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Even after some much-needed rain, the Almaden Reservoir, near <240>San Jose, Calif., is virtually dry on Feb. 7.Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press

Within California's complex and delicate infrastructure, the land around Bishop is vitally important.

Nestled near the eastern border of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Bishop is known for little more than the smattering of boulders on the outskirts of town that lure rock climbers from all over the world to this remote, tiny place.

But as myriad signs at the feet of the snow-capped mountains here indicate, much of the land surrounding Bishop is the property of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. It is from these mountains that one of the most populous places on Earth draws its drinking water.

That's why it is especially alarming, when driving through Bishop and the other towns and villages that sit near these mountains, to find churches, motels and other buildings whose marquees simply state: "Pray for rain."

California, the world's eighth-largest economy, is going through what is likely the most severe drought in the state's recorded history – an environmental (and now political) calamity that is wreaking havoc on everything from tourism to livestock to drinking water. According to the United States Drought Monitor, almost 68 per cent of the state is facing "extreme" or "exceptional drought, the two worst categories in the agency's ranking system; at this time last year, no part of the state faced such conditions.

And barring significantly above-average precipitation for the next several months, California is likely to enter the traditionally dry period from May to October with an already dire water shortfall. In the Sierra mountains, the average water in the snowpack is at 28 per cent of the historical average, according to Ken Clark, a California-based meteorologist with AccuWeather. And that number is only as high as it is because of a large storm that passed through the area last weekend; before the storm, the water level was only about 15 per cent of the average.

"We know that 2013 was the driest year on record for San Francisco, Fresno and Los Angeles counties – and some of those records go back to the 1800s," Mr. Clark said.

And while California has previously faced severe droughts – in the 1880s, the 1970s and the 1990s, for example – the state's rapid population growth since then has made this one far more cataclysmic.

"The amount of water needed to supply California is certainly much greater than in those previous years," Mr. Clark said. "The chance of getting back to normal is now down to single digits – we had a huge series of storms over the weekend and we're still not anywhere near normal."

The culmination of nearly three years of below-average precipitation, California's drought has turned into an environmental and political time bomb. Virtually every aspect of the state's mechanics has been hit: Hydroelectric power, one of the cheapest and cleanest sources, is running dangerously low; forest fires in January were up nearly tenfold over the first month of 2013; and California's farmers are bracing for a year of massive losses.

The California Farm Bureau Federation expects as much as 500,000 acres to go unplanted this year – a significant portion of the state's eight million acres of irrigated farmland. That would deal a massive blow to the agriculture industry, which is responsible for about 6 per cent of California's economic activity. That shortfall, in turn, has the potential to significantly hike food prices throughout the United States and beyond, as California farms are responsible for a significant percentage of several of the country's crops, including strawberries, grapes and lettuce.

But while crop farmers can still hope that February and March bring enough rainfall to avoid catastrophe, the state's ranchers are already suffering, according to Dave Kranz of the California Farm Bureau Federation. Because much of the land is brown, Mr. Kranz said many ranchers have had to feed their livestock more expensive hay or sell their animals early and at much lower prices.

Faced with the likelihood that such droughts may not be so anomalous in the future, Mr. Kranz said his group is becoming more aggressive in pushing for long-term water solutions, such as better storage tanks and conservation efforts.

"We're not going to just build our way out of this or just conserve our way out of this or recycle our way out of this," he said. "We're going to have to do all of these things."

In January, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to deal with the drought. Mr. Brown also urged all Californians to cut their water use by 20 per cent. So far, that request is on a voluntary basis, but should the drought continue into the summer months, it is likely that many jurisdictions will make such measures mandatory.

But the drought also threatens to reopen what the Governor described as "old water wounds," as various interest groups begin fighting over very limited water supplies. The state already admits there simply isn't enough water to satisfy the demands of California's largest users, including the agriculture industry and the biggest urban centres – to say nothing of the water needed to maintain conservation efforts for species such as California's salmon population. As the drought shows no signs of letting up, lawmakers and lobby groups seem poised to turn the crisis into something much more political – and nasty.

This month, Republicans in Congress pushed a bill that would allow California farmers to pump more water and would create a House-Senate group to deal with the drought – an effort that Republican House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy described in a statement to The Associated Press as designed to end "the madness of putting fish before families."

Mr. Brown vehemently opposes the effort, calling it an "unwelcome and divisive intrusion" on the state's affairs.

But political infighting could give way to real water reform if the drought doesn't break before the dry summer months. A similar situation played out during Australia's Millennium Drought, which began in the late 1990s and didn't subside until 2009. The sheer length of the drought forced the country to enact several long-term conservation and water management efforts.

Should California's drought follow a similar multiyear trajectory, the state will face increasing pressure to come up with more than just short-term solutions, according to Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland, Calif.-based environmental think tank the Pacific Institute.

"There's a growing awareness that things aren't the same as they used to be, that this kind of extreme weather … can no longer be ignored or attributed to the vagaries of nature, but increasingly to human impact, in particular climate change," Dr. Gleick said. "The severity of this drought is unlike anything modern California has ever experienced. In some ways, it's a sign of things to come – an indication of what the future is going to look like."

In the next two to three months, as many as 17 small communities may run out of drinking water

In environmental disasters, it is often the smallest communities that suffer the most.

As California faces the worst drought in its recorded history, the state's Department of Public Health recently released a list of rural water agencies that effectively may run out of drinking water in the next 60 to 100 days.

The various agencies serve 17 communities ranging in size from 39 to 11,000 people in some of the counties hit hardest by the ongoing drought. The DPH plans to work with the communities to try to identify other sources of water to make up the looming shortfall. But given the dire conditions throughout much of the state, it is unclear where those new sources will be found. The communities range from the area served by the tiny Lompico County Water District in Santa Cruz County to the cities of Healdsburg and Cloverdale in Sonoma County.

By the numbers


Percentage of California's economic activity that comes from agriculture.


Percentage of California currently experiencing "extreme" or "exceptional" drought conditions, the two highest categories.


Total allocation of water from the California State Water Project to the 29 public water agencies it works with in the state, the first time in the project's 54-year history that it has been forced to cut all water transfers.


Number of rural California water agencies identified by the state's Department of Public Health as facing the possibility of "severe" water shortages in the next 60 to 100 days.


Wildfires recorded in California between Jan. 1 and Jan. 25, compared with an average of 69 fires during the same period over the past five years.

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