As drought scorches the West, public lands can help
This blog is part of a series on extreme weather. Click here to read about extreme heat and how public lands offer solutions.
A 20-year-old living in the southwestern United States has essentially lived their entire life in a megadrought. A dry spell that's especially harsh in the summer has afflicted the region for two decades—and is becoming increasingly dangerous. This year over 93% of the land in the West is experiencing drought, some of the worst conditions in 1,200 years.
While droughts are nothing new to the region—there were big ones in the 1930s and 1950s—scientists agree that climate change is making them more extreme. The reasons are twofold. Climate change is both changing rain patterns and driving up temperatures, making traditionally dry areas even more parched.
Last year, most of the West received below-average rainfall and the local monsoon season, known for rains and thunderstorms, was the weakest ever recorded. At the same time, hotter days are increasing the rate of water evaporation. Moisture is being held in the air while the lands below stay dry.
Climate change is also responsible for dwindling reservoirs, rivers, streams and lakes right when we need water the most. Due to warmer temperatures, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, California’s highest mountain range, and other elevations are melting early. The runoff that used to replenish reservoirs over the summer is now arriving in the spring—or not at all, as the water gets soaked up by intense heat.
Extremely dry conditions can be devastating for communities.
In Arizona, ranchers are killing off cattle because they are unable to provide them with enough pasture or water
This year in California, farmers are planting less because the soil is scorched. In Arizona, ranchers are killing off cattle because they are unable to provide them with enough pasture or water. These agricultural woes have already set off a ripple effect that raised the prices of foods including avocado and beef, especially hurting low-income communities that spend more of their income on food.
Drinking water is also under threat. Larger cities get through dry spells by accessing underground reserves or bringing water from other locations. But rural areas are less prepared and rely on wells that can easily malfunction or run dry. In California, the entire town of Teviston has been without running water for several weeks, right as temperatures climb to 100 degrees.
Native Americans are among the most vulnerable. Historically, the federal government has neglected Indigenous communities’ need for running water and managing drought. Currently, about one-third of the Navajo Nation does not have tap water in their homes. The community has long pushed back and successfully lobbied for a water pipe leading to the San Juan River—but it won’t be ready until 2028.
Public lands can help tackle the climate crisis
As drought continues to punish the West, communities are eager to find a solution. While there’s no way to immediately stop the dryness, public lands can function as a buffer. Protected grassland ecosystems have the ability to absorb water in the soil and hold deeper, longer-lasting reserves of water. In fact, some ranchers are restoring grasslands to save their cattle.
What’s more, large stretches of interconnected wildlands can help both communities and wildlife find refuge from dry conditions and scorching heat.
On a larger scale, better managed public lands can help us to tackle the root of the problem: climate change. For decades, oil and gas drilling has taken place on public lands with little scrutiny over the climate change pollution it generates. If federal public lands were their own country, they would rank fifth among the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can phase out fossil fuel development on public lands and increase responsible renewable energy projects that result in considerably fewer emissions. President Biden has taken the first steps by conducting a comprehensive review of oil and gas leasing on public lands and encouraging clean energy projects.
It’s now time to incorporate public lands as part of the climate solution to make megadroughts a thing of the past.