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2021 could be one of the driest years in a millennium, and there’s no relief in sight

Nearly half of the country — from the Pacific coast to the Great Plains and upper Midwest — is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions. That's expected to get worse throughout the summer. As William Brangham reports, it's the western states in particular that are taking the hardest hit, and the possibilities for devastating wildfires are at an all-time high.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nearly one-half of the country, from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains and the Upper Midwest, is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions. It is expected to get worse through the summer.

    But, as William Brangham reports, it's the Western states in particular that are taking the hardest hit.

  • William Brangham:

    Across the American West, there simply isn't enough water to go around, and the full heat of summer is just getting started.

    From the Rio Grande to the Rocky Mountains, a mega-drought is under way. It's shaping up to be the worst water crisis in generations. The darker the red, the worse it is.

    Reservoirs that store water for millions are below normal, and are projected to hit historic lows soon. This month, California's governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, expanded drought state of emergencies to 41 of his state's 58 counties, affecting one-third of the state.

  • Gov. Spencer Cox, R-UT:

    Let me just say state unequivocally, guys, it's really bad.

  • William Brangham:

    In Utah, Republican Governor Spencer Cox declared a statewide drought emergency and has asked all residents to conserve water.

    Lake Mead, which is created by the Hoover Dam, is the largest reservoir in America. And it's getting so low, it could trigger a first-ever federal shortage declaration, which could limit water for millions.

    For those who've been studying climate change and the West, this has been brewing for years.

  • Park Williams:

    Since the year 2000, the Western United States and Northern Mexico has been in near-perpetual drought.

  • William Brangham:

    Park Williams is a climate scientist at UCLA. By studying ancient tree rings, he's able to compare today's climate and drought conditions to those of the past.

  • Park Williams:

    While there have been droughts that were longer than this one in the past, you have got to go back hundreds of years to find one. This drought, which is now 22 years old, is just as severe as the driest 22-year periods in any of those historic mega-droughts.

  • William Brangham:

    And this one is not over, as far as we can tell.

  • Park Williams:

    No, this drought is far from over. 2021 is shaping up to potentially be the driest of all of the drought years in the last century, and definitely one of the driest of the last millennium.

  • William Brangham:

    This intense dryness is endangering fisheries and wildlife, while farmers across the West are facing crop failures and cattle losses.

  • Kevin Richards:

    When you're talking about compounding multiple years of drought, it becomes very, very difficult.

  • William Brangham:

    Kevin Richards is a fourth-generation farmer in Central Oregon.

  • Kevin Richards:

    If you don't have the water to plant a new crop, then you're starting off one step behind next year. So, even if the drought were to recover, if we don't have new crops in the ground that we have planted in the fall, then it's really going to take an entire 12 more months to recover.

  • William Brangham:

    And there is, unfortunately, no relief in sight. Much of this year's winter snowpack was well below normal.

    For example, in California, where snowmelt delivers roughly three-quarters of the state's water, snow cover is the lowest it's been in the 21 years that NASA satellites have been monitoring it. All of this parched land increases the likelihood of another deadly, destructive, and extended fire season.

    California has already seen 900 additional wildfires this season, compared to this point in 2020, which itself was a record year. And this is a region-wide concern. From last spring to this winter, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah each had their driest stretch in 126 years.

  • Dustin Cox:

    For the farmers that grow hay, if they do have hay, they're in a good position, because the price is high.

  • William Brangham:

    Dustin Cox is a farmer and cattle rancher in Utah.

  • Dustin Cox:

    So, we're getting into the point of, OK, do you feed cows $250-a-ton hay or do you sell the cows? If you sell the cows, you're not going to get very much right now, because, if all the ranchers sell cows, there's a big supply of cattle. There's not a big demand, because no one in the West — it's not like it's just regional, right? It's all over. It's all over the West.

  • William Brangham:

    Drought conditions are also causing problems for Native American communities, like the Yurok Tribe along the Klamath River in Northern California.

  • Amy Cordalis:

    Drought puts our natural resources and way of life at risk.

  • William Brangham:

    At a virtual hearing this week, Yurok representative Amy Cordalis told Congress that drought, as well as restrictions on water flows by the government, had harmed the salmon, which are central to her tribe's traditions and economy.

  • Amy Cordalis:

    Historically, the Klamath River was the third largest salmon-producing river on the West Coast. Tragically, it's estimated only 2 percent to 5 percent of the salmon runs remain today. And we have lost millions of dollars as a result.

  • William Brangham:

    And the impact of this drought could ripple out to consumers nationwide. A huge percentage of the nation's fruits and vegetables, nuts, and beef come of this increasingly arid West.

  • Park Williams:

    It's going to take more and more good luck to pull ourselves out of this drought, and less and less bad luck to fall back into the drought. The long-term normal is changing in Western North America toward a drying one.

  • William Brangham:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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