Drought indicators in US West warn of severe consequences
Wildfire dangers, damage to wildlife habitat, crops rise
Sarah Brunner opened the irrigation spigots on her farm in March, three months early. The rain should have still been falling in California. Now that summer is taking hold, she and her husband are considering shifting their meager water supplies into pastures so their animals will have enough to eat.
Brunner’s worries don’t stop at the barnyard. The family’s fields of shallots, garlic and goats are surrounded by thick Northern California forests, dried out and primed to burn. An early season wildfire near her home recently prompted Brunner to document her possessions and reevaluate her fire insurance. “I don’t feel safe anymore. It’s going to hit us hard,” she says. “There’s no doubt about it, we’re going to be inundated with fires. It’s just a matter of time.”
Drought in a habitat shared with bears, cougars and coyotes, all searching for a drink, has a way of compounding the danger. “The animals are going to get more desperate,” Brunner says.
Unstoppable drought is rolling over California and the Western U.S. once again, as it has with little interruption since the new century began. Nearly 98% of land across 11 Western states is abnormally dry and more than 90% is covered by some category of drought — the worst levels in the U.S. Drought Monitor’s 21-year history. Reservoirs have drained to their bottoms, leaving bath-tub rings on their shorelines. Rivers reduced to trickles are setting off conflicts for dwindling water rights. Millions of acres of trees and shrubs have turned from shade to fuel for the out-of-control blazes everyone predicts will come.
“As far as drought goes, this is the big one, especially if we are talking about the broader drought across the whole Southwest,” says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California Los Angeles. “By a lot of metrics, it is the most severe drought on record.”
Last year, drought cost the U.S. $4.5 billion, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information, and the dry conditions exacerbated a record wildfire season that cost an additional $16.5 billion. As climate change claws into weather patterns, the U.S. Southwest in particular has become permanently drier.
Arizona and New Mexico missed out on winter precipitation, as well as last year’s annual summer monsoon. Lake Mead hit its lowest water level since 1937. Models used by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have predicted the Colorado River, in its 22nd year of drought, would continue to dwindle along with its reservoirs.
Swain terms this process the aridification of the West — a complete shift in the region’s climate. “It is hard to call it drought any more because it is a permanent state of being,” he says. “Things are moving in one direction rather than going back and forth.”
From June 2020 to May 2021, California posted its driest 12-month period on record, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. So too did Arizona and Utah, with Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada and North Dakota all in the top 10.