The weather patterns have left parts of the Northwest soggy. Still, 80% of the land in the western states face some official category of drought.
More disturbing is the size of what’s called the “exceptional drought” area, according to the US Drought Monitor. Parts of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, California and Texas classified as exceptional drought, total 265,200 square miles. For comparison, that is nearly equivalent to the size of Texas.
There are four categories of drought defined by the US Drought Monitor ranging from moderate to exceptional. Exceptional drought areas have defoliated trees and shrubs, the grass is brown or dead and lakes and streams are extremely low or dried up completely.
Drought is not just a lack of rainfall, it is a prolonged precipitation deficit that can and will affect all things. Even a desert can be under drought conditions. In an area that averages 6 inches of rainfall per year, plants and animals thrive. If the rain stops, the consequences will be deadly.
“The Four Corners [Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah] is the epicenter of this drought,” said Brian Fuchs, climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. “When droughts like this happened long ago, the people living there just had to move.”
The western US has had no shortage of dry spells over the last year thanks to the failed Southwest summer monsoon.
“Obviously this La Nina has been dry, but even in the last couple of El Nino events, where we should be very wet, our precipitation has only been slightly above normal and not 150-200% above normal like we had in the 1970s and 80s,” said Andrew Church, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.
Mountain snowpack is not enough to dent the drought
In the West, winter snowpack can be more effective at relieving drought than summer thunderstorms, the snowpack melts slowly and doesn’t just runoff the parched soil.
“Winter is the bank account of water storage and water accumulation. It sets the stage for summer,” said Fuchs.
Those living in wetter climates see rainfall as the main driver of drought reduction, but in the West, winter snowpack is much more important. It acts like a reservoir of freshwater to be used later in the year as the snow melts.
Unfortunately, those regions with the worst drought are also those with the least amount of snowpack.
Much of the central Rockies are at 70% to nearly 90% of normal. That doesn’t sound so terrible, but when you factor in how depleted the water system is, even a 100% normal snowpack won’t be enough to end the drought.
“Moving forward, the large area of drought covering much of the western half of the country is expected to generally persist, with areas of intensification possible,” the CPC forecasts through the end of May.
Water shortages and wildfires ahead
When below average precipitation occurs over a long period of time, people, the environment, wildlife and economic activity will be negatively affected.
“Snowpack is important, but for lower elevations, summer monsoon rains matter for ranchers and livestock. Many ranchers have been hauling in hay and trucking in water,” said Justin Johndrow, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Flagstaff. “Our normally wet summer monsoon season was among the driest on record.”
It’s not just livestock that are being impacted, there are over 150 million acres of crops currently experiencing at least a moderate drought in the US, according to NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System.
“Lots of wildlife depend on the small bodies of water and we will have more impacts to deal with,” said Fuchs.
“South of I-40 here in New Mexico has been in a 20-year drought. The new normal is drought and fire season is now just the entire year down there,” said Church.
“Fire season could be much worse than normal if we don’t get a change in this current weather pattern,” Johndrow said. “The Significant Wildland Fire Potential for June (issued by the National Interagency Fire Center) is for an above normal threat.”
“As the drought worsens and becomes more prolonged, more people will increasingly have less access to the water that they use for drinking, earning a living, or recreating,” warns Andrew Robertson, chief of the Hydrologic Assessment and Modeling Unit at US Geological Survey
But the situation isn’t completely dire — we can adapt to minimize the impacts.
CNN’s Jackson Dill and Brandon Miller contributed to this report.