Dry conditions across the West follow a hot, dry year of record-setting wildfires in 2020. Communities were left with scenes like this, from California’s Creek Fire. Amir Aghakouchak/University of California Irvine Mojtaba Sadegh, Boise State University; Amir AghaKouchak, University of California, Irvine, and John Abatzoglou, University of California, Merced
Just about every indicator of drought is flashing red across the western U.S. after a dry winter and warm early spring. The snowpack is at less than half of normal in much of the region. Reservoirs are being drawn down, river levels are dropping and soils are drying out.
It’s only May, and states are already considering water use restrictions to make the supply last longer. California’s governor declared a drought emergency in 41 of 58 counties. In Utah, irrigation water providers are increasing fines for overuse. Some Idaho ranchers are talking about selling off livestock because rivers and reservoirs they rely on are dangerously low and irrigation demand for farms is only just beginning.
Scientists are also closely watching the impact that the rapid warming and drying is having on trees, worried that water stress could lead to widespread tree deaths. Dead and drying vegetation means more fuel for what is already expected to be another dangerous fire season.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on May 13, 2021, that federal fire officials had warned them to prepare for an extremely active fire year. “We used to call it fire season, but wildland fires now extend throughout the entire year, burning hotter and growing more catastrophic in drier conditions due to climate change,” Vilsack said.
The U.S. Drought Monitor for mid-May shows nearly half of the West in severe or extreme drought. National Drought Mitigation Center/USDA/NOAA
The many faces of drought
Several types of drought are converging in the West this year, and all are at or near record levels.
When too little rain and snow falls, it’s known as meteorological drought. In April, precipitation across large parts of the West was less than 10% of normal, and the lack of rain continued into May.
Rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater can get into what’s known as hydrological drought when their water levels fall. Many states are now warning about low streamflow after a winter with less-than-normal snowfall and warm spring temperatures speeding up melting. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced it would cut off water to a canal serving farms in the Klamath Project on the Oregon-California border because of low water supplies. It also warned that Lake Mead, a giant Colorado River reservoir…