Skip to content

California records its driest year in almost a century


California has been plagued by some of its worst droughts and wildfires in recent years. Now the state has recorded its driest year in nearly a century, according to the latest data from state water officials.

With water conservation efforts continuing to fall short, Gov. Gavin Newsom this week extended a drought emergency declaration statewide, adding eight counties that were previously excluded, including all of Southern California.

“As the western U.S. faces a potential third year of drought, it’s critical that Californians across the state redouble our efforts to save water in every way possible,” Newsom said in a statement. “With historic investments and urgent action, the state is moving to protect our communities, businesses and ecosystems from the immediate impacts of the drought emergency while building long-term water resilience to help the state meet the challenge of climate change impacts making droughts more common and more severe.”

The expanded declaration extends the emergency to eight counties that were previously excluded—Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino, Ventura, Imperial and San Francisco.

When the original declaration was issued in July, Newsom issued a call for Californians to voluntarily cut back their water use by 15 percent below last year’s level. The latest state figures, however, showed that urban water use in August was cut by just 5 percent.

The emergency declaration requires local water suppliers to implement water shortage contingency plans to respond to local conditions and prepare for the possibility of another dry year.

The 2021 water year—a period that ran from Oct. 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021—marked the least rainfall since 1924 and was the second driest year since the state began tracking the metric 125 years ago.

“Extreme conditions that once were rare are occurring with increased frequency,” the state’s Department of Water Resources said. “California’s climate is transitioning to a warmer setting in which historical relationships among temperature, precipitation and runoff are changing.”

The general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which manages water deliveries to 26 agencies in six counties, serving 19 million people, said conditions require a “united, statewide response.”

“All of our communities across the state must do what we can to conserve our limited water resources,” Adel Hagekhalil said in a statement. “Southern Californians have done a great job becoming more water efficient in recent years, and Metropolitan has worked alongside them to adjust our operations and increase our calls for conservation to ensure the region has water to get through this drought. But given the increasing severity of conditions, we all need to step up and immediately cut back our water use even more.”

The state report found that several areas—including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento—have experienced less than half of their average annual rainfall. Overall, California was one of the driest states in the Western U.S. last year.

Hagekhalil said the MWD board next month will consider calling on its member agencies to implement mandatory conservation measures.

“These plans, which are specific to the needs of each community, will help promote the water savings needed to ensure that the entire state has the water it needs, should these historically dry conditions continue for another year,” Hagekhalil said.

“In addition, Metropolitan is taking steps in the coming months to expand our conservation programs,” Hagekhalil continued. “This includes offering new rebates to promote water savings in homes and businesses, so we continue to be your partners in saving water. And looking ahead, we are ensuring long-term reliability through our One Water approach, including increased investments in local water supplies such as reuse and recycling.”

In July, Newsom said a 15-percent cut in water use statewide would save 850,000 acre-feet of water—enough to supply more than 1.7 million households for a year. He urged residents to limit outdoor watering, use recycled water when possible outdoors, take shorter showers and only run dishwashers and washing machines when they are full.

“This two-year dry period continues the theme of aridity California has been experiencing in the 21st Century, including the three-year drought of 2007-2009 and the five-year one of 2012-2016,” the water resources report stated. “A very wet 2017 water year offered a brief reprieve, but drought began returning in 2018.”

There are eight large wildfires currently burning in California. The Dixie Fire in the north, the state’s second largest in history, has burned more than 960,000 acres, destroying 1,300 buildings and killing one firefighter. Since the start of the year, wildfires across the state have burned more than six million acres.

Over the weekend, most of the state and the Pacific Northwest is expecting a wave of wet weather, bringing as much as 10 inches of rain to certain areas, and about two inches to the southland.