A 53-foot waterfall near St. Paul, Minn., has been reduced to a drip. Utah’s largest reservoirs are about half full and falling to the ground. Almond growers in California are abandoning their dying trees as water becomes increasingly scarce.
Nearly half of the landmass of the contiguous United States — 47 percent — is experiencing drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report, and it’s getting worse in the Northern Plains and everywhere west of the Rocky Mountains.
The monitor, a collaboration of several federal agencies and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, ranks drought severity from “moderate” to “exceptional,” and the latest report put parts of Minnesota in the worst category for the first time. Eight percent of the land in the state now falls under that description, and about 50 percent is in extreme drought, the next level.
Droughts are a normal part of life, especially in the American West, where they have been a regular occurrence over the centuries. But scientists say climate change, in the form of rising temperatures and shifts in precipitation, is exacerbating the situation. What would be a moderate drought in a world without warming is now more severe.
For residents of St. Paul and many of its suburbs, the parched conditions mean those living at odd addresses are only allowed to water their lawns on odd days of the month, and those with even addresses on even-numbered days. Watering can only take place before 12 noon or after 6 p.m. to minimize evaporation.
Northwest of the Twin Cities, a hydroelectric dam in St. Cloud last week shut down production for the first time since 1988 as flow in the Mississippi River dropped. Water levels are so low that boats are in danger of scraping along river bottoms. Governor Tim Walz said this month that Minnesota would receive $17 million in federal aid to help farmers whose pastures have dried out this summer.
While the National Weather Service is forecasting moderate to heavy rain this week from Utah to the northern Great Plains and western Minnesota, last week’s flooding and summer in Utah were not enough to alleviate the drought there.
That’s because a torrent of rain over a small area doesn’t sink into the ground for a short time, where it can be absorbed by plants or drip into aquifers. Instead, it can lead to mudslides. According to the latest monthly water report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Utah’s reservoirs are highly unlikely to increase substantially until next spring’s runoff.
The drought is even more acute in California, which produces one-third of the country’s vegetable supply and two-thirds of its fruit. Nearly half of the state is in “exceptional” drought, up from a third of the state in July.
California is especially productive in almonds, producing 80 percent of the world’s supply. But federal and state officials have cut water allotments, forcing farmers to switch crops or abandon some orchards. The United States Department of Agriculture estimated in July that this year’s almond crop will be 10 percent lower than last year, lower than the previous forecast in May.
The drought is also preparing the state for dangerous wildfires. This week, as many as 13,000 firefighters battled 13 major wildfires that burned more than 1.54 million acres statewide. according to Cal Firethe state fire department.