Skip Navigation

California Drought: Impacts and Outlook

Author(s): James P. Denk, MA
California Drought: Impacts and Outlook

A dry riverbed in California.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

After just a few months, 2014 already has seen a number of record-breaking climactic events across the United States. Perhaps the most enduring climate emergency is the ongoing drought in California. In the midst of the state’s driest period in recorded history, on January 14, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, outlining a series of steps and guidelines to manage the ongoing water shortage crisis. [1] By early February, several state and national agencies were collaborating to “minimize [the drought’s] social, economic and environmental impacts. [2]

California Drought Conditions ChartThe National Drought Mitigation Center. March 25, 2014. U.S. Drought Monitor, California.
Accessed online, March 28, 2014.

Heavy rains in February 2014—severe enough to cause dangerous flooding in places—helped to alleviate the drought, but not nearly enough to end serious long-term deficits in California’s water supply. [3, 4] As indicated in the map in Slide 1, by March 11, 2014, the entire state remained at least “abnormally dry,” and 91% of California was experiencing at least “severe drought.” Ironically, only the extreme southeast portion of the state, in the Sonoran Desert, has avoided the worst drought conditions.

California is not the only state affected by an exceptional lack of rain. As of March 25, 2014, much of the western US, including Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, were experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. However, no other state has been so drought-stricken, or for so long. After years of very dry conditions, California has a water supply emergency that impacts the availability and cost of drinking water supplies, irrigation, crop production, livestock and more. [5-7] And since California is one of the nation’s most important food producers, the impacts reach far beyond state borders.

Why are we seeing such extreme drought, and what are the effects? Climate change plays a primary role. The overall warming of our planet is causing shifts in precipitation and long-term weather patterns that can increase droughts’ length, frequency and intensity. [8-10] As a result, some regions are receiving—and will continue to receive—more rain than usual, while drought-stricken states like California likely will experience continued record low rainfall totals. In the Southwestern US, these events will have wide-ranging impacts related to crop production, human health, native flora and fauna, and the economy. Slide 2 highlights some of the key concerns identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Scientists are not able to predict exactly when the current California drought will end, but eventually, it is expected that temporary weather conditions, such as those produced by El Niño, will provide some relief. El Niño is a weather condition characterized by unusually warm equatorial Pacific Ocean temperatures. The warm ocean waters cause increased rainfall in the southwestern United States and Peru. [11] In the long-term, though, the EPA and other organizations project that climate change will prevail, and that current dry conditions in California will continue to be the “rule” rather than the “exception.” [12] National governments around the world, and state/local governments in the US already are taking steps to prepare for the impacts of shifting conditions.

BioEd Online makes it easy to engage students in explorations of the science of global climate change and to build their understanding of how it could impact them.

Use our peer-reviewed classroom lessons, extensions and related content (e.g., videos, slide presentations, Nature News articles) to cover this important topic thoroughly, in a way that best meets the needs and interests of your students.

Related Content

  • Earth and Its Resources

    Earth and Its Resources

    Global environmental issues, oceans, weather, cycles of matter and energy, carbon, water, rock, landforms, fossil fuel, alternative energy

  • Global Atmospheric Change

    Global Atmospheric Change

    The Global Atmospheric Change unit gives students an opportunity to investigate a variety of physical and life science concepts related to Earth's energy resources, atmosphere, and global ecology.

  • People and Climate

    People and Climate

    Students learn about Earth’s major climate types, how climate affects people's lifestyles, and impacts of climate change.

  • Water Cycle and Global Warming

    Water Cycle and Global Warming

    Students investigate the water cycle, properties of water, simulated effects of global temperature change on oceanic surface levels, and potential consequences of these changes.


  1. Office of the Governor, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. January 17, 2014. Governor Brown Declares Drought State of Emergency. Accessed online, March 18, 2014.
  2. US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Reclamation. February 5, 2014. Federal Agencies and State of California Coordinating Response to Drought. Accessed online, March 18, 2014.
  3. Nagourney A, Lovett I. Rain in California Brings Relief, and New Problems. New York Times. Accessed online, March 19, 2014.
  4. Bernstein, S. March 1, 2014. Rain Soaks California Causing Floods, but Won’t End Drought. Reuters. Accessed online, March 19, 2014.
  5. California Environmental Protection Agency: State Water Resources Control Board. March 25, 2014. Drought Preparedness, Water Conservation and Water Supply Emergency Response. Accessed online, March 28, 2014.
  6. The Wall Street Journal. March 18, 2014. Food Prices Surge as Drought Exacts a High Toll on Crops. Accessed online, March 28, 2014.
  7. Ewers J. for the California Economic Summit. March 17, 2014. Nature Conservancy Aims to Shift Focus on Drought to One Number: 1.5 Million. Accessed online, March 28, 2014.
  8. United States Environmental Protection Agency. September 9, 2013. Climate Impacts in the Southwest. Accessed online, March 27, 2014.
  9. Romm J. for Climate Progress. January 31, 2014. Leading Scientists Explain How Climate Change Is Worsening California’s Epic Drought. Accessed online, March 27, 2014.
  10. Rogers P. for the San Jose Mercury News. January 13, 2014. California Drought: What’s Causing It? Accessed online, March 28, 2014.
  11. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What is an El Niño? Accessed online, April 8, 2014.
  12. US Global Change Research Program. July 25. 2013. New NASA Visualizations Show Two Futures of Climate Change. Accessed online, March 31, 2014.