Much of California (especially Northern California) relies on snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to store water during the winter and slowly release it over the course of the spring and summer. Snowpack provides about a third of California’s total water supply.
Over the long-term, changing weather patterns may also be reducing winter precipitation. Records show that over the past century, total annual precipitation in California has declined.
One of the hallmarks of climate change is that, on average, wet regions are getting wetter and dry regions are getting drier (IPCC AR5 WGI SPM, p. 3). The Southwestern U.S. is a naturally dry region, and experts predict that it will get drier as climate change continues.
Overall, this drought could increase the prices of staples such as meat, milk, fruit and vegetables around the country. In fact, the price of milk futures rose to its highest point on record in January, which is a signal that demand remains high as producers are struggling with drought conditions.
Based on previous droughts, it is likely that the fisheries along the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta will suffer as water is directed towards urban and agricultural uses. As they have in the past, agricultural agencies and environmentalists might file lawsuits to protect their rights to water for crops and fish habitat.
The state warned on January 28, 2014, that seventeen communities across the state were in danger of running out of water within 60 to 120 days. Federal officials are considering seizing water stored by some California to serve users with senior water rights. As an example of the overall financial toll drought can take, the 2012 national drought cost the U.S. $30 billion.
Early snowmelt leaves the Sierras vulnerable to fire. There have been fires around Lake Tahoe for this reason in the past, and one small fire nearby in Nevada already in 2014. Fire officials are on edge, saying “Normally in the area where we have this fire we have 5 to 10 feet of snow… [But] We have no snow in the area." In Southern California, lack of precipitation exacerbates fire as well. Red-flag fire warnings have been issued in Southern California this January, and the Colby fire has burned over 1,900 acres.
In a non-drought year, California typically gets 15% of its total power from hydroelectric generation. The drought could dramatically cut this figure, with potentially significant consequences for homes and businesses. Estimates show that in 2013, California’s hydropower generation fell by over 22% compared to 2012, and water levels in energy-generating reservoirs are still dropping.