Climate experts are predicting another historically bad summer for wildfires and drought conditions throughout the western regions of the United States.
“This is the second worst drought in 1,200 years, partly due to human made climate change and partially due to a naturally dry cycle,” CBS meteorologist Jeff Berardelli said last week.
Experts said low water levels anticipated this summer may trigger the federal government’s first-ever official shortage declaration, and prompt usage cuts in the states of Arizona and Nevada.
In the past 40 years, droughts cost the American taxpayer 262 billion U.S. dollars, and wildfires 104 billion U.S. dollars, totaling 366 billion U.S. dollars in losses, according to recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Each year, the damage increases and the costs climb, especially in the west.
“The 2020-21 winter wet season was not wet!” Berardelli exclaimed.
“There was only 25-50 percent of normal precipitation, the soil moisture content in the lowest in 120 years, and 60 percent of the west is covered in severe drought,” he added.
Snowpack throughout the West had decreased by 25 percent since 1981, according to Climate Watch, an international open online platform designed to empower users with the climate data.
Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to 40 million people, had experienced historic drought conditions, The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental organization, headquartered in Arlington County of Virginia, said last year.
“So much of the necessary water for agriculture, for people’s gardens, for fire prevention – is in the snowpack,” Berardelli noted, “because when the snowpack melts, it goes into the Colorado River and into tributaries throughout the west, and without that snowpack it does impact water for drinking and other uses – big time.”
With less Colorado River water flowing down from the Rocky Mountains through Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and into the arid deserts of the U.S. Southwest and the Gulf of California, the United States Bureau of Reclamation last week declared an official shortage for the first time.
Water levels in the two lakes were expected to plummet to record lows this summer, threatening the supply of Colorado River water to towns, cities and farms, the report noted.
Lake Powell, the spectacular 300-kilometer-long man-made reservoir on the Arizona-Utah border visited by some 2 million tourists a year, had water levels so far below normal, officials from the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, where the lake located, told boaters last week that water access points and boat launch areas would be limited due to “historically declining water levels.”
With water inflows at only 44.82 percent of the April average, “Lake Powell was last within 2 inches of this elevation on May 1, 2005,” according to the Lake Powell water database. Lake Powell’s water levels would continue to drop in 2021 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
“The water supply has been low for the past 20 years,” Berardelli said. “As we enter summer, restrictions already going into place – and we will see a lot more as well.”
Global warming is shrinking the Rocky Mountains snowpack that feeds the river and flows are declining at a rate of about 9.3 percent for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit increase in temperature, the United States Geological Survey reported last year.
The study identified “a growing potential for severe water shortages in the Colorado River basin, driven by snow loss and consequent decrease of reflection of solar radiation,” it reported.
America’s 2020 fire season cost 43 lives, destroyed more than 10,000 structures, torched a staggering 7 million acres (28,328 square kilometers) of land.
The magnitude of the wild fire devastation in America’s West is hard to fathom, with smoke encircling the globe into Europe, CNN reported in September.
The economic cost of the 2020 wildfire season could reach 150 billion U.S. dollars, rivaling some of the costliest natural disasters hitting the United States in the last 40 years, AccuWeather reported.
From the Golden State eastward, some 1,600 kilometers to the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado, the entire region – 11 of America’s 13 largest states – suffered the wrath of dry, hot weather and rampant wildfires.
“Six of the seven largest wildfires in California history burned in 2020, and the largest, the August Complex fire, became the state’s first ever gigafire – meaning it burned over 1 million acres (4,047 square kilometers), scorching more acreage than the state of Rhode Island,” The Washington Post reported.
Colorado’s Cameron Peak fire, a few miles west of Colorado State University, claimed 200,000 acres (809.4 square kilometers) to become the biggest wildlife in state history, eclipsing the Cameron Peak fire earlier in the summer that torched 139,000 acres (562.5 square kilometers).
Roughly one-third of the 48 contiguous U.S. states, more than 1 million square miles, became a deadly tinderbox, and 2021 looks no better, scientists said.
“Last summer was one of the hottest on record and the driest as well – a one-two punch from Mother Nature,” Berardelli said, adding that 2021 offers little hope for improvement.
Throughout America’s desert-climate southwest, afternoon rains beginning in July, called monsoons, have graced the region for decades. But last year, “it did not happen – at all last summer – and we have to hope and pray and cross our fingers that it does happen this year,” Berardelli said.
The historic drought is likely to get “worse and worse,” he noted.