By now most Americans have probably heard that the Western United States is in the grip of a historic drought. And those Americans living in California, Arizona, and elsewhere out west are certainly feeling the effects of that drought. With 97 percent of the American West currently experiencing abnormally dry conditions, the risk of wildfires doing severe damage is growing every day.
The University of Nebraska’s drought monitor shows drought conditions for the American West with the exception of Wyoming and Colorado. Over 97 percent of the West is at a level of D0 or higher, indicating abnormally dry conditions. And nearly 27 percent of the West is currently at a level of D4, meaning conditions of exceptional drought.
Temperatures have been soaring in the West too, with Arizona seeing triple digit temperatures and many areas of the West seeing record heat. Hot, dry weather combined with major drought could severely exacerbate the risk of and damage done by wildfires. California has already seen significant damage from wildfires in recent years, but with the current drought Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and other states could end up facing the same risks and seeing similar damage.
Much of the development in the West is artificially boosted through government water policies. If you’ve ever been out west, you’ll probably wonder how such massive cities can pop up in the middle of dry, desolate terrain. Governments have for decades pursued every drop of water they can, pumping from underground reservoirs, diverting water from rivers, and doing everything they can to keep citizens from feeling the effects of living in a desert environment.
But at some point the aquifers will be empty, the rivers will run dry, and cities will be unable to provide water to their residents. And that will likely result in a major exodus of people from newly uninhabitable areas.
Mismanagement of water resources in the West has led to up to 28 feet of subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley, the elimination of 95% of the Colorado River’s delta wetlands, and has skewed our perception of Californian agriculture so that we think it is perfectly natural to grow almonds, pecans, rice, and other commercial crops in the middle of the desert.
Maybe this year’s drought will finally teach the inhabitants of the western states that their continued existence depends on the tenuous hold they have over the precious declining water resources available to them. Without a permanent and effective solution to the issue of water, droughts and wildfires are going to continue to wreak havoc in the future.