Although a natural part of the Earth’s weather cycle, drought has become a routine worry for many. Some droughts drag on for years, a circumstance that is happening with more frequency since the year 2000. Water scarcity is often understood as a problem for regions experiencing drought with several extended periods of drought in the past 20 years.  Current drought conditions and outlook, however, loom far more severe than in any previous time prompting scientists to consider the potential of a megadrought, a drought lasting at least two decades.
Although many regions of the country experience periods of drought, climate change, provoked by human activity, has increased the longevity and extremity of drought. Recent figures place 60 percent of the Western United States under severe, extreme or exceptional drought conditions. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), last summer (June – August) was the fourth hottest on record and in the top third of the driest. The intense drought conditions in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah have reduced the soil moisture content to its lowest level in more than 120 years. The past 50 years has seen an overall increase in temperatures across the region of a few degrees which contributes to an overall drying in the region, leading to reduced waterflow and augmented fire threats.
The current drought in the Southwest has been exacerbated by a La Nina weather event which produces less rain than in normal conditions in the region during the winter and early spring. This year the rainfall amounts for California and the Southwest were down 25 to 50% of the average. Also, with reduced rainfall comes reduced snowpack, a trend that has produced a decline in snowpack of 25% in the region in the past 40 years. These trends diminish the amount of water in lakes and rivers, adversely impacting millions of people. The Colorado River, alone, provides water to approximately 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland. In the coming months the water flow into Lake Powell and Lake Meade are projected to be at 45% and 40%, respectively, of their normal amounts.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the last decades have shown altered precipitation patterns, with lengthening intervals between rain and dry periods. Even when areas experience heavier snow or rainfall totals, those amounts cannot rival the benefits of consistent rainfall. The southwest region is moving into the summer months of heat and dry conditions already at a deficit. As climate change continues to unfold, it is expected that the overall trend toward warming and extended dry periods will continue, making the probability of a megadrought more likely.
 Cornell University. “Study exposes global ripple effects of regional water scarcity.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 March 2021.
 Berardelli, Jeff. “Western U.S. May Be Entering Its Most Severe Drought in Modern History.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 12 Apr. 2021, www.cbsnews.com/news/drought-western-united-states-modern-history/.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock