For Clark County residents, drought is largely inconceivable. The Great River of the West runs through our backyard, driving the economy and defining the culture as it has for thousands of years, and we typically have no shortage of rain.
But the western United States is providing a harbinger of what could be a very dry future that alters food chains and humans’ very ability to live in this part of the country. “Droughts have been around in the West forever – that’s just a function of life in the West,” John Berggren of Western Resource Advocates, told the Los Angeles Times. “The connection is that climate change is making drought more common and making it more difficult for us to recover.”
In Washington, climatologists say we just experienced the driest spring in nearly 100 years. Since data collection started in the 1890s, only 1924 saw a spring with less precipitation.
That dries out vegetation, reduces wildlife habitat, makes irrigation of crops more difficult and creates conditions more prone to major wildfires. In one example of the impact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently predicted that this year’s yield of winter wheat will decline by 28 percent.
Most wheat produced in Washington is winter wheat. A drought not only hurts wheat farmers, but drives up the price of hay for ranchers and leads to an increase in meat prices. The interconnectedness of the economy means that a drought impacts all residents, even those in relatively moist Western Washington.
An estimated 68 percent of Washington is currently experiencing some level of drought. Other western states are facing even tougher conditions.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell – the nation’s two largest reservoirs – were created by dams along the Colorado River. They provide water to 40 million Americans and irrigation for more than 4 million acres of farmland, but both are at about 30 percent capacity. That is the result of what researchers recently identified as the most severe drought in the Western U.S. in about 1,200 years – a drought that could last decades.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, parts of Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico all are experiencing extreme or exceptional droughts – the two most severe categories. That directly translates to wildfire risk.
Washington has seen 475 wildfires this year on public lands, compared with 318 at the same time in 2020. And last year turned out to be one of the most devastating wildfire seasons in state history, with smoke inundating even populated areas typically untouched by the blazes.
Part of all this is the earth’s natural climate cycle. But climate change driven by the’ burning of fossil fuels has contributed. As a Washington State University climate scientist told the Los Angeles Times: “The warm conditions have resulted in low snowpack, which is the case pretty much across the mountains in the West. The heat and rapidly declining snowpack levels are both pretty certainly attributable to climate change.”
Whether or not public policy can stem the tide of climate change, drought is likely to impact the region for decades to come. And it likely will lead to questions about whether portions of the Western United States are habitable.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox recently asked residents to pray for rain, abdicating leadership in favor of wishful thinking. Dealing with the current and coming crisis will require more effective guidance from elected officials.