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California Officially Enters 4th Year Of Drought With Worst Water Situation In History

(CBS SF) -- Put it in the books--Tuesday ends the 2014 record-keeping period for water watchers, and it's the driest year since 1977, and the worst possible conditions in the history of California.

Wildfires, lakes turned into barren wastelands, countless acres of decimated farmland, at least a dozen communities running out of water within days, and massive fish kills are just the beginning, as the short-term climate shows no signs of a return of moisture.

"The immediate certainty is that day-to-day conservation – wise, sparing use of water – is essential as we face the possibility of a fourth dry winter," said Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin.

Lake Oroville - AFTER
(credit: California Department of Water Resources)
Lake Oroville - BEFORE
(credit: California Department of Water Resources)
Lake Oroville - AFTER
(credit: California Department of Water Resources)
Lake Oroville - BEFORE
(credit: California Department of Water Resources)

FULL GALLERY: Lakes Before & After
While conditions are the worst ever, 2014 was actually not the driest year in history. The 70s saw the driest period ever. Here's why the situation is worse now, even though more rain has fallen than in the last drought.

Today, California's 154 reservoirs tracked by the Department of Water Resources hold 12.7 million acre feet, or 58 percent of average at this time. An acre-foot is enough water to supply a family of four for a year.

In 1977, the same reservoirs only held 7.8 million acre feet, or about 5 million acre-feet less.

In population terms, though, California had fewer than 23 million people back then. Today, California has over 38 million sharing its water. That's 14 million more people dependent on reservoirs.

TODAY:  0.331 acre-feet per person based on an estimated population of 38,332,521 in 2014
THEN: 0.345 acre feet per person based on an estimated population of 22,552,000 in 1977

A third of an acre-foot can sustain a typical household of four for just about four months, but fortunately wells, smaller reservoirs, and other municipal supplies can supplement this reservoir storage.

Currently, the state has seen less than 60 percent of average precipitation, with no signs of improvement in the coming months.

The new year will now mark the fourth straight year of drought.

Two Youtube videos show the extent of the drought on Lake Oroville, outside Chico in the Sierra Nevada Foothills.
The first is an aerial tour. The second is a couple on their boat, discovering an long-submerged railroad tunnel, now dry and visible for boaters to see for the first time in a lifetime.

Lake Oroville, September 2014 by California DWR on YouTube

TRAIN TUNNEL:  (Scroll forward to see the tunnel).

Lake Oroville train tunnel 2014 by peeweethepinstriper on YouTube

READ MORE: California Drought

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