Finally, a shortage of something we can’t blame on the pandemic. What don’t we have enough of now? WATER. While we may be able to survive, although perhaps not comfortably or healthily, without toilet paper and Lysol wipes, humans simply must have water to live. Extreme drought conditions in the western United States are concerning as they have reduced levels of water bodies to historic lows. What’s going on and how bad is it really?
The fact that a drought is occurring does not in and of itself spell doom. Droughts are recurring climate events in most parts of the world. In fact, droughts are among the earliest documented weather events in human history. For example, the story of Joseph in the Bible is tied to agricultural shortages due to drought. Unfortunately, droughts are becoming more unpredictable and more extreme due to climate change.
Some folks may not be able to spell drought (HINT: Don’t rely on phonetics) much less be able to define it. So what exactly is a drought? A drought occurs when there is a prolonged period of abnormally low precipitation, either rain or snow. Effects of a drought include crop damage, water shortage, diminished water flow, and reduced soil moisture. Whether you look to water for drinking, growing crops, or a recreational venue, a drought spells bad news. (At least “bad news” is easier to spell than “drought.”)
The length of time a drought may last is one of its unpredictable characteristics. First of all, it is hard to tell when a drought commences because its effects don’t appear until after a prolonged period of low precipitation. Once underway, it can last for months or even (GASP!) years.
When asked to identify a devastating weather event, people are likely to say a hurricane or tornado. Nevertheless, according to the National Geographic Society, droughts are the second most costly weather event after hurricanes. A big part of that cost is agricultural losses. Why? Because water is needed to grow crops. While “agricultural losses” may not seem a daunting phrase, read that effect as meaning food production takes a hit. There will be less food to put on the table, and the food that is available will be more expensive.
Over 150 million acres of crops in the western U.S. are touched by at least a moderate drought right now. What specific agricultural losses could result? This year’s spring wheat harvest is 41% below the 2020 level. Producing almost half as much of this grain as the previous year’s output is a steep drop. Add oats to the drought’s hit list as well. According to Bloomberg.com, this year’s U.S. oat crop is expected to be the smallest since 1866. Yes, that’s 1866, over a century and a half ago. Yikes!
OK, but that’s just grain. But wait; there’s more! One hundred percent of the State of California is experiencing drought conditions at the present time. The Golden State produces 1/3 of the country’s vegetables and 2/3 of its fruits and nuts. Without sufficient water for the state’s crops, the entire country will suffer from the greatly reduced bounty from the land.
According to scientists, climate change intensifies drought conditions. What the western U.S. is now undergoing has been referred to as a “megadrought.” This time last year only about 20% of the West was experiencing “severe drought.” That number is up to 80% this year, and the area affected comprises nearly half of the continental United States and affects over 70 million people.
Utah is especially hard hit with more than 99% of that state classified as in extreme to exceptional drought, the two most severe levels on the U.S. Drought Monitor. Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the largest natural natural lake west of the Mississippi River, has seen water levels plummet to a historic low, breaking a record set over 50 years ago in 1963. Even scarier? It’s not even the point of the year when that water body typically hits its lowest levels. Thus, water levels are likely to continue dropping. How low will they go? We probably don’t want to know.
The Great Salt Lake is not the only water body getting slammed by the drought. Water levels at Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the country, have also reached a record low. As of Sunday, the lake had fallen to 33% capacity. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said last week it expects the lake’s elevation to drop another two feet by the end of this month. This declining water level threatens the Glen Canyon Dam’s capacity to produce hydropower for a number of states including Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Uh, oh! Less water, less food, and now less power.
Back in June, the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead which is located near Las Vegas, hit a record-low water level as well. I’m betting that’s not a good omen for Western residents. Both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are fed by the Colorado River and provide a critical supply of drinking water as well as water for irrigation for farms, ranches, and Native American communities. The two reservoirs are part of a river system supplying over 40 million people over seven states and Mexico. The handwriting on the wall is that people are going to have no choice but to institute water conservation measures.
These drought conditions should be a splash of cold water in our faces. We must realize our existence is tied to our environment. We have to recognize that water is a valuable resource and grasp just how dependent we are upon its availability. We need to give some thought to the future, both near and distant, and how we might better utilize and conserve what water is available. Turning a blind eye to droughts won’t solve the problem, and if you think it will, you’re all wet.
Do you take the availability of water for drinking and other uses for granted? Did you realize the drought in the West was so severe? Do the current extreme drought conditions affect your thinking about the impact of climate change in any way? If so, how?