ST. GEORGE, Utah—For the first time ever, rancher Jimmie Hughes saw all 15 of the ponds he keeps for his cattle dry up at the same time this year.
Now, he and his co-workers are forced to haul tanks of water two hours over dusty, mountain roads to water their 300 cows. “It’s just a daily grind, we’re not making any money,” the 50-year-old Mr. Hughes said one day late last month, amid another day of unwavering sun in a winter that has seen very little rain here in Southern Utah.
The Southwest is locked in drought again, prompting cutbacks to farms and ranches and putting renewed pressure on urban supplies. Extreme to exceptional drought is afflicting between 57% and 90% of the land in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Arizona and is shriveling a snowpack that supplies water to 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
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 as one of the most severe on record in the Southwest. Utah and Nevada experienced their driest years in 126 years of federal records during 2020, while Arizona and Colorado had their second-driest and New Mexico its fourth, according to
climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said the Southwest has been mired in drought for much of the past two decades, and the latest was brought on after one of the driest summers on record.
The southwestern U.S. has been hit by a severe and, in some places, record-setting drought since last year.
In Southern New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Irrigation District, farmers have already been warned they face getting as little as 16% of their normal allotment in June.
“It’s horrific here,” said
treasurer-manager of the district in Las Cruces, N.M. He said the 6,500 area farmers already have taken one-third of their 90,640 irrigable acres out of production from previous drought years and likely will keep those offline this year as well. New Mexico State Engineer
John D’Antonio Jr.
said his office is asking other farmers to not plant this year, if they can, as reservoirs statewide hold just 20% of what they normally do.
The drought conditions have also spread into California, where the snowpack was 58% of the average as of Monday, according to historical records that go back a little less than a century. That raises the likelihood of dryness that could contribute to wildfires and trigger cutbacks to agriculture, state officials say. A deluge of precipitation at the end of the winter rainy season could lessen the risk of those outcomes, but isn’t currently in the forecast.
“We have time, but we do have to keep our fingers crossed,” Mr. Fuchs said.
Meteorologists say a combination of a warming climate and shifting atmospheric patterns that divert storms north are making the dry spells more frequent and pronounced. As a result, the landscape isn’t getting enough time to recover before the next drought sets in, Mr. 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 previous drought, he said. The state went on in late 2020 to suffer its biggest wildfires on record.
Meanwhile, reservoir levels across the Southwest have been falling. The biggest of those reservoirs, Lake Mead, is 41% full after years of declining flow from the Colorado River. Federal officials warn it is on track to slip below a threshold of 1,075 feet over the next two years, which would trigger government-mandated water cuts to millions of users.
Complicating matters is the Southwest’s explosive population growth. 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.
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“We’ve always been dry,” said insurance businessman Ed Bowler, guiding his pickup past rows of new tract homes on a tour one day in late February. “But we didn’t have all these people.”
The past two summers have been the warmest on record in surrounding Washington County. St. George went 154 days last year without receiving any measurable precipitation, shattering the prior record of 121 days that had stood since 1929.
Longer term, Southern Utah officials are looking at piping in water to help meet the area’s needs.
There aren’t other good options, said
general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “Our Plan B,” he said, “is you’ll have to at some point say, ‘Stop. You can’t build any more houses here.’ ”
Write to Jim Carlton at [email protected]
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