A wildfire burns near a home on Wednesday, May 14, 2014, in San Marcos, Calif. Flames engulfed suburban homes and shot up along canyon ridges in one of the worst of several blazes that broke out Wednesday in Southern California during a second day of a sweltering heat wave, taxing fire crews who fear the scattered fires mark only the beginning of a long wildfire season. (AP Photo) ORG XMIT: CAJH115 / AP
Today, for the first time this century, the entire state of California is in a severe drought -- or worse.
That's according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal website that has tracked drought across the country since 2000.
The level of drought in California is "unprecedented" during the 14-year-history of the monitor, according to climatologist Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.
The three worst levels of drought are severe, extreme and exceptional: 100% of the state is now in one of those three categories: (23.31% severe, 51.92.% extreme and 24.77% exceptional.)
Exceptional drought encompasses central parts of the state, including the entire San Francisco Bay Area. San Diego and Los Angeles -- where wildfires have scorched 14 square miles this week -- are both under "extreme" drought conditions.
So far this year, San Diego has received only 2.8 inches of rain, less than half of average, according to the National Weather Service.
Svoboda calls the current drought once in a generation; the most comparable recent one would be the drought of 1976-77. But the impacts today are more intense because the state's population has doubled since then while the state's water supply has remained fixed, he said.
Svoboda said the only other California drought similar to today's was during the 1920s. But the state's population then was 1/10th of what it is now.
What might pull the state out of the drought is an El Nino that's predicted to form later in the year. El Nino is a periodic climate pattern that sometimes -- but not always -- brings excess rain and snow to California.
"All eyes are on El Nino, although the intensity is going to be the key," Svoboda said. "I'd hate to wish for a super strong El Nino given the damage it can cause, but they desperately need the water!"
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