prepared by NASA.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

Join the Discussion