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Fox News Weather Center

New study signals higher risk of a southwestern US 'megadrought' in next century

Scientists are hinting that a "megadrought" could impact the arid southwestern United States as water conservation becomes increasingly more important.

As the Southwest endures its fifth year of unrelenting drought, the long-term water resource impacts continue to raise concerns among officials.

"Droughts are common in the west and cyclical. Some droughts are rather short term; others are longer term," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Ken Clark said, citing an article published by the California Department of Water Resources.

The term megadrought is used to describe prolonged drought that lasts for two decades or more.

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According to an academic study recently published in Science Advances, the chance of the region experiencing a long-term megadrought this century is expected to rise from 5-15 percent up to a 20-25 percent due to worsening conditions and increasing temperatures.

The study was penned by researchers and scientists at Cornell and Columbia universities along with NASA officials.

"We find that regional temperature increases alone push megadrought risk above 70, 90 or 99 percent by the end of the century, even if precipitation increases moderately, does not change, or decreases, respectively," the study's authors said, based on climate model simulations.

However, the prospect of a long megadrought remains a controversial subject, Clark said.

There is conjecture among scientists regarding what the future will hold for the Southwest, according to a 2013 article in Climate Central.

Since October, the Southwestern portion of California has been in a state of exceptional drought, the most severe classification on the U.S. Drought Monitor.

In the midst of the ongoing water conservation crisis, California has increased regulations on local water companies, restricting water usage. In the past year, the state has also employed some of the most stringent water usage restrictions in its history to help mitigate and conserve vital water resources.

In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, a warning buoy sits on the dry, cracked bed of Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, Calif. Despite recent rains, the reservoir is currently only about 41 percent full. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Some municipalities were asked to reduce water consumption by 25 percent. The state also gave homeowners incentives to make landscaping more drought tolerant, to give rebates for low flow washers, toilets and similar devices.

"Did this help? Yes it did," Clark said. "But also a somewhat wetter 2015-2016 helped to ease those restrictions to the population."

Farmers have also been greatly affected by huge reductions in allocations of water supplied from the Delta Region.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Pacific Region Office Deputy Director Dave DeWalt, nearly 12 percent of the total value of U.S. agriculture commodities comes from California's prime agricultural region.

If the drought continues and eventually reaches megadrought status, economic impacts could be even more detrimental as the region provides a variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts as well as beef, milk and cheese commodities to much of the the U.S.

With water levels in lakes lowered, fishing and boating restrictions will also impact the recreation industry.

While the negative impacts of the ongoing drought are already noticeable, Clark said there is no telling what the future holds. The Southwest needs a long period of normal or above-normal rainfall to see any relief from the persistent, dry conditions.

"One decent rain and snow season will not take us out of the current drought, but two to three in a row would."

Clark said it would not be helpful to have one good year followed by three to four bad years.

"The one good year will get everyone forgetting about the bad years," he said.