California and parts of the Southwestern United States have now endured a fifth consecutive year of drought. While these areas and the country are far from being drought free, near record-strength El Niño rains over the winter and fall of last year alleviated drought conditions considerably. A few states that were drought-stricken just last year are no longer in drought.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed drought levels estimated as of the week ended July 4 and as of early July last year from the U.S. Drought Monitor. There are currently only three states with widespread severe to exceptional drought conditions. To find the states that recovered most from drought, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed improvements compared with other states engulfed in drought at this time last year.
During periods of severe or — worse — exceptional levels of drought, crop or pasture losses are likely, and water shortages and restrictions are common. During times of exceptional drought, these conditions are intensified and water shortages are considered water emergencies.
Even before the current multi-year drought, these and many other states in the region have found ways of coping with regular cycles of wet and dry seasons. Water systems such as reservoirs have been essential for many years. In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Brad Rippey, agricultural meteorologist at the USDA, explained, “Without managed water, we couldn’t support the population or the agriculture that we have in the western United States.” Especially in the far West Coast states, he added, “you have to get through the summer on what falls during the winter.”
> Change in severe drought coverage:-16.6 ppt.
> Pct. severe drought 2016: 8.0%
> Pct. severe drought 2015: 24.6%
Severe drought conditions covered nearly 25% of Arizona’s land mass in early July 2015. The water level at Lake Mead, one of the state’s primary sources of water, hit its lowest point in the reservoir’s history — since the completion of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s. Anticipating that drought conditions would persist, the state planned for water rationing last year. Thanks to heavy precipitation in the winter months, however, Arizona’s drought levels have significantly improved.
Today, 8.0% of Arizona’s land is in severe drought, 16.6 percentage points less than levels during last July and the seventh largest improvement in the country over that time. Further relief may come during monsoon season — a period from mid-June to late September with heavy storms that typically account for close to half of the state’s annual rainfall.
Drought conditions peaked in 2012, when close to 50% of the continental United States was engulfed in at least severe drought. As a result of heavy precipitation in the fall, winter and spring, the level of severe drought in late June fell to approximately 4% of the country — the lowest level since October 2010. “For the West as a whole it was certainly the best winter we had seen since the last time we had El Niño in 2009-10 or the following year,” Rippey said.
Compared with other weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes, which are often in the news, drought is a very slow-emerging — and slow-ending — environmental feature. The effects of abnormally dry weather often do not appear until well after drought has become significantly entrenched. Also, year-over-year improvements such as the recent El Niño rains, while considerable windfalls for area residents, are far short of what is needed to return water systems to normal or restore the damaged landscape.
For example, the Washington State Department of Agriculture estimated the industry’s loss due to drought at $336 million. Water storage systems are also still well below historical averages throughout regions covered in drought. The country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead — now famous for its “bathtub rings” — is at 37% capacity, the lowest level on record. There has also been die-off of trees in the western United States. The U.S. Forest Service estimated that in the southern Sierra Nevada, there are approximately 66 million dead trees. These die-offs, largely caused by drought, dramatically increase the risk of wildfire.
Abnormally dry conditions, which register as the lowest level of drought on the Drought Monitor maps, have reemerged in parts of the Northwest in recent months. Rippey noted that abnormal dryness often serves as a warning that drought may be returning. “We’re headed back toward La Niña – cool water in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific – later this year. La Niña typically leads to drought expansion in the U.S., although not always in the same places.”
To identify the states with improving drought conditions, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the percentage of land area in severe to exceptional drought from the U.S. Drought Monitor as of the weeks ended July 4, 2016 and July 6, 2015. The states are ranked from the smallest to largest percentage point change for the year. To be considered, a state needed to have at least 20% of its land area in severe to exceptional drought conditions at this time last year.