Website of the week: Drought.gov

When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the springs are used, when all the reservoirs along the streams are used, when all the canyon waters are taken up, when all the artesian waters are taken up when all the wells are sunk or dug that can be dug, there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all this arid region. –John Wesley Powell, 1893. Speech to International Irrigation Congress in Los Angeles

An overview map of the CONUS. From Drought.gov .

The 100th meridian is the traditional demarcation of where the American West starts.

As Powell famously stated:

Passing from east to west across this belt a wonderful transformation is observed. On the east a luxuriant growth of grass is seen, and the gaudy flowers of the order Compositae make the prairie landscape beautiful. Passing westward, species after species of luxuriant grass and brilliant flowering plants disappear; the ground gradually becomes naked, with bunch grasses here and there; now and then a thorny cactus is seen, and the yucca plant thrusts out its sharp bayonets.

East of this line means verdant farms; west of the line begins the high plains with its higher elevations, harsh winters, brutally hot summers, and a paucity of water.

The Colorado High Plains ghost town of Keota.

Yet, here we are in 2021.  Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Denver all see record population growth  in this arid region.   But, as I wrote before, the climate’s changing; getting hotter and drier overall. And, more specifically, the 100th meridian weather patterns continue to move east.

The 100th meridian line in bold; the dotted line representing the shift east. From Columbia Univesity – State of the planet

If you look at the map at the start of the article, you can see that our current drought conditions in the US reflect the shift with no doubt. The so-called “new normal” is now, normal.

And where to get this information?  The interesting, well-done, and ultimately eye-brow raising Drough.gov provides much information of interest to anyone who recreates in our public lands.

You can look at the info by region, state, and even look at historical trends that show that the current drought is not merely a blip.

Most of Utah, for example, is facing extreme or exceptional drought:

My old stomping grounds of Colorado does not fare much better:

And note that the US is much drier overall. Even in the “wet” East coast:

Note the mountain regions of NY, Vermont, and NH all face moderate or abnormal drought.

An interested user of this website can even drill down by watershed, tribal lands, or even broaden the scope to get a worldwide snapshot

Spoiler – It ain’t looking good.

What does all this mean? On a very large level, you can see the economic impact on transportation, where wildfires coincide with drought, agriculture, and other factors.

From an outdoors person standpoint, again as detailed earlier,  the wildfires and droughts go hand in hand with a warmer and drier climate.  And floods after.

Floods in downtown Boulder. Sept 2013.

Though some advocate “forest management” as a solution, it’s the equivalent of putting up sandbags when floods occur – Helpful but does not acknowledge the underlying cause.

 

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If you see an area with drought this late in the winter season for Utah, as one example, more than likely you know there will be springs not flowing as well and a good chance of an early and harsh fire season. Extrapolate as appropriate for Colorado, the Sierra, and other areas.

As with any data, I think it makes me pause and think about experiencing the outdoors personally. We’ll have to adjust to what we think of as “the seasons.”

Again relating to what I know about where I live, a warmer and drier winter means more use and travel to my high desert area even in the now-shorter “off-season.”  And I look over to the La Sal and Abajo Mountains and wonder if I’ll get in a ski tour? But that’s just an impact on my personal life. The more significant issues and questions go outside of my specific backcountry experience.

For example, I still strongly assert that backcountry campfires need to go the way of other antiquated practices such as burying garbage. When there are droughts in previously wet areas, campfires strictly for comfort and aesthetics in a backcountry environment are questionable at best.  The numbers tell the story.

Drought.gov may not be the cheeriest website or the most glamorous.  But for anyone who wants a larger picture of how their outdoor experience gets impacted, the site makes for a fascinating portrait of today’s operating norm.

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George
George
7 months ago

Looking at the historical graph of 1895-present, and even breaking it into 30 year segments, it actually appears to me to be wetter on average now than in the past. Granted, this is for the country as a whole and certain areas will naturally be drier, but I can’t see a case in this data that the climate overall is drier. I did note that Utah is historically dry right now though. I found it fascinating that you can find out how dry/wet it was in some areas all the way back to the year 0!

Stephen Keire
Stephen Keire
7 months ago

This La Nina year certainly isn’t helping to alleviate the secular drought on the Coast. The track of the Jet Stream has been persistently nudged north by high pressure ridges that remain immobile for weeks. Humans are going to take a further hand as the interest in prospecting for lithium and platinum family minerals increases, see for example the active USGS study Spectral Characteristics and Mapping of Lithium-rich Playas for Use in Western U.S. Basin and Range Mineral Assessment of Lithium. There are lithium prospects just west of Death Valley, and permission for exploratory drilling has been sought. I read… Read more »