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Drought continues to strangle American West, with no relief in sight

Scientists painted a grim picture of the changing climate and hydrological conditions in the American West during a virtual forum held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The conclusion? The drought presently afflicting the region is part of a broader pattern of declining precipitation combined with higher temperatures leading to water scarcity, scientist after scientist said during the nearly 5-hour event. 

“We are in the midst of a two-decade-long drought in the American West,” said Richard Heim with the National Centers for Environmental Information. “It has created a change in hydrology that makes the region more prone to drought.”

While the recent dry patterns are part of a larger more extended trend, it is also impossible to overstate how dry and hot it has been in the last two years. 

“From January 2020 to September 2021, the 20-month period on is the driest on record by far for the Four Corners region,” said Andy Hoell, with the NOAA Physical Sciences Laboratory. “It punctuates two decades of low precipitation.”

Part of the issue specific to the American Southwest is that both the summer and winter monsoon seasons have failed to materialize since about 2019. One notable outlier was this summer when the region experienced an above-average wet year due to the monsoon storms that poured rain on the region and extended all the way to the Sierra Nevada in California. 

But the one wet season is not enough to offer countervailing pressure to the drying trend, which has taken a toll on water availability.

“In 2019, of the 10 states in the American West only two were experiencing below average reservoir levels,” Heim said. “That number grew to six in 2020 and now only two states are experiencing reservoir levels that are near normal. So the good summer monsoon season has not done a whole lot to replenish these reservoirs.”

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The impact occurs across the entire spectrum of geography in the American West. 

“Agricultural communities bear the brunt of our drying landscape,” said Terry Fankhauser of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. “The greater share of available water goes to food-producing communities, so with more drought, food production in our society is greatly impacted.”

Fires in the American West also increase with drought, as drier vegetation makes conditions ideal for the rapid spread of large devastating fires.

So far in 2021, 68 large fires have scorched 3.1 million acres of land throughout the American West. California experienced the second-largest wildland fire in its history and Lake Tahoe spent most of its summer languishing with the worst air quality in the nation.

“For the next four months, based on the precipitation levels we have seen so far, there is an above-normal chance of significant fire behavior for much of the American West,” said Nick Nauslar, with the National Interagency Fire Center. 

Drought also impacts recreation in the region, an increasingly ample part of the region’s economic portfolio.

“There is a recreational component to Lake Powell,” said Bidtah Becker of the Navajo Nation. “The drought that is affecting our natural system also has an impact on our economy.”

Becker said wildlife and feral horses have also been harmed by the persistent dryness that shows no sign of relenting. 

“Water is at the heart of not just Navajo Nation’s existence but all of humankind,” she said.

The forecasters who discussed the upcoming autumn and winter, the seasons during which the region typically receives almost all of its winter, did not paint an encouraging picture. 

“The official outlook is for below-normal precipitation and above-average temperatures for much of the American Southwest,” said David Dewitt of the Climate Prediction Center. 

But Dewitt also noted that in 2016, when the American West was inundated with rains over a two-month period that essentially ended a five-year drought, the outlooks were also calling for persistent dryness. 

“Our state-of-the-art models are not able to capture transitions beyond a two-week lead,” he said. 

Others struck a hopeful note that while the persistent drought may become a feature of life in the American West, a combination of water conservation practices and technology will help communities adapt. 

“In Arizona, our population has grown seven times over since the 1950s but we actually use less water due to conservation practices,” said Deanna Ikeya of the Central Arizona Project. 

Water conservation figures released by California's water regulators showed residents paid little heed to Governor Gavin Newsom's call to voluntarily cut usage by 15%, as residential consumption fell by just 1.8% in July compared to the previous year. Californians are, however, using less water than at the onset of the last crippling drought in 2014 — 15% less per capita.

But all of that is threatened by the specter of increasing temperatures due to climate change as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. 

“This is far beyond an academic discussion at this point, as climate change is increasing drought risk across much of the United States,” said Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund.

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