Drought Takes Hold of the American West

The megadrought continues, with contingency plans differing by location.

2 minute read

April 21, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Desert Rain

Peter Kunasz / Shutterstock

As recently as 2019, rain was falling in abundance and rivers were running high, but no one should be surprised that drought is again gripping the West.

"California is suffering from severe drought again," reports Peter Gleick. "This winter produced water conditions far below normal for the second year in a row, the eighth year in the last 10, the 14th year in the last 20. Los Angeles has had 39% of normal precipitation; San Diego, only 30%; San Francisco, 37%; Sacramento, less than 40%."

It's only been a few years since the last drought crisis in California—then Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in 2014, when the state's reservoirs were at roughly the same level they are at now. "The California Department of Water Resources announced that it expected to deliver only 5% of requested supplies to municipal and agricultural users on the State Water Project, down from the initial allocation of 10% announced in December," reports Gleick. Still, "Gov. Gavin Newsom has not declared a statewide drought emergency, and his website says nothing about drought."

Along the Colorado River and its tributaries, a Drought Contingency Plan kicked into effect in January for states located in the watershed's upper Basin—Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming. It was the first time since the DCP was adopted in 2019 that drought conditions triggered water conservation efforts on that section of the watershed, but it certainly won't be the last. Research published in April 2020 described the ongoing drought along the Colorado River watershed, dating back to 2000, as a once-in-a-millennium megadrought, and droughts are only expected to get worse.

Another article by Drew Kann focuses on the current status of the Colorado River, especially water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The bad news is of historic proportion: "The projections released by the US Bureau of Reclamation show that Lake Mead -- the largest reservoir in the country and a vital water supply to millions across the Southwest -- could fall later this year to its lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s." While Lake Mead sits at 39 percent capacity, Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir on the river, is currently holding 36 percent of its full capacity.

Kann's coverage also provides details of next steps in the Drought Contingency Plan for the lower basin, which could slash water supply for Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. Arizona's water supply from the Central Arizona Project would be cut by a third by 2022 if conditions don't improve.

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