The snow that's blanketing the Midwest and East coast on Tuesday could be put to much better use in California where drought conditions are spiking after a year of record dryness. California has only 13 percent of its normal snow coverage for this date — which likely means much less snowmelt and water later in the year.
On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a water emergency in the state, urging people to curtail water use. That's not a surprise, given how dry the state's 2013 was. The National Climatic Data Center revealed earlier this month that last year was the driest in the state's history.
California had its driest calendar year on record with 7.38 inches of precipitation, 15.13 inches below average. This was 2.42 inches below the previous record dry year of 1898. By the end of 2013, 27.6 percent of California was in Severe Drought.
That's only gotten worse. The map at right, from the Department of Agriculture's Drought Monitor shows the amount of the state that's currently experiencing severe drought, depicted in red: 62.71 percent. That's the highest percentage in the state the Drought Monitor's records begin in 2000. (At the bottom of this post is a chart depicting drought levels in the state since that date.) 94 percent of the state is in some state of drought.
But the real problem is that snow coverage. The state's Department of Water Resources tracks snow coverage on a daily basis. As of January 21, the state had only 13 percent of the snow coverage that would normally be expected for the date, with snow coverage in the northern Sierra Mountains at only 7 percent of normal. That snow is one of the state's main sources of water, slowly melting over the course of the year and filling reservoirs that are then used for drinking and agriculture. Speaking to NPR, a Berkeley professor of agriculture and resource economics explained that farmers would likely switch to less water-intensive crops over time, which will likely raise prices on some produce over the short term.
Is this related to climate change? Actually, both the East Coast snowstorm and the California drought uphold the predictions of climate change models. Warmer temperatures are expected to exacerbate drought conditions over time in the American west. Meanwhile, storms are expected to get wetter. In the words of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: "in a warmer world, precipitation tends to be concentrated into more intense events, with longer periods of little precipitation in between. Therefore, intense and heavy downpours would be interspersed with longer relatively dry periods."
Or: you might see heavy snowfall in one part of the country and a desperate need for it in another.
Drought conditions in California since 2000
The areas of the graph below depict the percent of the state that is in drought. At the very bottom is the most recent data, showing a big spike in the darkest red — that's the 62 percent spike in severe drought coverage.