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According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 55% of California is experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions with another 29% suffering extreme drought condition. The exceptional drought condition is the worst drought category the U.S. Drought Monitor can issue.  The U.S. Drought Monitor ( is a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In recent years California has been categorized as having a serious drought condition, but this is the first year California has been categorized as having an exceptional drought condition.  An exceptional drought condition is defined as severe shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, wells and aquifers (underground) creating austere water emergencies.

California’s current drought extends to four years and counting.  The economic damage the drought is causing is growing significantly as an estimated $800 million was lost in farm revenue last year.    The 55% of California facing exceptional drought conditions begins in Modoc County, the most northeast county in Northern California and runs contiguous down the eastern half of Northern and Central California.  And, not surprisingly includes all of the counties in the San Joaquin Valley.  In Southern California the exceptional drought condition includes all of the coastal counties of Santa Barbara and Ventura and about 80% of LA County and Orange County.

The only part of Orange County not in an exceptional drought condition is the area below Mission Viejo, which still faces an extreme drought condition.  For Orange County to be facing these exceptional and extreme drought conditions says much about the severity of the current drought because OC’s water supply and the management of its delivery has some significant advantages over all other California counties.

OC advantages include not being solely dependent on importing all of its water.  Below central and northern OC is a vast underground aquifer.  This aquifer and a few smaller ones supplies about 50% of the water for OC (the other 50% is imported).  OC has managed and protected their aquifers far better than other California counties with aquifers.  Too often these counties depended on Mother Nature alone to recharge their aquifers.

Another advantage OC has is an excellent infrastructure of wholesale water agencies (who secure imported water and the groundwater) and retail water agencies (who distribute and deliver the water to OC users and residents).

OC’s water agencies are run by some of the most respected and innovative water professionals, not just in the country, but in the world.  If you are interested in reading more about OC advantages, you will find an October column at (

Much of California’s water needs, including the 50% OC imports, is dependent on the 161 state reservoirs, which are typically replenished during California’s wet months (October through March).   As of May 31, the state’s reservoirs added less than 6.5 million acre-feet of water over last winter.  That is only 78% of the typical needed recharge of about 8.2 million acre-feet.   For reference, a single acre-foot contains more than 325,000 gallons of water.

After four consecutive years of the reservoir recharge being well below its historical average, the state’s reservoir levels as of last May were down to 17.2 million acre-feet.  The typical withdrawal over the dry months (April through September) is around 8 million acre-feet.  Therefore, as California enters its wet months total storage in the reservoirs may fall below 10 million acre-feet for the first time in California history.

This would mean there is not enough water in the state’s reservoirs for a fifth year of drought.  The good news is the forecast for California’s wet months is for a Super El Nino, that may even exceed the rain and snow the state received from its last Super El Nino in 1997-1998.

Despite the Super El Nino forecast being raised to 95% a few weeks ago by the National Weather Service, many Southern Californians remain skeptical.  After all, we had a warm and sunny October and there have been few clouds in November to indicate a Super El Nino is going to hit Southern California.  But in reviewing the last Super El Nino of 1997-1998, they too had a sunny and warm October and a sunny November.

Then on December 2, 1997, Southern California was hit by a big storm with heavy rain.  This was followed by storm after storm of heavy rainfall for much of the next four months.

Climatologists and weather forecasters are saying the current massive storm hitting the Northwest is the start of the Super El Nino.  This storm is forecast to drop 10-13 inches of rain and considerable snow in the Sierra Mountains over the coming weekend (Nov 14-15).  The forecasters are saying this is a typical Super El Nino storm and that over the next 30 days, each subsequent storm will continue to move further south until they cover all California.

Let’s hope the forecasters are right.

Ian’s weekly column covers regional, state and national issues. His 40 year media career, includes 20 years as Publisher & CEO of various media companies.  He welcomes comments from readers, and can be reached at