Reservoirs have shrunk. Aquifers that have been depleted. River levels are low. Wildfires engulf the area. It’s no secret that the Western United States is experiencing severe drought conditions. The unprecedented severity of the problem is demonstrated by new research presented on Monday.
Several recent studies, including one published in the journal Nature Climate Change, have found that the Western United States and northern Mexico are experiencing their driest period in at least 1,200 years.
While not as severe as today’s megadroughts, the previous similar — albeit not as severe — multi-decade drought that occurred in the 1500s when the West was still predominantly inhabited by Native American tribes.
A large number of people live in the region, as well as large agricultural areas and some of the fastest-growing cities in the United States – all in a location where there is less water available than there was previously, partly as a result of human-caused climate change.
Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the study’s principal author, stated, “We have a society that is reliant on their being the same quantity of water that there was in the 1900s.”
It’s a pastime, though, since the amount of water molecules available to us is decreasing, and it’s past time for us to face the reality of how much water is available for us to utilize.
In order to perform the investigation, Williams examined tree ring data from thousands of locations. The researchers collected data from live trees, dead trees, and wood beams preserved at Native American archaeological sites, and then analyzed the results.
Williams was able to gain information into drought occurrences that occurred as far back as A.D. 800, around the time Charlemagne was crowned emperor of Rome, according to the tree rings.
Over the course of that period, he discovered four other mega droughts, the most famous of which was a 23-year drought that ended around the year 1500. According to Williams, there were hopes during a wet 2019 that the current mega drought would follow a similar trend to the previous one.
“And then from summer 2020 through the entire year 2021, it was just abnormally dry across the Western United States… signaling that this drought is nowhere close being over.”
In order to conserve water, it is necessary to “draw out all the stops.”
At the start of the winter, water managers in the western United States were hopeful of a turnaround. A record-breaking amount of snow fell in California’s Sierra Nevada throughout December, while massive snowstorms blanketed the northern Rockies.
However, a hot and dry start to the year has resulted in snowpack levels that are much below average in several areas.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the country’s two largest reservoirs, are only around one-third of their overall capacity, despite the fact that they are the country’s two largest. Groundwater reserves have been reduced as a result of the demands placed on them by communities, ranchers, and farmers.
Last year, federal water managers announced the first-ever Colorado River water shortage, resulting in water restrictions for some of the river’s 40 million users.
According to Camille Touton, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, the announcement was an acknowledgment that “the hydrology that was planned for years ago — but that we hoped we would never see — is now here.”
Upon hearing about the new data, Kim Mitchell, senior water policy adviser at Western Resource Advocates, an environmental charity, stated that “the Colorado River Basin no longer has the privilege of time.”
“It is critical for water managers in the Western United States to incorporate a smaller [Colorado] River into future operations and to pull out all the stops in order to scale up basin-wide conservation efforts. Incremental remedies will simply not be sufficient.”
Drought is exacerbated by climate change induced by humans.
Management standards for the Colorado River that are now in effect are slated to expire in 2026. The seven states that rely on the watershed are currently negotiating with the federal government, Native American tribes, and the government of Mexico about how the watershed should be managed in the future.
Nevada, Arizona, and California agreed last December to take less water from the Colorado River in an effort to keep Lake Mead afloat, and more cuts could be implemented in the future.
A wake-up call has been issued, according to Adel Hagekhalil, general water manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, who spoke to the station KUNC. “This is for all of us. When it comes to climate change, we are confronted with a new normal.”
According to Williams, the study’s lead author, approximately one-fifth of the present megadrought can be ascribed to climate change induced by humans. Global warming is being caused by greenhouse gas emissions, which are speeding up evaporation and changing weather patterns.
He compared water patterns in the West to a yo-yo, with one extreme being high and the other low. “We cannot allow ourselves to be fooled by a few rainy years into giving up on the progress we’ve been making,” he said, referring to climate change as “a yo-yo on an escalator headed down.”
“We need to rethink our relationship with water,” says the author.