How Did California’s Drought Get So Bad?

A warmer California is making the drought far worse.,


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Houseboats in a narrow section of a depleted Lake Oroville last month.Credit…Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

No matter how you slice it, the drought in California is extremely, exceptionally bad.

The past 12 months were the driest in a century. Lake Mead, one of our most crucial water sources, has dropped to its lowest level ever. And Californians aren’t conserving anywhere close to the 15 percent cutback in water use that officials have called for.

With these grim fortunes in mind, Gov. Gavin Newsom this week declared a drought emergency for the entire state and called on Californians to “redouble our efforts to save water in every way possible.”

You might be wondering why this is such a big deal, given that periods of low rainfall have long been par for the course in California.

The short answer? Heat.

Because of human-induced climate change, California is experiencing warmer temperatures, and this summer was our hottest on record. That unusually balmy weather exacerbates drought conditions — and transforms what could be a normal fluctuation in precipitation into a full-blown crisis.

Here’s how this happens: California relies on snowpacks to store water, but during warm winters, that snow increasingly falls as rain instead. And what little snow does collect melts earlier in the year.

“By the time you reach late summer — August, September, October — and its scorching temperatures, there’s not a cloud in the sky and California must rely on water that’s fallen on the snowpack the previous winter,” Julien Emile-Geay, a climate scientist at the University of Southern California, told me. “Increasingly, that water is long gone by that point.”

This year, the Sierra Nevada snowpack had already dwindled to next to nothing by June.

There’s also another, slightly more complicated, piece of this “heat plus drought” equation, sometimes described as the atmosphere’s thirst.

When the air is warmer, it can hold more moisture — about 7 percent more with every degree Celsius of warming. The air absorbs water from nearby lakes, plants and soil, further drying out the already parched land and depleting water supplies.

(In typically wetter climates, warmer air still holds more water, but it also releases it, which is why storms on the East Coast are becoming more intense.)

That “thirst” in California has created drought conditions similar to what we would normally experience only after four or five years of a dry spell. We’re in our second year of drought, yet Lake Oroville, a major reservoir, has less water than ever before.

And, despite rain blanketing much of the state this week, officials are predicting that this winter will bring La Nina, a weather phenomenon that typically leaves California exceptionally dry.

Tell us how you are saving water during the drought. Email me at

For more:

One place in California has plenty of water: San Diego.

Has climate change cut us off from the wilderness in California?

These maps tell the story of two Americas: one parched, one soaked.


A crew in Huntington Beach cleaned up oil from the recent spill.Credit…Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

The rest of the news

Oil spill: Records uncovered Wednesday reveal that the Coast Guard received multiple reports of a fuel leak off the Southern California coast earlier than previously disclosed, The Associated Press reports.

Also on Wednesday, several environmental groups demanded that the Biden administration suspend and cancel oil and gas leases off the coast.

Toxic chemicals: The Environmental Protection Agency has identified 13,000 sites in California where people may be exposed to toxic “forever chemicals” that are associated with cancer and other health problems, The Guardian reports.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill banning the use of these chemicals in food packaging.

The pandemic economy: America’s economic rebound is still waiting for workers.


Los Angeles zoo: Exhibit upgrades and new attractions are part of a planned $650 million transformation to the Los Angeles Zoo over the next 20 years, The Associated Press reports.

Lakers lose first game: Los Angeles remade its basketball roster around big names, but getting them all on the same page is a work in progress.

City councilman suspended: Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles city councilman who was indicted on federal charges of public corruption, was suspended from the Council without pay, The Associated Press reports.


Valley rain: A storm expected to arrive in the Central Valley by Sunday or Monday could bring up to two inches of rain to Fresno. It may be the strongest storm to hit the area in two years, GV Wire reports.


Weather warning: A flash flood warning will be in effect starting Thursday evening, with heavy rains expected in Butte, Plumas, Shasta, Lassen and Sierra Counties.

In-N-Out controversy: After an In-N-Out Burger in San Francisco was shut down for not checking vaccine cards, the California fast food chain called the requirement “intrusive, improper, and offensive” governmental “overreach.”

Unvaccinated police officers: Forty officers in the San Francisco Police Department have been put on leave for not having their Covid-19 shots, NBC Bay Area reports.

Bay Area transport: Here’s a guide to when 10 major transit upgrades will be completed, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.


Credit…Jenny Huang for The New York Times

What we’re eating

This one-pot pasta with ricotta and lemon.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Judy Schultze, who recommends Corralitos in Santa Cruz County:

Just 10 minutes east of Highway 1, nestled in a beautiful little valley, surrounded by apple orchards, vineyards and redwood trees in nearby woods, is a small gem. There are a couple of casual restaurants, family-owned wineries, and a venerable sausage company/food market that draws loyal customers from all over the area. Biking along country lanes, hiking in a nearby forest preserve, driving through windy roads with old redwood groves, as well as wine tasting locally grown wines, are just a few of the low-keyed attractions.

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.


“Zach and Oskar at sunset” (2020), one of the portraits by the artist Jess T. Dugan showing at the Saint Louis Art Museum.Credit…Jess T. Dugan and Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

What we’re recommending

From New York to Los Angeles, photography that focuses on those who are often not seen.

And before you go, some good news

The mind-blowing, shape-shifting dance company Pilobolus will perform at Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, today and tomorrow.

Watch some of the troupe’s incredible videos here.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: South African of Dutch descent (4 letters).

Steven Moity and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at

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