By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - California had its warmest winter and spring on record this year, leading to stresses on water resources and agriculture, as well as increased risk of wildfire in the most populous U.S. state, the National Weather Service said Monday.
In an overview of the nation's weather released on the agency's website, meteorologists said temperatures in California were about 5 degrees Fahrenheit above normal during the first six months of 2014, and just over 1 degree hotter than the previous record.
"Despite short-term drought relief in the Central and Southern Plains, long-term drought conditions will continue to impact water resources and agriculture," the report said. "Long-term and short-term drought conditions in the West will also increase wildfire risk."
Wetter weather in the Midwest and parts of Texas improved drought conditions in those areas slightly. But in California, where 100 percent of the state was already enveloped in an ongoing drought, nearly 37 percent of the state was classified as experiencing exceptional drought, the worst conditions, by the end of June, the weather service said.
California is in its third year of a devastating drought that is expected to cost its economy $2.2 billion in lost crops, jobs and other damage. The drought has forced ranchers to sell cattle for lack of grazing land, and farmers to let an estimated 400,000 acres normally devoted to crops go fallow.
Federal agriculture officials announced last week that they would provide $9.7 million in aid to rural California communities at risk of running out of drinking water in the drought, including a plan to connect residents reliant on wells in the small community of Cameron Creek Colony to a local water system.
There is the prospect of relief this fall in the form of rains that typically occur when equatorial Pacific Ocean temperatures rise in a condition known as El Nino, but the latest predictions indicate that the El Nino effects will be moderate to weak.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Jim Loney)