The Heat and Drought in the American West are Here to Stay

ON 06/21/2021 AT 06:12 PM

The high temperatures in the American west just keep going higher. They will make the drought even worse and the wildfires to come more widespread and tougher to put out.

NOAA Temperature Map of the United States on June 15, 2021

High temperatures across the western part of the U.S. were still on their way up when this map data was prepared on June 15, 2021. Photo: NASA

From California and across to Nevada, Colorado, Nebraska, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, the already hot dome covering much of the western United States is retaining  its heat and breaking records for many days on end.

Many are calling this heat wave “unprecedented.” That may have been true once but no longer. This is the new normal.

In California, Death Valley reached a high temperature of 130°F (54° C) last week. While that is not a place where humans live, Palm Springs, California, is such a place and it just posted a high of 123° F (50.5° C). The state capital, Sacramento, posted a high of 109° F, the highest ever for this time of  the year.

In Nevada, Las Vegas hit its own highest temperature for this time of year at 114° F (45.6° C). In Arizona, Phoenix reached a high of 118° F (47.8° C).

Elsewhere, Denver set a record for three continuous days of high temperatures running at least 100° F (37.8° C). In the plains regions east of that, Omaha, Nebraska scored a high for the date at 105° F (40.6° C). It has not been that hot there for this time of year since 103 years ago.

Coming with the heat is also an intense drought which scientific experts say is the worst in over 1,200 years.

The Bureau of Reclamation reports that its two massive water reservoirs at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which channel the Colorado River for hydroelectric power, irrigation, home use, and even fracking for the oil and gas industry, are currently at only 30% capacity. The Bureau rightly issued a warning some months ago that drastic water cutbacks to Utah and Arizona are imminent, perhaps as high as 30% by early next year. If the water levels drop much further the dams associated with each of the lakes will also stop generating power.

The two lakes are fed by the Rocky Mountains snowpack, which when it melts drains into some 25 tributaries of the Colorado River.

As of June 3, 2021, Lake Oroville, which supplies water to 27 million people and up to 5 million acres of farmland, held only 39% of its full capacity water levels. The bleached exposed banks surrounding the lake show how drastically the water levels have fallen from normal. The Edward Hyatt Power Plant dam is shown in the lower left side of the photo. Image by the Copernicus Sentinel2 Satellite. Photo: Copernicus EU, the European Union Earth Observation Programme, via Twitter


At California's Lake Oroville, the second largest reservoir in the state and located in northern California, water levels have already depleted it to a level of just 700 feet above sea level. At that capacity, boat ramps coming down the slopes to the lake no longer reach the water. More significantly, the water level is low enough now that the Edward Hyatt Power Plant, a major source of hydroelectric power for the state, is now operating at only 20% of capacity. If the drought and water evaporation from the lake caused by the high heat continue as expected rates, water levels will soon drop to 640 feet likely by late August, as the state broils in the hottest temperatures of the summer.

"If lake levels fall below those elevations later this summer, DWR will, for the first time, cease generation at the Hyatt power plant due to lack of sufficient water to turn the plant's electrical generation turbines," said Liza Whitmore, Public Information Officer of DWR's Oroville Field Division, to reporters recently.

To put these numbers in perspective, when Lake Oroville is filled to capacity the plant can generate enough electricity for 800,000 homes.

It is the heat wave that justified Governor Gavin Newsom declaring a State of Emergency in California as of June 16, 2021. In his proclamation on that, he described it as being caused by “a significant heat wave [which] struck California, bringing widespread near-record temperatures well in excess of 100 degrees throughout the State.” The ruling described how the high temperatures would “put significant demand and strain on California’s energy grid.”

In conjunction with Newsom’s declaration, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the agency that regulates transmission of electricity throughout the state, issued a Flex Alert to encourage voluntary electricity conservation. That Flex Alert would go into effect from 5 PM to 10 PM starting June 17, with no specific end time noted but likely to be suspended as early as this week.

United States Drought Conditions as of June 15, 2021

The current official United States drought conditions map illustrates that this is far more than just a short-term emergency situation. Photo: National Drought Mitigation Center

The challenge of this State of Emergency declaration, as well as even the Bureau of Reclamation’s warning about the dangerously low levels of water present in its Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs, is that they are treating this as just an “Extreme Heat Event,” as if it were an isolated event. Nowhere in any of the rhetoric coming out of the states do you hear a decree declaring this a long-term national emergency or provide for emergency actions to prepare for the drought and continuing heat which are ahead.

At this point what is missing is a coordinated response recognizing that this is just the beginning of a long-term national drought and heat wave.  That drought and the high temperatures coming with it could cripple the nation’s ability to feed its people, provide fresh drinking water for all, manage the nation’s electrical power supply when hydroelectric plants can no longer support and when demand is at record highs, and maintain the growth of the economy.

The current heat wave is projected to ease slightly across the nation this week, which will likely lull some into a sense of security that the crisis has passed for now. Nothing could be further from the truth. Forecasters are already projecting temperatures to be back up into the triple digits again in less than two weeks, just in time for the July 4th celebrations. The electrical grid will be stretched again, despite that the country will be feeling that heat well before the peak summer temperatures which typically arrive in August. By that time, at least in California rolling blackouts are a high probability and water rationing will be mandatory in multiple states.

Then come the western state wildfires, which are almost certain to reach record intensity, length of fires, and number of hectares destroyed.

The United States needs to declare its own State of Emergency, and finally do more than just a patchwork approach to temporary problem-solving such as is happening with this emergency, right now. By whatever means, there is an immediate need to transform the national supply chain of water, power, and food to address not just what is happening now but to be ready for the much hotter future ahead.