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NOAA warns of water use cutbacks, fires and low levels in reservoirs amid significant drought

Dry weather is likely to persist in the U.S. in the coming months, with the possibility of water use cutbacks in California and the Southwest as more than half of the country experiences moderate to severe drought conditions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Thursday. 

NOAA’s Spring Outlook report stated that the U.S. could face the most significant spring drought since 2013, with the potential to impact roughly 74 million people across the country.

The federal weather agency said that the drought conditions stretching from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains and upper Midwest have largely been spurred by the drier weather in the Southwest and a failed 2020 summer monsoon season. 

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NOAA predicts that warmer-than-average temperatures this spring and low soil moisture will cause drought conditions to further expand into the southern and central Great Plains and southern Florida. 

Mary Erickson, deputy director of NOAA’s National Weather Service, said in a statement along with Thursday’s report that the Southwest, “which is already experiencing widespread severe to exceptional drought, will remain the hardest hit region in the U.S., and water supply will continue to be a concern this spring in these drought-affected areas.” 

"This is a major change from recent years where millions were impacted by severe flooding,” she added.

“Nonetheless, NOAA's forecasts and outlooks will continue to serve as a resource for emergency managers and community decision-makers as they navigate all potential extreme seasonal weather and water events."

The weather conditions going into April, May and June have prompted concerns from weather service and agriculture officials on the potential need for water use cutbacks in California and the Southwest, as well as increased chances of wildfires, damage to wheat crops and low levels in several key reservoirs such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell. 

The chances of wildfires come after the country faced an unprecedented 2020 season of burning throughout the West, though UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told The Associated Press Thursday that wildfires may not be as bad this year with so much vegetation already burned and the drought slowing regrowth. 

Thursday’s national Drought Monitor showed almost 66 percent of the U.S. in abnormally dry conditions, which the AP noted is the highest mid-March level recorded since 2002. 

With the more intense droughts, however, NOAA on Thursday said there will be limited moderate flooding this spring, with no areas having greater than a 50 percent chance of major flooding for the first time since 2018.