Expanding Western drought sets 122-year record: scientists
Experts warn of shrinking reservoirs and rivers, leading to water rationing and heightened fire risk
A devasting drought has spread virtually throughout the entire western U.S., setting a 122-year record, scientists say.
Almost 90 percent of the the region is now considered to be in drought.
CALIFORNIA, FLORIDA FISH MORTALITY PINNED TO DROUGHT, CLIMATE CHANGE
The U.S. Drought Monitor – a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – reports that more than 60 million Americans are currently affected by drought conditions.
A multi-agency webinar discussing the status of the drought and response efforts in the region was held Tuesday, hosted by the National Integrated Drought Information System.
The webinar featured remarks from USDA and Interior Department officials, and an update from NOAA Administrator Richard Spinrad, who said the lingering drought costs the U.S. $63 billion annually, in addition to multibillion-dollar losses from wildfires.
It's a crisis that Spinrad said will only worsen – citing the 1-in-1,000-year June heat wave – as climate change exacerbates the frequency, duration and intensity of drought.
David Simeral, a climatologist with the Western Regional Climate Center, blamed an overall lack of precipitation and rising temperatures on top of 20 years of drought in the West for creating the current crisis.
Above-normal temperatures are predicted to continue for the West and northern Plains through the fall, with below-normal precipitation "modestly favored" for that season as well.
Jon Gottschalck of the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center also noted that La Niña climate conditions could also re-emerge in the autumn and winter months of 2021 to 2022.
Warning about the increasing risk of devastating wildfires, the Bureau of Land Management's Nick Nauslar said fuel dryness is already ahead of schedule and typical of peak fire season.
As firefighters work to fend off the flames from the more than 80 fires burning across the country, critical reservoirs remain at below-normal levels in much of the West – with residents reportedly resorting to stealing water and the agriculture industry in dire straits.
Lake Mead, which is a resource for tens of millions of people in California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, has been measured at just 35% full: its lowest level since it was filled 85 years ago.
UTAH'S GREAT SALT LAKE DIPS TO RECORD LOW, LAKE MEAD ALSO IN CRISIS AMID DROUGHT
Utah's Great Salt Lake has dipped to what some are calling a "historic" low.
California's regulators are voting on an "emergency curtailment" order next month that would stop thousands of farmers from taking water out of the state’s major rivers and streams due to the drought.
The Golden State grows more than a third of the country's vegetables and two-thirds of the country's fruits and nuts, with exports totaling $21.7 billion. Farms and ranches received more than $50 billion in cash receipts for their output in 2019.
The 16-state Family Farm Alliance's Executive Director Dan Keppen said in Tuesday's webinar that cattle ranches and dairy farms are liquidating herds, tearing out some crops to replace them with less water-intensive ones and even letting fields sit fallow.
The drought is also significantly impacting wildlife. Both California's endangered winter-run Chinook salmon's juveniles and Montana's famous trout populations have been identified as under threat by extreme drought and low river levels.
The entire Navajo Nation, which rests in the heart of the Colorado River Basin, is suffering from severe drought conditions. Bidtah Becker said the tribe has been forced to purchase more expensive power due to low reservoir supply.
Becker said a well supplying livestock users in the western area of the reservation went out of service, and users began to tap drinking water supplies ultimately forcing rationing.
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"So, the drought is very real. The drought is very, very real here in the Navajo Nation," Becker said.
"Drought doesn’t just impact one community — it affects all of us, from farmers and ranchers to city dwellers and tribes," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Thursday during a roundtable at Colorado's Denver Water Center. "The Biden-Harris administration is taking action to provide relief to impacted communities now, while also making important investments that will help us wisely manage our shared resources across the West."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.