The megadrought parching 77 percent of the Western US, explained

Rising temperatures and lack of rain threaten to decrease water supplies and bring more wildfires this summer and in the years to come.

The Western US is in the midst of yet another dangerous dry spell. The drought has been building over the past year, and since November, a greater stretch of the West has been in the most severe category of drought than at any time in the 20 years that the National Drought Mitigation Center has been keeping records.

Western states are already facing water shortages, and with the National Weather Service projecting that the dry stretch will continue, the problems that accompany droughts are likely to pile up heading into this summer. 

Ryan Jensen saw the impacts of California’s last major drought firsthand while working for the Community Water Center in the San Joaquin Valley. When residential wells ran dry, students had to shower in their school locker rooms. To keep toilets running, some rural households relied on hoses slung over fences from their neighbors. 

With groundwater depleted by that drought, which only ended in 2017, and ongoing overuse of water on farms, families have had to dig deeper wells, which can be prohibitively expensive. 

“For some folks, the last drought never really ended. There are still homes in the San Joaquin Valley that have been on a water tank since the last drought,” said Jensen, who works in the center’s Visalia office. 

That last drought also led to other fallouts: billions of dollars in economic losses as farmers were forced to let fields lie fallow and a 50 percent drop in electricity production from dams. It also contributed to the death of over 100 million trees, which fuels bigger wildfires, like the ones that ripped through the West last summer. If the current drought continues, similarly stark consequences lie ahead. 

Unfortunately, these droughts in rapid succession aren’t an aberration but rather a sign of what’s to come. Climate change is driving more severe droughts and spurring longer, more troubling “megadroughts” across the Western states. Here’s what you need to know about what the future holds for these states as temperatures rise.

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