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laThis week, California entered its fourth year of drought, leaving behind its third driest year on record. 

In California, “water years” are counted from the beginning of October to the end of September. This places the state’s traditionally rainy months in the center of its calendar. With the passage of September, California has ended its 2014 water year with less than 60 percent of its normal precipitation.

The 2014 water year has been officially recognized as the third driest on record, ranking behind only 1924 and 1977, the first and second driest respectively. In terms of traditional years, 2013 actually holds the title of California’s driest overall.

The state now begins its 2015 water year, with officials urging conscientious consumption. In a press release, Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said, “Day-to-day conservation – wise, sparing use of water – is essential as we face the possibility of a fourth dry winter.”

As the state sweats through an autumn heat wave – with temperatures reaching the low 100s in southern California – that possibility is looking more certain every day.

According to state climatologist Mike Anderson, California would need to receive 150 percent of its normal precipitation to recover from this drought in 2015.

California reservoir storage is currently at 36 percent capacity – not quite as low as it was in 1977 but, as the Water Department recently pointed out, the state population has grown by millions since then.

In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared that drought conditions had reached a state of emergency, and since that time small communities have seen their wells dry up and farmlands go fallow. By the end of 2014, the drought will have cost California’s agricultural industry an estimated $2.2 billion in direct and indirect losses.

As for the chance that El Niño might sweep in as a meteorological wild card and dispense some rain?

“Don’t count on El Niño for anything,” says Jay Lund, a UC Davis hydrologist.

According to Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, El Niños can come in all sizes and strengths. “During puny El Niños,” he says, “we’ve had some of the driest winters in the 20th century.”

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