Despite several recent drenching rainstorms in the West and enough snow to top the second story of some buildings, the United States has tied an alarming drought record: At least 40% of the Lower 48 has gone 68 straight weeks in drought conditions.
Drought was present in nearly 55% of the contiguous U.S. this week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The last time drought has been so widespread for so long was October 2013. And without significant and unprecedented precipitation over the next seven days, the country will be in uncharted drought territory and break that record outright.
Almost all of the U.S. drought is located west of the Mississippi River, with extraordinarily dry conditions in far Western states, which scientists warn is a consequence of the climate crisis.
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Much of the West's drought is actually a long-term phenomenon, persisting from year to year without enough precipitation to lead to a full recovery, said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"The Southwest has been experiencing what many scientists have termed a 'megadrought' for about two decades," Rippey told CNN.
In November, U.S. drought coverage climbed above 50% for the first time since 2013. Before the 2013 records, the U.S. had also experienced 65 consecutive weeks of drought between March 2002 and June 2003. The Drought Monitor has been tracking conditions since 2000.
Current dry conditions are being exacerbated by water overuse, said Michael Anderson, a climatologist with the California Department of Water Resources. When the storms come, it might not be enough to replenish the aquifers, he said.
"That can take quite a bit of time, because its water is coming back to the aquifers," Anderson told CNN. "But water is continuing to be used, so you have to have enough water coming into the aquifer that exceeds the use for that restoration to occur."
Oregon also saw a huge increase in precipitation in December, but it did little to bring up the reservoirs around the Rogue River Basin, where half of the reservoirs are at less than 10% of capacity.
Even as recent winter storms have helped recharge the parched Western landscape, drought has worsened in the Southern Plains, especially in Texas, where it has increased from 15% to 82% in just the last three months.
Winter rain and snow helped, but not enough
The winter season started strong with remarkable rain and snow in December, especially in California. For the first time since December 2020, the state this week has no areas with exceptional drought — the highest designation, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported. Extreme drought, the second-highest, is down to 1%, whereas 80% of the state was considered extreme or worse just last month.
A quarter of the state's total average winter snowpack came in December alone, said Julie Kalansky, deputy director of operations for the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes.
"Currently, the snowpack is at about 50% of the end of season normal snowpack," Kalansky said. "The storms helped a lot, but if there are not some other large storms this winter, it will not be enough to end the drought."
Other states also saw huge gains, including Oregon and Washington, where several cities broke daily rainfall records in the final month of 2021.
"We call it a great start," Anderson said. "We are always appreciative when winter starts as fantastically as it did because that's the kind of start we needed. The challenge is that we kind of need to sustain that through the rest of January through March."
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