While much of the country has been experiencing unprecedented low temperatures and snowfall, much of the Far West continues to hope for rain. Most states are behind in terms of normal precipitation and are still experiencing high levels of drought. Climatologists are predicting the dry conditions are likely to continue through the summer, although it may still be too early to tell for sure.
Nevada is still experiencing La Niña conditions, with most storms shifting further to the north and missing the southern portion of the state, Nevada State Climatologist Dr. Stephanie McAfee told WLJ. She added that the state is likely to stay warmer and drier than usual, especially the further south you go.
For the northern half of the state, she said it could really go either way in terms of being drier or wetter than usual. Either way, the state is still behind in winter precipitation, at about 85 percent of normal precipitation for the water year. Even if conditions are wetter later on, the game of catch-up may be too much and the state may remain short of its overall water year precipitation.
The entire state is in some state of drought, with the central region of the state in extreme drought. The same time last year, the state was actually faring better than usual in terms of drought. Most of the state was considered to be drought free, with some areas experiencing abnormally dry conditions.
“We are currently in a much more severe drought than we were at this time last year,” McAfee said. “You will sometimes hear, ‘Well, Nevada is always in drought.’ That’s not true,” she said. “Nevada is always dry. We’re not always in drought. Drought is when it’s even drier than normal.”
McAfee emphasized the use of a program called Condition Monitoring Observer Reports on Drought (CMOR-Drought), which allows producers to report their on-the-ground drought conditions. The reports are filed in one place where multiple agencies, including the U.S. Drought Monitor, can access the data and more accurately see trends. The program can be accessed via a website browser or an app. To learn more and to report your drought conditions, visit drought.gov/data-maps-tools and select the “Current Conditions” tab and then the CMOR-Drought program.
Another tool McAfee mentioned is the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS), which allows producers to purchase an inexpensive rain gauge and report precipitation levels, as well as submit photos. To learn more and sign up for CoCoRaHS, visit www.cocorahs.org.
California is also behind on rainfall, with the state experiencing only about 40-60 percent of average precipitation levels. Dr. Michael Anderson, California state climatologist, told WLJ the snowpack is also only about 50-70 percent of the average.
La Niña conditions are still at play in the state, causing sunny and warm days. February is typically one of California’s wettest months, but it is likely going to follow the pattern of sunny days with a few quick-hitting storms.
March could bring some storms to the state and deliver much-needed precipitation, but it will depend on the high-pressure system that has been offshore of California for most of the winter.
This is the second dry year in a row for the state, which has been detrimental for rangelands, Anderson said. Forage starts producing much of its nutrients from March through May, and if it remains dry and warm, development will be stunted.
“If we look at history, we have one of the most variable year-to-year outcomes and even month-to-month outcomes of anywhere in the U.S.,” Anderson said. “So it’s really hard to say ‘just because it’s dry now, it’s going to stay dry.’ We just don’t have any information that you could probably act on with any certainty.”
However, he added that the current outlook is for it to be a drier-than-average year. The northern part of the state was hit with a storm in the past month that helped get the state up to 60 percent of the average rainfall, but there may not be more storms like it.
Reservoir levels are also down from the year prior, which was coming off a wet year. This year, the recovery and storage isn’t there and levels are anywhere from average to 50-60 percent of average in the state, Anderson said.
Many producers have had to haul water, especially in the northern portion of the state, due to the dryness.
“I would imagine there will be many conversations with the USDA’s rangeland programs,” Anderson concluded.
Utah is another state that has had a bad year in terms of moisture.
“We’re in a pretty concerning place right now looking forward for the next growing season,”
Dr. Jon Meyer, research climatologist at the Utah Climate Center, told WLJ.
The drought hasn’t broken over the course of the winter to allow the state to catch up from last year. Meyer calls it a “snow drought”—when liquid water isn’t a part of the equation, as everything is frozen. There isn’t much streamflow and soil moisture isn’t evaporating.
Meyer said the state is in a holding pattern right now in terms of what the 2021 growing season will look like. However, he vocalized concerns for how the dry conditions of 2020 dried out the soils to a point well beyond historical observations over the past 30 years or so.
“The problem there is that even with a really good winter—which we haven’t had yet—the snow melting that will occur in April and onward is really going to replenish the soil moisture, as opposed to coming down streams.”
The snowpack is currently at about 50-70 percent of average. Reservoir levels are lower than usual, and a measurable amount lower than the same time last year. Meyer noted the larger reservoirs can likely get the state through one more year of bad drought, but smaller water conservation districts that have less water supply infrastructure will suffer first.
Utah gets the majority of its water resources from the “winter time savings account” that melts off in the spring season, so any snow received during the most recent winter storm is really needed.
“In past years and good years, these storms wouldn’t be really much on the radar,” Meyer said. “It would be sort of a ho-hum storm. But this year, when every little drop counts, these are really wonderful storms to see come through.”
Meyer said 2020 was a bad year for Utah farmers, with an amplified need for water hauling that led to hauling in some places where water permits aren’t allowed to be withdrawn early. The dire need for water caused a lot of farmers to have to call it quits.
“We’re not as connected to the end users as some other folks,” Meyer said. “So when you get to hear those stories, connected with the observations, and the data sets and the modeling, it really makes those impacts tangible for us.”
Meyer said the Utah Climate Center has actually developed a machine learning system that monitors Twitter for hashtags about drought. Tech-savvy producers can share their story or post about their drought conditions using #drought or #UTdrought, and the machine will collect the data.
“It’s an easy way for people to make sure that their observations and water voices are heard, and that just gives a better picture—or maybe more high-definition picture—of precipitation in our state,” he said. — Anna Miller, WLJ editor