For many states, the rainy season is over, and most of the Western United States is now locked into a fourth consecutive year of drought. The imminent dry summer is particularly foreboding for California, where more than 44% of land area is engulfed in an exceptional level of drought. This was the highest such share nationwide and the kind of water shortage seen only once a century.
According to a study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), “Droughts in the U.S. Southwest and Central Plains during the last half of this century could be drier and longer than drought conditions seen in those regions in the last 1,000 years.” The likelihood of such a drought is 12%, NASA scientists estimated.
In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Brad Rippey, agricultural meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), said, “Where people live and where the precipitation falls are two completely different areas.” As a result, water needs to be transported to meet water demands in each state. States rely on a range of water sources.
The ramifications of such severe drought conditions for these states and for the nation are manifold. California and the Great Basin are major sources of the nation’s food. The production of several water-intensive crops such as cotton, corn, soy, wheat, and rice are already down substantially from when the drought began. Cattle and other livestock also require large quantities of water and nutritious pastures and drinking water.
To identify the states running out of water, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the percentage of land area in severe to exceptional drought from the U.S. Drought Monitor as of the week ended April 14, 2015. To be considered, a state needed to have at least 20% of its land area affected by severe to exceptional drought. While New Mexico did not meet this criteria after a welcome late winter monsoon, the state still suffered among the worst long-term drought conditions, according to Rippey. We also reviewed drought levels during the same week in 2014. Peak drought levels for 2014 in each state, as well as the number of people affected by each level of drought are also from the Drought Monitor.
These are the states running out of water.
> Pct. severe drought: 24.7%
> Pct. extreme drought: 14.9% (5th highest)
> Pct. exceptional drought: 3.3% (4th highest)
> Pct. severe drought: 39.8%
> Pct. extreme drought: 0.0% (tied–the lowest)
> Pct. exceptional drought: 0.0% (tied–the lowest)
Drought levels are typically lowest during the winter months when precipitation is at its highest. Melted snow and ice are the major water source of the Western states. Colorado reported relatively low precipitation levels this past winter, however, which partly explains the high drought level. As of the week ended April 14, severe to exceptional drought conditions afflicted nearly 40% of Colorado, the sixth highest such proportion and far higher than the state’s peak level of about 19% between May and June last year. The Colorado Water Conservation Board reported a relatively warm and dry spring as of April. However, reservoir storage was above average levels, and the Board anticipates conditions to stabilize during the spring storm season.
> Pct. severe drought: 53.2%
> Pct. extreme drought: 9.3% (6th highest)
> Pct. exceptional drought: 0.0% (tied–the lowest)
Compared to last year, the amount of Utah land affected by severe to exceptional drought conditions as of the week ended April 14 has grown threefold. The drought is parching an estimated 53.2% of Utah compared with 17.9% of land last year. An estimated 2.1 million people live in the area currently experiencing the severe drought. Utah’s water supply managers could be facing one of the worst water supply years on record for the state. As of April 1, when snowpacks in Utah usually peak, snowpacks across the state were exceptionally poor, and all low elevation sites are completely melted. Around the same time, precipitation in the state was 47% of average. Earlier this month, the USDA designated two Utah counties natural disaster areas as a result of drought conditions. The declaration means farmers, ranchers, and businesses in the affected areas are eligible for emergency low-interest loans.
> Pct. severe drought: 85.7%
> Pct. extreme drought: 48.0% (2nd highest)
> Pct. exceptional drought: 18.4% (2nd highest)
> Pct. severe drought: 93.4%
> Pct. extreme drought: 66.6% (the highest)
> Pct. exceptional drought: 44.3% (the highest)
More than 93% of California was engulfed in severe to exceptional drought as of the week ended April 14, the highest such share nationwide. More than 44% of the state experienced exceptional drought conditions, the highest such drought level and by far the worst such share nationwide. By contrast, less than 3% of the nation was in a state of exceptional drought, and only 18.4% of second-place Nevada was as afflicted. Peak precipitation levels in California normally occur between October and March, which means the time to replenish the dwindling supplies is largely over. California and much of the Western United States saw little to no precipitation that week.
California’s current water shortage crisis is entering its fourth straight year. Severe to exceptional drought conditions affected 100% of the state for two straight months last summer. Nearly 20 million Californians live in the areas affected by exceptional drought, the highest raw number and an understatement of the real impact. Most of California’s water usage is for agriculture, and the state generates a huge portion of the nation’s food, including more than two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts. In addition, as Rippey noted, drought conditions raise the likelihood of wildfires in the coming dry season.