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California drought: 'May have to migrate people'

Michael Korte walks on the brown lawn in front of his home in Glendora, Calif.
Damian Dovarganes | AP Photo
Michael Korte walks on the brown lawn in front of his home in Glendora, Calif.

It's going from worse to worst each week in California.

Suffering in its third year of drought, more than 58 percent of the state is currently in "exceptional drought" stage, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map. That marks a huge jump from just seven days ago, when about 36 percent of the state was categorized that way.

Exceptional drought, the most extreme category, indicates widespread crop and pasture losses and shortages of water in reservoirs, streams and wells.

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If the state continues on this path, there may have to be thoughts about moving people out, said Lynn Wilson, academic chair at Kaplan University and who serves on the climate change delegation in the United Nations.

"Civilizations in the past have had to migrate out of areas of drought," Wilson said. "We may have to migrate people out of California."

Wilson added that before that would happen, every option such as importing water to the state would likely occur— but "migration can't be taken off the table."

The drought has nearly depleted the state's surface water—which is seen being reduced by about one-third this year. Farmers in California have turned to groundwater to keep crops irrigated.

That has led to fears of depleted groundwater in the years ahead if that continues, according to a report released earlier this month.

"So far, groundwater has helped get crops to market and keep food prices in line," said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, which released the report.

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But the study said the drought in California will cost the state $2.2 billion and put some 17,000 agricultural workers out of a job this year.

Key findings form the report include:

  • Direct costs to agriculture total $1.5 billion (revenue losses of $1 billion and $0.5 billion in additional pumping costs). This net revenue loss is about 3 percent of the state's total agricultural value.
  • The total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought is $2.2 billion.
  • The loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs related to agriculture represents 3.8 percent of farm unemployment.
  • 428,000 acres, or 5 percent, of irrigated cropland is going out of production in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Southern California because of the drought.
  • The Central Valley is hardest hit, particularly the Tulare Basin, with projected losses of $810 million, or 2.3 percent, in crop revenue; $203 million in dairy and livestock value; and $453 million in additional well-pumping costs.
  • Agriculture on the central coast and in Southern California will be less affected by this year's drought, with about 19,150 acres fallowed, $10 million in lost crop revenue and $6.3 million in additional pumping costs.
  • Overdraft of groundwater is expected to cause additional wells in the Tulare Basin to run dry if the drought continues.

More drought ahead

To try and curtail the drought's effects, California started implementing fines statewide this week of up to $500 for watering lawns and washing cars. But experts aren't sure more conservation will work.

Wastershed's Lund said that agriculture is by far the state's greatest water user, accounting for 75 percent of consumption—while cities and suburbs use about 20 percent of the state's water.

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He added that California is always desperate for water and "hard to drought-proof."

But the situation could get worse before it gets better. Predictions for the drought have it lasting through 2015.

—By CNBC's Mark Koba