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No Rain: Scenes From California’s Extreme Drought

The nation's most populous state faces extreme drought.

. Robert Thiel of Thiel AirCare, Inc. in Chowchilla, Calif., pilots his helicopter over brown fields in the western San Joaquin Valley on Feb. 15. His family's aerial application business would usually be spraying these fields now if there were crops growing. Doug Thiel, Robert's father and owner of the business, said "We're probably at 20 to 25 percent of normal operation for the winter months" due to reduced planting by farmers because of ongoing drought. "It's really kind of bleak," he said of his outlook for the spring and summer seasons.

John Brecher / NBC News

. Ria Morearty de Groot and Cathy Case traveled with other protesters from Stockton, Calif. to stand along the expected route of President Barack Obama's motorcade in drought-affected farm country in the Central Valley's west side on Feb. 14. "They're not supporting the only freshwater estuary in the western U.S.," said Case about California's diversion of water from Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta to the southern parts of the state. The protesters hoped to counter the support for additional damming they expected west side farmers to convey to President Obama.

John Brecher / NBC News

. Newly hired seasonal firefighters coil and carry hoses in Friant, Calif. during their first week of training on Feb. 13. "I can't remember a time when we've hired seasonals in February," said Capt. Ryan Michaels of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Fresno-Kings Unit. "Last year it was April - and that was early." Anticipating a busy fire season due to drought, CalFire has hired 65 additional firefighters in the central Sierra region.

John Brecher / NBC News

. Black Angus beef cattle stand in a dry field in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range near Planada, Calif. on Feb. 13. Owner Eddie Hoekstra has had to bring in additional hay to supplement the animals' diet because the range offers less nutrition than usual, he said.

John Brecher / NBC News

. Laborers weed 150 acres of land planted with lettuce for the produce company Church Brothers near Huron, Calif. on Feb. 13. Last year, the grower had 500 acres of the same crop, but this season had only enough water to irrigate 150 acres. Credits for unused water can be traded, and in this year's drought they fetch a premium: "I'm paying four times the usual rate for an acre-foot if I can even get it," said Josh Ruiz of Church Brothers.

John Brecher / NBC News

. Kelly Goad and Casey Brown fish for striped bass in the California Aqueduct near Taft, Calif. on Wed. Feb 12. Beyond them are fields irrigated from the aqueduct, which conveys water from the Delta to Southern California.

John Brecher / NBC News

. Rocky Kirk putts toward Hole 10 on Feb. 12 at the Buena Vista Golf Course, which overlooks the California Aqueduct near Taft, Calif. The drought "hit us about five years ago," said Chad Sorenson, general manager of the golf course, when dry weather began driving his annual water bill from $120,000 to $300,000. The golf course's water is drawn from the aqueduct, which in turn has carried the water over 200 miles south from the Delta.

John Brecher / NBC News

. Waterless Turf owner Vic Watterson, right, talks to Jose Sanchez while they install a synthetic lawn at a home in Santa Monica, Calif. on Feb 11. Watterson estimates his call volume "has increased around 30 percent" in 2014 due to drought and concerns about water rationing.

John Brecher / NBC News

. The control room of the Charles Meyer Desalination Facility in Santa Barbara, Calif. hasn't changed since 1991 when the plant was built at a cost of $34 million. It operated for a few months in the early and mid-90s but has remained dormant since then. Now the city of Santa Barbara is considering restarting the aging desalination plant to cope with drought.

John Brecher / NBC News

. A trace of water sits in the bottom of the Madera Canal, which is fed by the nearby Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River in Friant, Calif. A idea repeated by many people working in agriculture - which uses 80 percent of the water consumed by people in California - is that dams in the state should be raised to increase water storage.

John Brecher / NBC News

. Adalberto Becerra drills a test well on Feb. 13 in an almond orchard near Le Grand, Calif. Uncertainty about irrigation this spring has increased demand for well drilling in the Central Valley. "We're usually 60 days behind," said Becerra's boss Joe Silvira of Quality Well Drillers, "but now we're 100 days out." Wells near Le Grand typically reach water 800 to 1500 feet down, said Becerra. California produces 80 percent of the world's almonds.

John Brecher / NBC News

. Heifers at Fred Rau Dairy near Fresno, Calif., stand in a pen next to a field kept fallow to conserve water in anticipation of a dry season on Feb. 14. "If we don't have water we'll have to reduce herd numbers," said dairy farmer Lauren Acevedo, noting that dairy cows can drink over 50 gallons of water per day.

John Brecher / NBC News

. In a normal year, "This would all be underwater," said Tony, fishing for trout with his wife Darlene at the Hensley Lake reservoir near Madera, Calif. on Feb 15. Hensley Lake is at just seven percent of capacity. "That's why I'm fishing now, because I don't think there's going to be water in summer."

John Brecher / NBC News

. Nacho Pinero drives a tractor while planting alfalfa in a 100-acre field he recently leased at the south end of California's Delta on Feb. 15. Pinero's field is in the Byron Bethany Irrigation District, which he says should deliver him enough water to irrigate the crop, potentially creating a windfall since hay prices are high around the state due to drought. "Most of the time there's no profit" in farming, he said, "it's just money changing hands. When things like this come, you got a chance to make a little profit."

John Brecher / NBC News

. A sign advising water conservation greets drivers on California State Route 43 in Kern County, Calif. on Feb. 12.

John Brecher / NBC News