The West Coast Should Brace for Spring Megadrought, NOAA Warns

More than half of the United States is likely to struggle with limited water supply and increased risk of wildfires in the coming months

Arial image over lake powell with red rock formations and low water levels
Reservoirs like Lake Powell are falling to record-low water levels due to years of persistent drought. Danny Lehman via Getty Images

The record-shattering megadrought gripping the Western United States will likely only get worse this spring, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) seasonal outlook released yesterday. For the second consecutive year, NOAA forecasters are predicting "prolonged, persistent drought in the West where below-average precipitation is most likely," the agency stated.

The West has been locked in a drought for years, and important reservoirs have been drained to historic lows to support thirsty communities and agriculture. The West’s upcoming hot, dry spring also sets the stage for intensifying wildfires, according to Seth Borenstein for the Associated Press.

With little rainfall and soaring temperatures predicted for most of the West, "it's very likely, or makes sense, that areas will certainly some of the drought areas will become worse," Jon Gottschalck, a chief at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, said at a news conference, reports Rachel Ramirez for CNN.

Over the next three months, most of the country is likely to see above-average temperatures, with the greatest chances for unusually warm weather in the southern Rockies and southern Plains. Some areas of the U.S. may experience cooler-than-average temperatures this spring, including parts of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

“Severe to exceptional drought has persisted in some areas of the West since the summer of 2020 and drought has expanded to the southern Plains and Lower Mississippi Valley,” said Jon Gottschalck of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center in a statement. “With nearly 60% of the continental U.S. experiencing minor to exceptional drought conditions, this is the largest drought coverage we’ve seen in the U.S. since 2013."

The more than 20-year megadrought hitting the West has made the region the driest it’s been in 1,200 years. The struggle for sufficient water has drained important water reserves like Lake Powell, which is fed by the Colorado River watershed. Last week, the lake hit its lowest water level recorded in 60 years, which could jeopardize hydropower generation that millions in the West rely on. 

Scientists with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found in their report published last year that extreme weather events like floods to heatwaves have gotten worse because of burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. Droughts that may have occurred only once every 10 years or so now happen 70 percent more frequently due to climate change, per the report.

Unless there is a swift, global commitment to ditch reliance on fossil fuels, millions more of Americans are likely to face drought conditions each spring.