Scientists Warn Western U.S. Drought Could Be 'New Normal'

By: Joanna Thompson  | 

Berenda Reservoir in Chowchilla, California
The floodgates of the Berenda Reservoir in Chowchilla, California, were completely dry June 21, 2021. Almost three-fourths of the Western U.S. is gripped by drought so severe that it' unlike anything recorded in the 20-year history of the U.S. Drought Monitor. Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By now, you've probably heard about the historic drought gripping the Western United States. Forecasts for wildfires, water shortages and bone-dry riverbeds abound. It's a scary situation, both for those living in the region and for those who don't.

Whether you live in the Southeast or the Northwest, you might have a few questions about this megadrought and its impacts. If so, you're in luck — that's what we'll be breaking down today.

Let's start with the basics.

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What Is a Drought?

Though it may seem straightforward, it can be difficult to boil down to a simple definition — there's no magic number, be it inches of rainfall or water levels, that signals when a drought begins or ends.

"Drought can mean different things in different places," says Stephanie McAfee, an applied climatologist at the University of Nevada, Reno. "It can actually even mean different things to different people in the same place." But like many in her field, McAfee ascribes to a definition coined by the late climate researcher Kelly Redmond: Drought is "insufficient water to meet needs."

By most accounts, the current drought in the Western United States has been ongoing since the early 2000s. While it might not be the longest drought the region has ever seen ( one in the 1200s lasted more than a century), it's one of the most severe. Water levels in the Colorado Basin and Lake Mead have hit new lows; Las Vegas didn't see rain for a record-breaking 240 days between April 20 and Dec. 17, 2020.

"It's really dry," says McAfee.

Lake Powell
The tall bleached "bathtub ring" is visible on the rocky banks of Lake Powell at Reflection Canyon June 24, 2021 in Lake Powell, Utah. Lake Powell is currently at 34.56 percent of capacity, a historic low. The lake stands at 138.91 feet below full pool and has dropped 44 feet in the past year. The Colorado River Basin supplies water to 40 million people in seven Western states.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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The 'New Normal'?

The drought has gone on long enough that climatologists are considering new terminology for it. Some have proposed labeling it a "megadrought" to convey the scope of the situation. Others argue that the megadrought moniker still doesn't do this event justice. "Something that we might be looking at is actually more like aridification," McAfee says.

Aridification occurs when a region becomes permanently dryer. In other words, it marks a shift in the baseline for the amount of water that is considered "normal." As the effects of climate change play out, it seems that less rainfall in the Western U.S. might become the standard.

"I think it's accurate to say that that area, at least statistically speaking, has been drying out," says Curtis Riganti, an atmospheric scientist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. "Connecting that to the dynamics of climate change I think makes sense."

As they become increasingly common, you might be wondering: What are some of the dangers associated with severe drought?

burn scar from the Carr Fire
A tributary of the Sacramento River flows through a burn scar from the Carr Fire in Keswick, California. The largest reservoir in the California has plunged 400,000 acre-feet (the volume that would cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot) in April and May as the worst drought in decades grips the region, turning the area into a tinderbox.
Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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An Empty Lunchbox and a Full Tinderbox

One of the most obvious risks is wildfire. We saw a series of horrific and devastating fires along the West Coast in 2020, particularly in California. This year, some areas of the Golden State have received as little as 11 percent of their typical rainfall to date, which could spark even worse burns than last year as the summer progresses. "We're already starting to see that crop up in some areas in June," Riganti says.

Another concern is food production. Agriculture is incredibly important to the economies of many Western states, including California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona. Common crops in these states — like almonds, wheat, avocados and apples — require lots of water to grow well, which can lead to shortages of those crop in times of drought. That's devastating to those states' economies.

And then there's ranching. With less rainfall in states like New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, ordinarily lush grazing lands have suffered. "Ranchers have to bring water and food into specific areas for their cattle," says Erinanne Saffell, the assistant state climatologist of Arizona. It's contributed to a worldwide deficit in livestock feed.

But it's important to remember that drought isn't just a West Coast thing, says Riganti. Other areas are in the midst of their own drought. "I've been getting reports of crops struggling in parts of the upper Midwest," he says, "Northern Iowa, Minnesota, parts of Michigan, and then even up into parts of New England are all experiencing various levels of drought right now."

And that means everyone across the U.S. can expect to feel the effects of Western drought as it continues to ripple across rest of the country. For example, last year California wildfire smoke made it as far east as New York City and Boston, and potentially even impacted air quality in the Netherlands. On the economic side, smaller crop yields out West would likely drive up produce prices nationwide.

U.S. Drought Monitor map
The colors in the U.S. Drought Monitor map show experts' assessments of conditions related to dryness and drought as of June 22, 2021. The map focuses on broad-scale conditions, so local conditions may vary.
U.S. Drought Monitor

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Drought Mitigation Across the Nation

Despite our best efforts, human beings can't control the weather (yet). But is there anything we can do to help mitigate the effects of drought?

Yes, there is. First, don't waste water.

Water conservation is crucial to easing drought stress. If you live in a drought-prone area, simple things like turning off the water when you brush your teeth, taking a shower instead of a bath, or watering your plants at night to reduce evaporation all help save precious H2O.

Another one of the best ways to save water is to save electricity — it takes 15 of gallons (56 liters) of water in the form of coolant or steam to generate a single kilowatt-hour of power.

Second, pay attention to fire safety. "If there's a campfire ban in national forests, don't light a campfire. And if you're not allowed to shoot off fireworks for the Fourth of July, don't," says Riganti. Stick to cake rather than smoke bombs for your gender reveal party.

Third, switch up your landscaping. Planting drought-tolerant species, like aloe, lavender, artemisia or cacti, can greatly reduce your lawn's water needs. Having a less thirsty lawn means you'll have fewer thirsty people, and it can look beautiful as well. Another trick? "Mulching and composting," says McAfee. These techniques help keep soil wetter for longer, and can even produce a cooling effect on the surrounding environment.

Finally, if you live outside of a drought zone, consider buying less water-intensive foods. That could mean skipping out on almond milk, buying watermelon instead of apples, or opting for chicken instead of burgers at your next summer cookout.

None of these actions will fix the drought, but taken together they can reduce the risk that it poses to many people. "It's kind of like earthquakes," says Saffell, "We can't forecast an earthquake, but we can keep people safe from the impacts of that earth-shaking event."

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