Record drought hits the Southwest

S T. GEORGE, Utah – For the first time in history, rancher Jimmie Hughes saw all 15 ponds he maintains for his cattle dry up at the same time this year.

Now he and his co-workers are forced to carry water tanks for two hours down dusty mountain roads to water his 300 cows. “It’s just a daily routine, we’re not making any money,” Hughes, 50, said one day late last month, in the middle of another day of unwavering sunshine in a winter that has seen very little rain here in southern Utah. .

The Southwest is once again trapped by drought, causing cuts to farms and ranches and putting new pressure on urban supplies. Extreme to exceptional drought is affecting between 57% and 90% of the land in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Arizona and is withering a layer of snow that supplies water to 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles , according to the US Drought Monitor.

Jimmie Hughes, bottom right, ranches in Mohave County, Arizona, where he and his coworkers often haul water over mountain roads to pasture areas. A cattle tank that is slowly filled from a natural spring is used to keep the cattle supplied with water.

Water truck fills up in Mohave County, Arizona. The water is carried to other areas where livestock graze and is stored for future use.

The team of government and academic agencies that produces the monitor defines a drought as a period of unusually dry weather that causes problems such as crop losses and water shortages.

The current drought, which began last year, is already shaping up to be one of the most severe in the Southwest. Utah and Nevada experienced their driest years in 126 years on federal records in 2020, while Arizona and Colorado had the second driest and New Mexico the fourth, according to Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. -Lincoln. . He said the Southwest has been mired in a drought for much of the past two decades, with the latest coming after one of the driest summers on record.


The southwestern United States has been hit by a severe and, in some places, record drought since last year.

In the Elephant Butte irrigation district of southern New Mexico, farmers have already been warned that they face receiving only 16% of their normal allocation in June.

“It’s horrible here,” said Gary Esslinger, district treasurer-manager in Las Cruces, NM. He said the area’s 6,500 farmers have already removed a third of their 90,640 irrigable acres from production from previous drought years and will likely keep those offline this year as well. New Mexico state engineer John D’Antonio Jr. said his office is asking other farmers not to plant this year, if they can, as reservoirs across the state contain only 20% of what they do. usually.

Drought conditions have also spread to California, where snow cover was 58% of average as of Monday, according to historical records dating back just under a century. That increases the likelihood of dryness that could contribute to wildfires and lead to cuts in agriculture, state officials say. A deluge of precipitation at the end of the winter rainy season could lessen the risk of those results, but is currently not in the forecast.

“We have time, but we have to keep our fingers crossed,” Fuchs said.

Forecasters say a combination of hot weather and changing weather patterns that divert storms northward are making dry spells more frequent and pronounced. As a result, the landscape doesn’t have enough time to recover before the next drought hits, Fuchs said.

Colorado enjoyed an above-normal snow season a year ago, but much of the spring runoff was soaked up by soil still dry from the previous drought, he said. In late 2020, the state suffered the largest wildfires on record.

The population of St. George, Utah, and its suburbs doubled between 2000 and last year.

Meanwhile, reservoir levels in the southwest have been falling. The largest of those reservoirs, Lake Mead, is 41% full after years of declining Colorado River flow. Federal officials warn that it is on track to slide below a threshold of 1,075 feet over the next two years, leading to government-mandated water outages for millions of users.

Complicating matters is the explosive population growth of the Southwest. St. George and its suburbs, nestled between red rock canyons and snow-capped mountains, totaled 188,000 people last year, more than double the population of 91,000 in 2000, according to census estimates.


If you live in the arid southwest, how is the drought affecting you? Join the conversation below.

“We’ve always been dry,” said insurance entrepreneur Ed Bowler, guiding his truck through rows of new homes on a one-day drive in late February. “But we didn’t have all these people.”

The past two summers have been the warmest on record for surrounding Washington County. St. George went 154 days last year without receiving any measurable rainfall, breaking the previous record of 121 days that had been held since 1929.

In the long term, southern Utah officials are looking for pipelines in the water to help meet the needs of the area.

There are no other good options, said Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservation District. “Our plan B,” he said, “is that at some point you’ll have to say, ‘Stop. You can’t build more houses here. ‘ “

The Southwest has been mired in drought for much of the past two decades.

Write to Jim Carlton at [email protected]

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