Drought Indicators in Western States “Big One” Flash Alerts

Sarah Brunner opened her farm’s irrigation taps in March, three months early. The rain should have fallen again in California. Now that summer is setting in, she and her husband plan to move their meager water supplies to pasture so their animals have enough to eat.

Brunner’s worries don’t stop at the barnyard. The family’s shallot, garlic and goat fields are surrounded by thick forests of northern California, parched and ready to burn. An early season wildfire near her home recently prompted Brunner to document her possessions and reassess her fire insurance. “I don’t feel safe anymore. This is going to hit us hard, ”she said. “There is no doubt that we are going to be inundated with fires. It’s just a matter of time.”

Drought in a habitat shared with bears, cougars and coyotes, all foraging for a drink, compounds the danger. “The animals are going to become more and more desperate,” says Brunner.

An unstoppable drought is ride on california and the western United States again, as it has done with little interruption since the turn of the new century. Almost 98% of the land in 11 western states is abnormally dry and more than 88% is covered by a category of drought, the worst levels in the 21-year history of the US Drought Monitor. The tanks drained to the bottom, leaving tub rings on their banks. Streams reduced to nets trigger conflicts over dwindling water rights. Millions of acres of trees and shrubs have gone from shade to fuel for the out-of-control fires everyone predicts.

“As far as drought goes, it’s the biggest, especially if we’re talking about the larger drought across the southwest,” says Daniel Swain, climatologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “By many indicators, this is the most severe drought on record. “

Economic cost

Last year, drought cost US $ 4.5 billion, according to the National Environmental Information Centers, and dry conditions exacerbated a record-breaking wildfire season that cost US $ 16.5 billion. extra dollars. As climate change affects weather patterns, the southwestern United States in particular has become continuously drier.

Arizona and New Mexico missed winter precipitation as well as last year’s annual summer monsoon. Lake Mead reached its lowest water level since 1937. Models used by the US Bureau of Reclamation predicted that the Colorado River, during its 22-year drought, would continue to decline along with its reservoirs.

According to paleohydrological data, this is one of the driest periods in the past 1,200 years, according to Elizabeth Klein, a senior adviser to the Home Office who testified at the congressional hearing in the month. latest.

California suffered a six year drought which ended in 2017, one of the longest and most severe droughts in the state. Experts warn of the worst conditions in the state this summer. “We have never seen a drought on the scale and intensity that we see now, and it is possible that this will be the benchmark for the future,” Klein warns.

Swain calls this process the aridification of the West, a complete change in the climate of the region. “It’s hard to call it drought because it’s a permanent state of being,” he says. “Things are moving in one direction rather than coming and going. “

Agriculture under pressure

From June 2020 to May 2021, California recorded its driest 12-month period on record, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. The same is true for Arizona and Utah, while Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada and North Dakota all placed in the top 10. California just finished their season. fourth driest spring on record; Washington, Oregon and Idaho their second. Forecasts are for drought to remain stuck across the west, and by August, drought conditions could spread to Nebraska and eastern Colorado.

The pressure is montage on agriculture, which consumes 80% of California’s water. California’s Central Valley alone accounts for 17% of all irrigated land in the United States. But the problem goes far beyond the Golden State.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project irrigated farms in California and Oregon are experiencing their worst season since the 116-year effort began, Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, told Congress last month. He stressed that a project canal will not provide water for the first time since its construction in 1907. The drought creates conflict between groups who want to save fish stocks and farmers who try to water the crops. .

Traditional approaches to water and its distribution are based on 20th century standards. “A lot of the assumptions are no longer valid,” says Swain. “Even the most pessimistic projections of a few years ago are not pessimistic enough.”

Forecasts indicate that the threat of wildfires in the West is ahead by a month due to dry trees and brush, meaning there is a daily potential for something to ignite the flames.

This painful adjustment process takes place at the Foggy Bottoms Boys, a mixed crop and dairy farm located deep in the Eel River Valley on California’s North Coast. The farm is “de-stocking” in anticipation of a drought-induced feed shortage, selling about 20 of their 120 dairy cows and reducing the sheep herd by about half.

Conservation ethics

The stress caused by years of drought has allowed cities to manage water better than they were before the dry years of the previous decade. Californians reduced their water consumption during the last drought, and this conservation ethic has largely persisted. Urban water use is now 16% lower than in 2013, but the level of preparedness is not the same across the state.

“The rest of California is nowhere near as prepared as Southern California,” says Felicia Marcus, visiting researcher in the Water in the West program at Stanford University and former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District supplies water to nearly half of the state’s population and has spent more than $ 3 billion on water storage and transportation since the late years 1990. Local agencies also invested more in water recycling, lawn rebates and continued conservation. In contrast, the Bay Area does not have a regional body to make large investments and coordinate conservation plans, although there are efforts to share some facilities.

Water resources

Water has always been a problem in the American West as the region does not source water in the same way as the East, where periodic torrential rains replenish the landscape. California gets most of its water from rain and snow between November and March, and there are dire consequences if that isn’t enough. California’s snowpack, which was pretty good during the winter of 2020 and 2021 compared to previous years, melted directly into parched ground. “The snowpack sort of flared in the air,” Swain says.

Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah depend on an annual monsoon that begins in July and lasts a few weeks. The monsoon forecast ranges from dull to gloomy.

Drought is also decreasing hydroelectric power across the region. Power capacity at Hoover Dam fell about 25%, and California has the lowest levels of hydroelectric generation in more than five years. The Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona could approach minimum levels beyond which it produces no electricity, and Lake Oroville in California could become so shallow that it will not generate electricity in August and September.

From the early 1900s to the late 1960s, America invested in water storage projects across the West, including the Hoover Dam. These huge projects now seem to be built for a different climate. For decades, federal dam projects virtually came to a standstill until new legislation was passed in 2016 that breathed new life into a series of next-gen projects: the Reservoir Sites in California, the Bank Sacramento regional water supply and storage projects in the Yakima Basin in Washington. A coalition of 220 agriculture and water organizations is now lobbying Congress to spend $ 49 billion over the next 10 years to repair old and crumbling dams, as well as new ones infrastructure, including recycling and water reuse projects.

It is possible that there will be new dams, but these would be built with a new purpose: to capture the extreme winter flood water that current dams cannot hold back. In 2017, the last major flood year in California, the state’s Department of Water Resources estimated that 48 million acre-feet of water flowed under the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s more than seven times the amount of water exported by the State Water Project to meet the agricultural needs of Central Valley and homes in Southern California. The Sites reservoir, when completed, would attempt to capture up to 1.5 million acre-feet of this winter flow for use in the dry season.

Coming disaster

But these plans will do nothing to protect the West from the coming catastrophe, which promises to worsen with every hot, dry day. Forecasts indicate that the threat of wildfires in the West is ahead by a month due to dry trees and brush, meaning there is a daily potential for something to ignite the flames. Last week, dry lightning warnings erupted in the western United States, according to the Storm Prediction Center. The air is so dry that the rain from thunderstorms evaporates before hitting the ground, letting lightning strike the withered trees and shrubs.

“We have yet to see the extremely devastating forest fire. But the key word is still. They’re coming, ”Swain says. “Much of what is alarming right now is what current conditions are telling us where we will be in two or three months. “

Without moisture in the soil, the sun’s energy heats the air. Last week’s heat wave that pushed temperatures to around 115 degrees Fahrenheit across the Central Valley, and even higher in Arizona and Nevada, is probably a glimpse of what lies ahead. “For many parts of the West, this is the start of the dry season,” Swain says. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

–With help from Leslie Kaufman, Laura Bliss, Mark Chediak, Brian Eckhouse and Szu Yu Chen.

Top photo: A sign supporting the construction of an additional dam near Ducor, Calif.Photographer: Kyle Grillot / Bloomberg

Copyright 2021 Bloomberg.

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Gail Mena

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