Framework

Capturing the world through photography, video and multimedia

May 26, 1977: Edison worker Bob O'Guin surveys Catalina Island's Thompson Reservoir, which was 80% empty. The reservoir was the principal water source for Catalina. This photo was published in the May 27, 1977, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Joe Kennedy / Los Angeles Times

March 1948: George Clarke, a farmer in the Central California town of Stratford, shows how high his barley should be. This photo was published in the March 10, 1948, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times

March 1948: An old pump and shed stand on parched pasture near Stratford in Central California. The white splotches are alkali from pumped water. The water table dropped so fast that many wells were "pumping air." This photo was published in the March 10, 1948, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times

April 18, 1963: A Hereford gazes over a hill toward the bleached bones of a steer on grazing land near Cima, Calif.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Ben Olender / Los Angeles Times

Jan. 4, 1963: After several dry years, this farm in Del Sur was abandoned. Other Antelope Valley farmers were hanging on. This photo was published in the Jan. 6, 1963, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: John Malmin / Los Angeles Times

July 2, 1976: Dan Lemons, manager of Ranchita Oaks Ranch and Vineyards northeast of Paso Robles, Calif., runs dirt through his fingers from a field too parched by the state drought to grow crops. In the background, purebred cattle feed on stubble. This photo was published on the front page of the July 6, 1976, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times

July 2, 1976: Lake Shasta water levels have dropped significantly since the state drought hit. This photo was published in the July 6, 1976, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA

Feb. 4, 1976: This vineyard reservoir in the Rutherford area of Napa Valley usually has 5 million gallons of water. In February 1976, the pumps on right had nothing to work on. This photo was published in the Feb. 8, 1976, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: John Malmin / Los Angeles Times

June 29, 1977: An aerial photo of the Pitt River Arm of Lake Shasta. The original level of the lake is at the tree line. This photo was published in the July 3, 1977, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Fitzgerald Whitney / Los Angeles Times

March 7, 1977: Gov. Jerry Brown listens to a question during a drought conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center. This photo was published in the March 8, 1977, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times

June 22, 1977: Water intakes for turbines at a hydroelectric plant at Oroville Lake have diminished since the water level dropped 200 feet. This photo was published in the July 3, 1977, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Ben Olender / Los Angeles Times

Feb. 4, 1976: Raleigh Waller, a Covina cattle rancher, shows elation as rain starts to fall on his parched grazing fields.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Joe Kennedy / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA

July 11, 1988: Jan Smith, a cattle rancher in Madera County, throws bales of hay from a truck to feed livestock during the drought. The fields were bare of grazing grass and ranchers had to purchase hay at $110 per ton instead of the usual $75 per ton. This photo was published in the July 12, 1988, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Sept. 1, 1988: Bow and arrow fisherman Jim Reed fishes for carp from the Bridgeport Reservoir drain that is normally under 40 feet of water. This photo was published in the Sept. 3, 1988, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Thomas Kelsey / Los Angeles Times

Aug. 24, 1988: The water level at Shaver Lake in the Sierra Nevadas is 100 feet below normal after very little winter snow. This photo was published in the Sept. 4, 1988, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Los Angeles Times

Jan. 2, 1991: Bob Powers, a fifth-generation resident of Kernville, Calif., sits on the stairs in front of the former Kernville Elementary School. The stairs were exposed by low water levels at Lake Isabella. This photo was published in the Jan. 6, 1991, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Ellen Jaskol / Los Angeles Times

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Previous California droughts

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Previous California droughts

From the Archives looks back at previous droughts in California in the gallery above.

The current drought is not California’s first, but it’s the worst one in more than 100 years. In a Feb. 4, 2014, opinion piece, B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam wrote about California’s history of droughts:

The last 12 months have been the driest on record in California, and this, on the heels of two below-normal years, prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare that the state is in a drought emergency. Ours is a state that relies heavily on the winter storms that bring us the vast majority of our water supply, and those storms have [not arrived] so we have received virtually no significant water in more than a year.

The 2014 water year, which began Oct. 1, is on track to be even drier than the devastating drought of 1976-77. That year, precipitation was only 15% of average, reservoirs dropped to one-third their normal levels and 7.5 million trees in the Sierra Nevada weakened by drought succumbed to insect-related diseases, fueling massive wildfires.

How extreme is this year in California’s climate history? To answer this, we need to look back further than the 119 years we have on record, to the geologic past. Based on the growth rings of trees cored throughout the Western United States, 1580 stands out as the driest year in the last half a millennium, drier than 1976-77. It was so devastatingly dry in 1580 that the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada essentially failed to grow at all; the cores show either extremely thin or absent tree rings. If the current drought continues in California through Oct. 1, this water year will be the driest not only in our modern records but in half a millennium.

Although one extremely dry year is a major hardship for a state with 38 million people and a $44.7-billion-a-year agricultural industry, this year is also coming on the heels of a decade of relatively dry years. Since 2007, we have had six below-normal years, this year being by far the lowest. It is a reasonable question to wonder whether our state is in the midst of a prolonged drought.

Tree rings, lake and ocean sediments, and other earth materials provide natural archives that reveal our region’s climate history. And the history of the Western United States is one apparently plagued with deep and prolonged droughts on a fairly regular basis. Multi-year droughts have recurred every 20 to 70 years over the last several thousand years, related to changes in ocean temperature in the North Pacific.

How long can these multi-year droughts last? In the modern historic record, they lasted only six years: from 1928 to 1934 and from 1987 to 1992. But the climate archives going further back reveal that droughts often lasted much longer than a decade, causing large lakes to shrink or dry up completely, more frequent wildfires and native populations to embark on massive migrations. A particularly dry stretch occurred between 900 and 1400 (during the Medieval Warm Period), with two 100-year droughts in California and the Southwest. Throughout the Southwest, archaeological remains show that flourishing civilizations all but disappeared as their agricultural bases withered.

The full article A drier California than ever? Pretty much, is online.

Several photos in the above gallery were previously used in From the Archives posts.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

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