More than 94 percent of the West drought this week, according to the US Drought Monitor, with six states entirely in drought status: California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Montana.
Parts of the West saw record-setting rainfall that brought some slight relief to the region, but most areas remain dry.
Against the backdrop of climate change-fueled drought, wildfires have charred nearly 6 million acres of vegetation across the region. Fire experts say that dry and windy conditions create a prime environment for wildfires to spark and spread.
Scientists say the multi-year drought is a clear sign of how the climate crisis is affecting not only the weather, but water supply, food production and electricity generation.
A vast majority of California is currently in extreme or exceptional drought, the two most severe categories. Across the West, drought has strained water resources.
“At the end of August, California’s 154 intrastate reservoirs contained 13.8 million acre-feet of water, just 60% of average for the date,” the Drought Monitor reported. Reservoir levels were less than half of average in Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon, as well.
In the Southwest, climate change-fueled drought has pushed the level in Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, to unprecedented lows. The US Bureau of Reclamation in August declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time, triggering mandatory water consumption cuts for states in the Southwest beginning in 2022.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, at least half of the acreage allotted to rangeland and pastures was rated in “very poor” to “poor” conditions across eight of the 11 Western states, with Washington (96%), Montana (88%), and Oregon (87%) experiencing the worst conditions.
As the planet warms, drought and extreme heat will also fuel deadly wildfires. Multiple studies have linked rising carbon dioxide emissions and high temperatures to increased acreage of burning across the West, particularly in California.
The West experienced extremely low rain and snowfall over the past year, compounded by drastically high temperatures. Less rain and increasing heat waves have led directly to drought conditions and water shortages.
But recent rainfall alleviated drought across California and the Pacific Northwest. Overall, this summer has seen well above-average monsoon rainfall in the Southwest region, with many locations receiving some of their highest summer rainfall totals on record.
“Any benefit from patchy rainfall across northern California and the interior Northwest was largely offset by above-normal temperatures,” the Drought Monitor reported.
As climate change accelerates and winter temperatures increase, snowfall will decrease. High-elevation snowpack serves as a natural reservoir that eases drought, storing water through the winter months and slowly releasing it through the spring melting season.
Stream and river flow
Streamflow, a measure of how much water is carried by rivers and streams, is another significant indicator of drought and its impact.
As drought conditions have worsened in 2021, hundreds of stream and river locations are experiencing below-average flow. Fishing restrictions have also been put in place on many rivers in Montana due to low flows and warm waters.
Changes in streamflow affect the water supply for municipal use such as drinking and bathing, crop irrigation and power generation.
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