The U.S. Faces a Rising Drought Crisis This Spring

A bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water line near the Hoover Dam.
A bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water line near the Hoover Dam.
Photo: John Locher (AP)

The old saying goes that March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb. This year, that sheep is bringing along some worryingly dry conditions for the rest of the season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its spring outlook on Thursday and predicted that more than half the country may see drought conditions over the next few months.

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This drought, the agency notices, would be the country’s most significant spring drought since 2013, and could affect 74 million people. NOAA predicts that the Southwest will be the hardest hit, which could impact water supply in the region. If the agency’s forecast is correct, the dry conditions would draw out the historic megadrought that has been gripping the area.

“We are predicting prolonged and widespread drought,” National Weather Service Deputy Director Mary Erickson told the AP. “It’s definitely something we’re watching and very concerned about.”

There are a couple things at play contributing to the drought conditions. There’s been an ongoing La Niña since last summer, which cools off portions the Pacific Ocean and, in turn, creates drier weather across parts of the country. Monsoon season—when heavy rains usually occur—in the Southwest in the summer last year was unusually dry, like it was the year before.

And it looks like it will be a hot spring, which could make drought conditions worse. NOAA predicts that from April to June, the vast majority of the country will experience warmer-than-average temperatures. The heat could melt out already weak snowpack in some places early, creating an issue for water users during the dry summer season. With the Sierra Nevada snowpack at only 61% of its usual levels, officials could implement water restrictions in California for the first time since 2016.

“Absent a series of strong storms in March or April we are going to end with a critically dry year on the heels of last year’s dry conditions,” Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, told the Mercury News earlier this month. “With back-to-back dry years, water efficiency and drought preparedness are more important than ever.”

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Climate change is, of course, the elephant in the room here. While natural processes and climactic shifts can cause drought conditions, the rapidly-skyrocketing temperatures in the region are a driving factor for us getting closer and closer to living in a Mad Max movie. A study published last year found that climate change is driving the Southwest into a historic megadrought, the worst the region has seen in 1,200 years.

There’s one tiny silver lining: Due to the ongoing drought, NOAA predicts a “reduced” flood risk for some major river basins. The agency says that this flood year probably won’t be as serious as the past two years, which brought widespread damage across the U.S. “Only” 82 million people will be at risk of flooding this year, versus the 128 million exposed last year. Yay?

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DISCUSSION

At least this year we won’t be seeing ironic tweets about how failed leadership was the cause of wildfires on federal land in California.