Nearly 45% of the U.S. faces a drought risk

Fires and drought, a look at the U.S. states most at risk and what is being done

There is one county in the United States that has a particularly bad relationship with the weather. It is Galveston County in Texas, which goes from surprising winter frosts to sweltering heat, from sudden gusts of wind to persistent drought, from floods to tornadoes and to tropical storms. For hurricanes, the place is one of the five worst-hit cities in American history. Stan Blazyk, the Galveston Daily News reporter who calls himself “Weather Man Stan,” warned on July 13: “The record heat will continue as significant chances of rain remain low.”

His fellow citizens are already too well aware of the weather forecasts as the United States prepares for another hot summer. Rising temperatures and widespread river drought have reached new critical levels in recent weeks, with 44.5% of the nation at risk of drought as of July 19, the highest in two years. According to the Drought Monitor, compiled on behalf of the U.S. administration by the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska, the phenomenon is no longer primarily summer.

Going back a decade or so, says Brian Fuchs, author of the monitoring map for July 5, “you can see how drought is no longer a seasonal event — it is sweeping the country in all shapes and sizes in terms of intensity, duration and rate of onset.” This year, for example, includes the effects of a reduced snowpack in California in the spring of 2021, leading to low water levels and runoff in reservoirs; intensified heat and wildfires in the summer and fall of 2021, with western streams at risk and an established water shortage for the lower Colorado River. But also reduced production of wheat, hay and other crops resulting in increased livestock sales.

The U.S. caught between droughts and floods

“The drought is the result of several causes,” according to Denise Gutzmer, who tracks drought impacts for the NDMC. Her report to June 2022 indicates heavy changes in typical weather conditions, such as the early onset of the North American monsoon; heavy abnormal rainfall in and near Yellowstone National Park; scattered wet weather in other parts of the Northwest; and scattered rapid drying conditions in parts of the central and southern Great Plains, Midwest, Southeast, and New England. From central New Mexico westward to western Arizona, some areas experienced three times the normal June rainfall, leading to a temporary improvement in drought conditions.

According to the Drought Monitor, Galveston County’s more than 291,000 residents will have to deal with one of the hottest summers ever. The drought set new records in June, which was the 28th-hardest hit in 128 years, with 2022 shaping up to be the seventh driest year in 128 years. Official estimates for Galveston are forecasting drought for more than 7,500 acres of hay, and nearly 7,400 cattle and 655 pigs face a water shortage. But it’s not just the east coast of Texas on red alert.

Parts of south-central Montana, adjacent northwestern Wyoming, and (especially) eastern portions of Washington and adjacent Oregon received nearly twice the normal June rainfall. Scattered portions of the Great Plains, Midwest, Southeast, the South and New England experienced precipitation well below normal for June. Some of the driest areas that emerged with the drought map include the eastern Texas Gulf Coast, western Louisiana, northeastern Nebraska, southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, northeastern Mississippi, and parts of the Carolinas.

Despite an increase in rainfall in June, this increase in available water has not entirely quenched the thirst of America’s farmlands and rivers. One of the states under scrutiny is California, where water conservation is a public emergency. The state is in its third year of drought, with a winter snowpack still below normal. Significant water restrictions went into effect on June 1 for more than 6 million customers in the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California who were asked to reduce water use by 35% in response to the start of the state’s driest year on record, according to data published by the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles' solution for protecting water

Some good news came from Los Angeles about watersheds a few years ago. In 2015, the city adopted the use of black plastic balls (“black balls” or “shade balls”) to protect the volume and quality of water in the open-air LA Reservoir that supplies the California megacity. The reservoir was covered with 96 million 10-cm spheres made of high-density polyethylene covered with carbon black, and partially filled with water to avoid being lifted by the wind.

The photo of the Los Angeles reservoir completely covered in black balls has traveled around the world, although the solution has not been widely adopted. It enabled the city to reduce evaporation by 80-90%, saving more than $250 million compared to other conservation plans the city was considering. The pellets, costing 33 cents each, also eliminated the need for the Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to add disinfectant chemicals directly into the Los Angeles reservoir, saving about $28,000 each month in chlorine costs.

The worst-hit areas by fires and drought

Southern California, however, is not the only area of the country on water and fire alert. Fire activity is forecast by the Drought Monitor in several states, from New Mexico to Alaska. The first part of the year saw over 35,000 wildfires in the United States, burning around 4.8 million acres.  According to CNN, New Mexico experienced several large forest fires this spring and early summer including two of the largest blazes in the state’s history.

The drought in Texas, far beyond Galveston County alone, has weakened crops, with water supplies down sharply. According to AgriLife Today, the situation has also led to higher commodity prices for farmers and ranchers, such as hay bales more than tripling to $200 each. According to local press reports, some farmers have had to cull livestock due to the high cost of feed and fodder, while restrictions on irrigation have caused crop damage, with entire corn crops burned due to lack of water.

In this regard, the July report from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicates an increase in U.S. corn stocks, lower domestic soybean production, and a harvested area of cotton reduced by 32%, the third highest-ever cotton field abandonment. In addition, cottonseed hulls are a source of feed for dairy cows, and with such high abandonment, U.S. dairy production could also suffer disruptions or sharp declines, triggering other chain reactions in the food chain.