Present Times: Drought Problem in California


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Everyone in the Central Valley, and most of California has heard of the always looming threat of droughts. Nevertheless, would most people be able to explain why California is in a drought? The assumption of a drought is lack of rainfall, which is the textbook summary definition. Different regions, even within California, suffer with different types of drought, but the Central Valley alone experiences all drought types. In this paper, we will examine different causes, consequences, results, preventive measures, and adaptations for droughts.

It is often assumed the cause of drought is simple; land and water temperatures are warmer than normal, and rainfall is less than average. However, science has labeled four different types of drought. Conveniently, around here in the Central Valley, we can identify all four. The first type of drought is called the “agricultural drought”. 

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This drought is the top priority of farmers and may not be during a drought time for other citizens. In California, farmers use 80% of the state’s water, and if there is a shortage of water during the crop’s season, there’s a good chance it won’t survive. The second type of drought is “meteorological drought”. This is what most people think of when they hear the word drought. This is a long time with little to no rain or snow, and varies depending on the region of a place. The only way for this to be measured according to the region, is to be compared to the region’s annual rainfall/snowfall. The third type of drought is “hydrological drought”. 

This drought is an extreme part of the water cycle and occurs when the inflow of water (precipitation) becomes less than the outflow (evaporation). This affects surface and subsurface water availability, which again, impacts farmers in a huge way. The fourth type of drought is “socioeconomic drought”. This is the type of drought that everyone feels and is a direct result of the other types of droughts. This is where prices on fruits and vegetables rise or there is a lack of products at the grocery store.

Another familiar term around the Central Valley, and over California is El Nino. The El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a quasi-periodic cycle that changes around every 2-7 years and has an effect on the climate (Drought, Past Problems and Future Scenarios). La Nina is the cooler phase of the ENSO, and Californians know that usually means a drier winter. In simpler terms, a large blob of warm water in the Pacific drifts close to land and currently has been stagnant for a couple years. This is critical because this portion of the cycle dries out the forests in the winter, meaning the following fire season will have a larger supply of fuel as trees dry out.

Humans play a role in impacting this balance of the water cycle as well. Two examples in the Central Valley are groundwater pumping and reservoirs. These two acts by farmers weaken the ground and deplete subsurface water for future crops. After an extended period of time from groundwater pumping, the area around can start to recede and depress. When rainfall returns to this area, it takes longer to restore the subsurface water, therefore prolonging the usefulness for crops. 

This also occurs when chopping down large sections of trees. When trees are removed from the land, the soil weakens and eventually is unable to retain water. As a result, the dirt becomes fine and is no longer fertile for crops. This is the situation farmers found themselves in during the Dust Bowl, which will be discussed later.

Unfortunately, drought is hard to notice until it is too late. It creeps up slowly and could take months or even years to be recognized. By that time, it is too late to prepare, and the consequences extend for just as long. Droughts can take just as long to end, as it requires recurring annual rainfall. A “dry period” can average around ten years. The main consequences we see in California are struggling farmers and a rampant fire season.

Looking around the Central Valley, it is evident to see the effects of drought in agriculture. Farmers are hit with socioeconomic drought the hardest. Their income disappears if unable to produce crops, they may be forced to dig deeper wells or relocate, or drive up prices for what little product they can supply. California is one of the biggest food exporters for the world, and when there is a drought, not only does it negatively impact California’s economy, it also negatively impacts those who are not able to purchase the food. Droughts often result in annual economic damage between 6-8 million dollars. This was the most expensive type of natural disaster until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

Droughts also provide ample resources for forest fires. During a dry season in the Sequoias or Yosemite, trees dry out and drop dead needles and leaves. if not cleaned up regularly, this creates a dangerous gateway for when a fire breaks out. The Creek Fire, currently at 70% containment, shows the extreme lengths a fire can rage with the extra help of the dead surroundings.

Other economic impacts that occur can be water companies being forced to pay higher prices to supply water and in turn drive up their own prices, the timber industry losing resources from fires, boats unable to navigate if water levels drop, and for everyone else, paying more for produce (National Drought Mitigation Center).

The most famous example of drought is the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s. This occurred during the Great Depression and caused further economic damage to the people living in the Southern Plains. Back then, farmers plowed the land to the point where the soil was too fine to plant crops. Since crops could not be planted, this opened up for the wind to tear through and create dust storms. These dust storms created a loop of drying out the land even further to create impossible environments for people to farm the land. 

The New Deal was Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to assist farmers in relocating to fertile land and providing emergency economic relief (Drought in the United States, Causes and Current Understanding). After the Dust Bowl, new techniques were introduced to the agriculture scene to prevent repeating history. One of the new techniques, crop rotation, is used by modern farmers today. These practices were encouraged and rewarded by the government paying farmers for their adaptations in farming.

Today, people are better off than in the 1930’s however there is still not a “solution” for droughts because of their role in the water cycle. There are preventative measures people can take to lessen the effects. In everyday actions, people can be conscious to turn off the water faucet when brushing their teeth and not to spend hours in the shower. Farmers, who have the most at risk during droughts, have already come up with some measures to secure their crops. Thankfully, farmers learned from the 1930’s and use methods such as reducing tillage and rotating crops every few seasons help adapt to the risk. While these methods don’t eliminate the risk of drought, it gives the soil a chance to replenish and withstand drier seasons.

Continuing with a dry season, forest fires, fueled by droughts, are another area to consider adding preventative measures. Cleaning up the forest floor of dead leaves and removing dead trees would be a huge measure in reducing the fuel for fires. If left untreated, forest fires and drought become a cycle. A drought provides fuel for fires, and in turn, fires eliminate precious water supply and create their own weather system that may delay rainfall/snowfall. Many areas have crews that clean up forests regularly, and California could take more efforts to clean up areas such as the Sequoias and Yosemite. After cleanup, planting young trees is beneficial to ensuring the soil is able to retain water, and not harden.

Droughts are considered to be the most silent natural disaster, but one of the most damaging. They are caused through human manipulation or forces in the water cycle, and have long lasting effects. The consequences range from water loss, food loss, job loss, and economic disaster. This hits close to home as we have all seen these different effects of drought here in the Central Valley. There is not a guaranteed solution to eliminate droughts, as they are part of a natural cycle. However, humans can and have taken preventative measures such as being mindful and conserving water when able, and not over working the ground like in the 1930’s. Great strides have been made in effort to prepare and lessen the unavoidable impact of droughts, especially in the agricultural department. Hopefully in the future, more viable solutions will become available.  

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