California Drought: Frequently Asked Questions

California in 2014 is experiencing its worst dry spell on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Facing what is "perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen," Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17 for the state.

The drought’s effect is trickling down into residents’ daily lives, with several communities ordering water usage restrictions and others dispatching "drought busters" to patrol water waste.

Rising food prices at the grocery store and low water allocation to California farmers are two more indicators of the drought’s effect on California communities.

We’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions about the Golden State’s current condition and what you can do to lessen your water usage:

Q: What constitutes a drought?

A: How drought conditions are defined depends on the different criteria that local water agencies use to define drought conditions in their jurisdiction. At the most basic level, a drought originates from a lack of precipitation over an extended period of time resulting in a water shortage, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Q: What is a drought emergency?

A: During a drought emergency, mandatory restrictions are imposed on nonessential water usage, according to the USGS Water Science Center. For California’s current drought, President Obama directed all federal facilities to curb their water use, and suspended new, non-essential landscaping projects.

Q: What is average rainfall for California?

A: Downtown LA received 8.71 inches between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012 (two water years ago). That's 58 percent of normal precipitation, according to the National Weather Service, which uses different criteria than other agencies to determine the span of a water year.

During the last complete water year, from July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013, downtown LA received 5.85 inches of rain, or 39 percent of normal precipitation. The same region has received 4.55 inches from July 1, 2013, through the end of February, which equals 41 percent of normal for the current water year.

Q: For how long has California had below-average rainfall?

A: This is the third consecutive below normal winter for Southern California in terms of rainfall, says NWS hydrologist Jayme Laber. January to March generally experience the highest rainfall totals.

Q: How much rain does California need to reverse the drought?

A: It’s difficult to say how many inches of rain California needs to reverse the drought.

"It really depends on how much of that rainfall is going to translate into runoff," Laber said.

Because the state has a growing precipitation deficit, any water that California gets is essentially being absorbed by the land. To reverse the drought, the state would need enough rainfall so that it causes runoff into the reservoirs and then flows into the water supply line.

Q: What can I do to help conserve water?

A: Gov. Jerry Brown has called on Angelenos to reduce their water usage by 20 percent. Some small changes to a number of daily habits that can help curb your water usage include:

  • Install aerators on bathroom faucets. This can save 1.2 gallons of water a day, according to Save Our Water.
  • Save up to 10 gallons a day by turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth.
  • Showering for 5 minutes instead of 10 minutes can save 12.5 gallons of water a day.
  • Installing a high-efficiency toilet can save 19 gallons of water a day.
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