A Drought is Born
In July of 2010, a drought began in the American Northeast. Unusually dry and unusually warm weather patterns, starting in March, persisted sporadically throughout the year, causing increased evaporation of groundwater.
By winter it had spread. As rains returned to the Northeast, the warm, dry weather migrated to the Southeast and Midwest. By summer of 2011, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma were in states of advancing drought.
During the winter of 2011-2012, the Arctic Oscillation (AO) and North Atlantic Oscillation, measurements of atmospheric pressure at sea level, were both very low. This prevented cold Arctic air from reaching further south.
The positive AO and NAO caused a drastically reduced the number of winter storms in the American Midwest. There was very little snow to melt during the next spring and river watersheds across the country, including the greater Mississippi River Basin, were not replenished.
By the summer of 2012, most Southern and Midwestern states were experiencing extreme drought. As conditions began to improve in the Southeast, the drought began to expand toward the Rockies.
Spread to California
In 2013, rains in the Midwest began to alleviate the drought there, but it intensified further west. By the end of the year, California had seen its lowest recorded rainfall in 130 years.
Today, two years later, the drought persists in the west in a vicious cycle; with less groundwater evaporating, there is less rainfall. Areas east of the Rocky Mountains are largely back to normal conditions today.
California has been hardest hit by the 2012-2015 North American drought. In fact, this is the worst drought the state has ever experienced. More than half of its land area, including the very agriculturally important Central Valley, is under Extreme or Exceptional drought conditions.
This drought is caused in part by record low rainfall, less than 34% of average in 2013. July 2015, by contrast, has seen record rainfalls in southern California — nearly 2 inches in San Diego, and Los Angeles broke its July record in a single day with less than half of an inch.
Current Drought Status
The drought in California is so far advanced that even this July’s record-setting rainfall has had no effect on it. The NOAA has estimated that south and central California, the hardest hit areas, will require anywhere from 8 to 12 inches of rain within six months to properly replenish the state’s ailing reservoirs (the famous Shasta Lake, for instance, is more than 60% below average capacity). Chances of that occurring are estimated by the NOAA to be as little as zero.
Though California has received the vast majority of media attention in regards to the drought, it affects the entire Western US region, north to Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and east to Colorado and New Mexico. In the past year, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two major reservoirs created by dams on the Colorado River, have both dipped to under 30% capacity.
Combined, the two reservoirs supply water to millions upon millions of people, not to mention agriculture and industry, in Nevada, Arizona, California, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Worsening the water scenario in these states is the explosive population growth they’ve seen: The population of Phoenix, Arizona, for example, has quadrupled in the past 40 years.
What Can be Done
The drought in the American Southwest is a serious one. There is no end in sight and its effects will be felt throughout the US for some time to come. But the situation is not hopeless. The State of California, headed by Governor Edmund G. Brown, has enacted sweeping legislation aimed at improving water conservation and management.
Though this drought is a large-scale regional issue, there are things that you can do today to help ease the pressures. Even if you are outside of the immediately effected areas, the things you do can help make a difference.
Learn where to start by downloading our Water Conservation Checklist for Homeowners today. The checklist will give your customers everything they need to know to start making meaningful steps toward water conservation, including improvements to plumbing, laundry and bathing tips, and more.