The Obama administration has announced a package of more than $200m (£120m) in drought aid to California, to help farmers and others affected by the state’s driest spell since records began. Some scientists fear that the so-called mega-drought in this corner of the US South-west could last as long as 200 years.
President Barack Obama touched down in Fresno, California, today to meet with farmers and witness the worst effects of the drought on the state’s densely agricultural San Joaquin Valley. The White House pledge includes some $150m for livestock farmers, $60m for food banks and another $5m to go towards water conservation projects.
California is one of the world’s largest agricultural regions, with a $45bn farming industry that produces almost half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the US. Agriculture uses around 80 per cent of the state’s water, and any severe water shortage could have a massive impact on the nation’s food supply.
In 2013, less rain fell on California than in any year since it became a state in 1850: just 7.48 inches (19 cm). The region’s rivers and reservoirs have sunk lower than ever before. Southern California’s water sources include the snowpack from the Sierra Nevada mountains, which is at 20 per cent of its normal average for this time of year.
Last month, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, urging residents to cut their own water use voluntarily by 20 per cent, and asking state agencies to hire more fire-fighters to combat an epidemic of wildfires. In January, the California Department of Forestry was called to more than 400 fires. The average number in the previous five January's was 69.
According to the California Department of Public Health, up to 17 of the state’s small rural communities could face severe water shortages in less than 100 days’ time. That’s a fate that may eventually await the region’s major cities and the industries they sustain: farming, film, technology.
Technically, a mega-drought is any drought that lasts longer than two decades. But scientists familiar with the long-term climate patterns of the region say California might have to prepare itself for far longer than 20 years without sufficient rain. The state’s infrastructure was largely designed in the 20th Century, when the region may have been abnormally damp.