In the Western U.S., the Next Drought Is Always Around the Corner

Even if El Niño ends the region’s current dry spell.

In California, El Niño’s January storms left above-average snowpack in the mountains and rising reservoir levels across the state. Could the end of the five-year drought be in sight? Alan Haynes, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Sacramento, told the L.A. Times in late January, “If storms continue and we keep getting wet into the spring, like we’re projecting because of the El Niño ... we have a good shot[.]”

Eight days into February, however, the outlook is a little less promising. Last week, the National Weather Service’s Sacramento office described El Niño as taking a 5-10 day break, with a high pressure ridge moving in between California and any storms that might otherwise be forming. Now, temperatures across the state are running a good 10-15 degrees above normal. Today Los Angeles is expected to see a high of 85 degrees.

Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and president of the Pacific Institute, warned on Twitter that seven days of continuous warmth could turn as much as 30 percent of California’s snowpack to slush:

There’s still a chance that sustained storms later in the season could turn things back around. But ultimately, these projections and forecasts are short-term thinking. In California, the next drought is always around the corner. In fact, that’s true for virtually all of the West.

Since 2005, with just a few brief exceptions, more than 25 percent of U.S. western lands have faced drought, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. More than half of the West has been short on water since 2012, with vast swathes of land experiencing at least some level of dry conditions.

A time-lapse animation, which the PPIC created using weekly U.S. Drought Monitor maps from 2005 to 2015, shows how drought slips and slides across the West over a relatively long period of time. The PPIC reports:

The 10-year span shows strong regional differences. Droughts in California and the Pacific Northwest tend to develop and end relatively quickly. In contrast, parts of the Colorado Basin have been dry for much of the past decade or longer—a situation that is proving difficult to manage.

Right now, Colorado is fairly drought-free, while California and the Pacific Northwest remain in the red. Even if this dry February turns into a March wet enough to signal this drought’s end, it’s only a matter of time before the West’s growing population and fragile hydrology (influenced by climate change) creates another imbalance of water supply and demand. As the PPIC warns, “California—like its western neighbors—must continue to strengthen its water management to better cope with ongoing drought and prepare for the next.”

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.