California Is Expected to Enter a Fourth Straight Year of Drought

Tangerines lying in the dirt in arid farmland near Bakersfield, Calif., in August.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

California is most likely heading into a fourth consecutive year of drought.

The state’s water year ends tomorrow, which has prompted predictions about what’s in store for the next 12 months. (California’s water year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, so that the winter rainy season falls within a single water year.)

The forecasts tend to agree: The Golden State’s extreme drought, exacerbated by warming temperatures and increasingly unpredictable precipitation patterns, is expected to continue into the new year. Gov. Gavin Newsom warned on Wednesday that Californians must adjust to a hotter and drier world.

“As the state prepares for the possibility of a fourth dry year and potential weather extremes, it’s more important than ever that all of us adopt water conservation as a way of life,” Newsom said in a statement. “Together, we can save water and save California.”

Many of the state’s water providers have already instated unprecedented restrictions this year, and Californians are increasingly ripping out their thirsty lawns. But the state’s water supplies are still more depleted than we would hope.

The past 12 months were cooler and rainier than the prior year, and many of California’s biggest reservoirs are fuller than they were a year ago, John Yarbrough, the assistant deputy director for the Department of Water Resources, told the California Water Commission last week. While that’s good news, reservoir levels are still well below average, he said. It’s “better than last year, not good enough,” he said.

California typically gets 75 percent of its annual rainfall between November and March, a feature of its Mediterranean-type climate. That concentrated wet season means that a few months of low rain can have a major impact on the state’s water availability for the year.

This winter, weather officials are predicting La Niña conditions for the third year in a row. Like its climatological cousin El Niño, La Niña is a weather phenomenon that originates in the Pacific Ocean but can affect the whole world.

In California, La Niña generally means less rain than usual, particularly in the southern two-thirds of the state, said Brad Pugh of the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. It’s always possible that this La Niña could beat the odds and bring heavy storms, “but right now, the most likely outcome is for below normal precipitation this winter,” Pugh told me.

And even if this winter were to be exceptionally rainy, the state’s water problems are probably too severe to reverse in a single season, experts say.

The land is so parched that when it does rain, the plants and soil will absorb more rain than they would otherwise, limiting how much ends up in rivers and streams. Warmer temperatures mean precipitation is more likely to fall as rain instead of snow, so it can’t be stored as easily for the summer. Not to mention that the Colorado River, a major source of water for Southern California, is in dire shape, said Alex Hall, the director of the Center for Climate Science at U.C.L.A.

“We need a really terrific water year, and probably even maybe a couple of pretty amazing water years, to get us out of this hole,” Hall told me.

For more:

  • The megadrought in the American Southwest has caused the two driest decades in the region in at least 1,200 years.

  • The tiny corner of California that isn’t in drought, according to KTLA.

  • Residents of Southern California are beginning to accept that lush lawns are unsustainable.

The roof of a driverless Cruise vehicle. For years, companies have promised that self-driving cars will soon populate city streets.Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

If you read one story, make it this

Stuck on the streets of San Francisco in a driverless car.

Workers harvesting radishes in San Juan Bautista, Calif. Union votes for farmworkers are often held on growers’ property.Credit…Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

The rest of the news

  • Union voting: Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill on Wednesday that would make it easier for farmworkers to take part in unionization votes, after vetoing similar legislation last year.

  • Housing production: Newsom signed two laws that would open up much of California’s commercial land for residential development, The Associated Press reports.

  • R.F.K. assassin: Sirhan Sirhan, who killed Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, is asking a judge to free him from prison, The Associated Press reports.

  • Flag football: California could make girls’ flag football an official school sport, The Associated Press reports.

  • Gun law: Firearms groups have filed a widely anticipated legal challenge against a new California gun law that was modeled after Texas’ abortion ban, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Recycling program: California will add wine and liquor bottles to its recycling rebate program under a law taking effect in July 2024, The Associated Press reports.


  • Shootout: A 15-year-old girl and her father, a suspect in the fatal shooting of a woman believed to be the girl’s mother, were both killed after a police pursuit in San Bernardino County.

  • Mountain lion attack: A 7-year-old boy and his father were walking in a park near Santa Clarita when a cougar emerged from brush and bit the boy on the buttocks, The Associated Press reports.

  • Rental protection: The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors proposed adopting several rental assistance programs permanently as rental protections are set to expire at the end of the year, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Expanded school year: Under pressure from a teachers union, Los Angeles school officials have changed their plan to create four optional “acceleration days” to improve student learning in the wake of the pandemic, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Earthquake risk: A fault system running nearly 70 miles along the coast of Los Angeles and Orange Counties has the potential to cause a magnitude 7.8 earthquake, The Los Angeles Times reports.


  • Drought: There is a mad rush for groundwater in the Central Valley, KQED reports.


  • Oakland shooting: Six people were shot on Wednesday at a campus in Oakland that houses four different school programs, prompting lockdowns and evacuations as the police descended on the scene.

  • S.F. lawsuit: A prominent advocacy organization and a group of homeless people are suing San Francisco to stop encampment sweeps and police enforcement of quality-of-life laws that target people living on the streets, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • Sacramento shootings: Sacramento police said three separate shootings between Monday night and Tuesday morning had ended with four people dead, Fox 40 reports.

  • Mosquito fire: PG&E is facing a criminal investigation for possibly starting a blaze in the Sierra Nevada that has grown to become California’s largest wildfire of the year, KQED reports.

Credit…Linda Xiao for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Judy Kim.

What we’re eating

Chocolate banana icebox cake.

The Lone Cypress, a popular sight near Pebble Beach and Carmel, Calif.Credit…Kike Luis Arnal for The New York Times

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Rebecca Fahrlander:

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

Tell us

It’s officially fall. What do you love about the season in California? What are the best ways to enjoy fall in your corner of the state?

Email us at [email protected] with your stories, memories and recommendations.

And before you go, some good news

Bored during your commute? Bay Area Rapid Transit has installed short story dispensers at four stations so you can read some fiction while you ride.

The project is part of a one-year pilot program aiming to bring together arts and transit. The story dispensers are at the Fruitvale, Pleasant Hill, Balboa Park and Richmond stations, and offer riders one-minute, three-minute, and five-minute reads, KQED reports.

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

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia, Jaevon Williams and Francis Mateo contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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