An Aerial Look at The US West’s Megadrought

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2021 Megadrought Entering New Extremes

Though it’s not widely known to some outsiders, the western United States is passing through what could best be described as a megadrought that has been ongoing for over 20 years to-date. This event that first began in the year 2000 has however now entered a more extreme phase that hasn’t been seen in all of modern U.S. history.


Just how bad are the current 2021 drought conditions? Well, severe enough that regional and state authorities in the affected areas have begun to literally airlift water into the area for dehydrated animals, both wild and domestic.

Colorado River Region Drought 

These present conditions took their most extreme turn so far during this last week. As a result, the U.S. Government has declared a water shortage situation for the Colorado River region. This is the first time in which this has been done in the country’s history.

The series of events that have provoked this unprecedented declaration by federal authorities revolve around the river having lost enough water flow that the Lake Mead Reservoir has also sunk to its own record low levels of water.

As a result of the federal water shortage declaration for the Western U.S. drought, mandatory water consumption cuts have been implemented too. Most of these impact Arizona and will take effect in the beginning of 2022.

The Colorado River, which has been steadily losing water over the last century, now has a level of flow that’s 20 percent lower than it was roughly 100 years ago. The impact of this is potentially enormous. This particular body of water supplies water to around 40 million people and almost 5.5 million acres of farmland.

Megadrought Effect On Wildlife

Moving back to the immediate threat to regional wildlife in the most severely affected areas, state agencies have begun trying to help some animals. The most intense of these efforts have included flying water in with emergency helicopter transportation and dumping it into artificial watering holes that have been set up along areas frequented by sheep, deer, elk, bears and other thirsty creatures.

Of course, these measures haven’t been cheap. Air dropping hundreds of gallons of water per trip represents barely a drop in terms of urgent need for affected wildlife. Furthermore, the cost of a single hour’s flight along with all logistics can run to as much as $1,800, at least according to Arizona Game and Fish Department staff.

A helicopter picks up water to fill artificial catchment sites in Arizona.

A helicopter picks up water to fill artificial catchment sites in Arizona. Courtesy of Nevada Department of Wildlife

Nonetheless, the water hauling efforts have been impressive in the current situation and during previous dry peaks: In 2020, the Arizona Game and Fish Department managed to deliver 2.4 million gallons of water to a network of roughly 3,000 artificial catchments that has been set up by the state. Each of these can hold between 2,500 and 10,000 gallons. For this year’s end, the same agency has so far hauled nearly 3 million gallons of water.

Other programs aimed at helping alleviate the drought conditions have been quite innovative as well. In one of these, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife hauled millions of young salmon out of drying rivers in the Central Valley to the Pacific Ocean in order to help save them from the risk of their natural route becoming too dry.

Nevada’s wildife agency carries water to artificial watering holes that benefit bighorn sheep

Nevada’s wildife agency carries water to artificial watering holes that benefit bighorn sheep. Courtesy of Nevada Department of Wildlife

The current drought conditions have slowly been spreading across almost every western U.S. state. However, they have especially affected the Southwest and California recently. In 2021, average rainfall through these areas in particular has been at around 25% to 50% of its normal levels.

Emergency Services

Efforts such as the water-hauling helicopter airlift efforts by state authorities may seem almost absurdly extreme and difficult but as the numbers for gallons hauled and numbers of catchments show, these flights can be helpful. Emergency service helicopters from state authorities and from private air charter services have often worked together on similar environmental protection projects.