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June 14, 2021

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US West in fear of worst as drought arrives early

Lakes at historically low levels, unusually early forest fires, restrictions on water use and now a potentially record heat wave: even before summer’s start the United States West is suffering the effects of chronic drought made worse by climate change.

Eighty-eight percent of the West was in a state of drought last week, including the entire states of California, Oregon, Utah and Nevada, according to official data.

In a particularly stark symptom of this trend, which is affecting more than 143 million Americans, Lake Mead — the country’s largest reservoir, lying at the border of Nevada and Arizona — now stands at its lowest level since its creation in the 1930s.

The lake, formed when the massive Hoover Dam was built across the Colorado River not far from Las Vegas, stands at just 36 percent of capacity, below even a record set in 2016.

Ample precipitation

Authorities expected something like this — but not until August.

The situation in northern California, which normally receives ample precipitation in the winter and spring, is no better. Lake Oroville, the state’s second largest reservoir and a key part of a network providing potable water to 27 million Californians, is 50 meters lower than in 2019.

Widespread water-use restrictions appear inevitable over the coming months, with potentially serious ramifications for Western states, in particular for irrigation-dependent farmers — who provide much of the US’s fruits and vegetables.

In California, whose vast almond groves supply 80 percent of world production, some farmers have already begun uprooting trees to save water.

As of April 1, the date traditionally marking the area’s last snowfall, the snowpack on the upper slopes of the Sierra Nevada — source of roughly a third of all water used in California — was at only 60 percent of average.

“Really, one thing unique this year is that as snow melted, the runoff ended up soaking into dry soils and ended up evaporating,” never reaching Lake Oroville, John Yarbrough, an official with the California Department of Water Resources, said. “So that’s what was unusual this year, how little runoff we got from that snowpack.”

According to the US Drought Monitor, one third of California is currently experiencing “exceptional drought,” the worst level.


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