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Severe Drought, Explained: The Worst in the West Since Medieval Times

A historically hot and dry summer in the US West in 2021 is getting a sequel to start 2022.

Lake Mead with "bathtub ring" showing lower water level
The white "bathtub ring" around Lake Mead near Boulder City, Nevada, on July 1 showed how much the water level had dropped at that point as the drought in the US West worsened. 
David McNew/Getty Images

A megadrought that started around the beginning of the new millennium in western North America, particularly in the southwestern US and northern Mexico, is the worst seen on the continent since the Dark Ages, and there's no end in sight. 

Here's everything you need to know about the drought in the West as it reaches historic proportions.

What's the current situation?

Some refreshing precipitation in the Pacific coastal states in the fall and winter followed a historically hot and dry summer in the West, but dryness has set in again over the first two months of 2022, especially in the wildfire-racked state of California. 

Researchers say 2021 locked in a dry spell over the past two decades in the Southwest that's the worst the region has seen in 12 centuries.

Destructive and dangerous fires in winter months have now become an annual occurrence, even along the typically snowy Front Range of the Rocky Mountains that serve as the backdrop for the Denver metropolitan area. 2021 came to an end with wind-whipped brush fires blazing a catastrophic path through the suburban communities of Superior and Louisville, located between Colorado's capital city and the college town of Boulder. 

Last year the US government declared a water shortage for the Colorado River Basin, which supplies countless farmers as well as major population centers like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

"This is the first time a Tier One water shortage has been declared in the Colorado River Basin, but climate change and aridification across the Southwest mean it won't be the last," the Water for Arizona Coalition said in a statement.

The unprecedented move came in the wake of a sobering report on the state of the climate, which served as an exclamation point for a planet on red alert and followed a July that scientists say was the hottest in the 150 years records have been kept.

"July 2021 outdid itself as the hottest July and month ever recorded. This new record adds to the disturbing and disruptive path that climate change has set for the globe," said NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad.

On July 13, the Dixie Fire sparked in Northern California and grew to become the largest single fire in the state's history, burning almost a million acres and over 1,300 structures over two months.

sierrasnow-tmo-2021188

Mountain snow melted away nearly a month ahead of schedule, leaving reservoirs without their usual inflow of fresh water.

NASA/Terra-Modis

California's Death Valley recorded a scorching high temperature of 130 degrees on July 11. That ties the hottest reliably recorded temperature anywhere on Earth and put an even bolder exclamation point on an already unprecedented summer for numerous regions.

One village in British Columbia topped 121 degrees, the hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere in Canada. Within days, a wildfire associated with the heat burned down the majority of the same town.

These record-toppling, early-season heat waves, related droughts and wildfires in the West are exacerbated by the climate crisis and have become nearly annual events. Portland, Oregon, hit an all-time high of 112 degrees Fahrenheit on June 27, then broke that record the following day by notching a high of 116. All this has some beginning to seriously consider the prospect that ratcheting temperatures and severe lack of rainfall could be permanent.

How can I monitor drought conditions?

One look at a heat map of the drought in Western US states may be enough to send the message home. Numerous websites and organizations keep tabs on the worsening meteorological conditions, including this drought monitor from drought.gov, a site from the National Integrated Drought Information System. 

You can compare current drought conditions with historical data, and further search to see how the sky-high temperatures and shrinking groundwater affect your neighborhood. (You'll enter your ZIP code.) The site updates every Thursday with the most recent information.

How severe is the Western drought?

20220222-west-none.png

The drought conditions as of Feb. 22.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

As of Feb. 22, more than 95% of the West was seeing some level of drought or abnormal dryness, according to the US National Drought Monitor.

This is shaping up to be the third consecutive dry year for the West. Last year saw water levels at historic lows in many of California's reservoirs, as well as at other key stores around the region including Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are formed by the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams on the Colorado River, respectively. 

See also: Don't delay when preparing your home for wildfire season

Eight months earlier, on June 24, Palm Springs, California, tied the highest temperature ever seen in the city: 123 degrees F (50.6 Celsius). In the same week, Santa Fe, New Mexico, which sits 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) to the east at an elevation of 7,200 feet (2,195 meters) tied its all-time high of 102 degrees F (38.9 C). The previous records at these locations were set in the heat of summer, in July and August. Last year's heat wave started before summer even officially began.

What states are in a drought in 2022?

On Feb. 22, there was at least some level of drought in at least one county in 41 of 50 US states. Exceptional drought (the most severe category used by the US Drought Monitor) was seen in six states: New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Nevada, Montana and Oregon.

Additionally, there are 11 states where the entire state was suffering from some level of drought or excessive dryness: Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and Louisiana.

What does it mean for people living in the West?

If the trend continues, huge forest closures, fire restrictions and smoke or haze from wildfires could continue to mark daily life in the West this year.

If conditions worsen, more national forests, parks and other public lands may be closed off to certain types of access, impacting numerous small towns across the area that depend on outdoor recreation and tourism. That's to say nothing of the rivers and lakes that also support local economies but are rapidly drying up.

Back in June, California started to cut off water supplies to farmers and other users in much of its Central Valley and the Russian River watershed, where the drought is at its worst in the state. The Central Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.

The declaration of a water shortage in the Colorado River Basin means less water allocated to Nevada, Arizona and Mexico in the coming months, with Arizona likely hit the hardest.

So far there doesn't seem to be any indication that urban taps will be shut off, but officials are urging people to conserve water to help avoid a worst-case scenario.

Is climate change to blame?

The climate crisis, largely driven by human activity, is making the problem worse. 

A study of the most recent intense period of drought in California found that human-caused global warming "is increasing the probability" of the warmer and drier "conditions like those that have created the acute human and ecosystem impacts associated with the 'exceptional' 2012-2014 drought in California."

Other studies reach similar conclusions, which is what we hear a lot about climate change: It isn't to blame for these extreme weather events, but it does make them more likely and more intense.

"Currently, climate change has caused rare heat waves to be 3 to 5 degrees warmer over most of the United States," climate scientist Michael Wehner of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said in a recent statement.

martian-sun-1111

A smoke-filled sky over the San Francisco Bay Area in 2020 gave the sun an eerie Martian glow.

James Martin/CNET

When will the drought end?

Over the short term, things have improved a bit since the hottest and driest days of last year. Less than 4% of the West is currently experiencing exceptional drought, down from 23% a year ago. 

Over the longer term, it appears the predictions we've heard for the past couple of decades of a great southwestern megadrought are becoming reality. Many expect the trend to hold deep into the middle of this century. If that's the case, even bigger changes like expanded desertification start to enter the picture.

However, that could be generations away, and things may shift -- we can all hope. In the meantime, it's best to start being smarter about how you use water and energy if you live in the West, and if you live elsewhere, those of us here would sure appreciate a reexamination of everyone's carbon footprint.