Drought in the United States: Causes and Current Understanding

Drought is a natural hazard with potentially significant economic, social, and ecological consequences. History suggests that severe and extended droughts are inevitable and part of natural climate cycles. Drought has for centuries shaped the societies of North America and will continue to do so into the future. The likelihood of extended periods of severe drought and its effects on 21st-century society in the United States raise several issues for Congress. These issues include how to respond to recurrent drought incidents, how to prepare for future drought, and how to coordinate federal agency actions, among other policy choices. Understanding what drought is and its causes, how it has affected North America in the past, and how drought may affect the United States in the future all bear on actions Congress may take to prepare for and mitigate the effects of drought.

The 2012-2016 drought in California and parts of other western states, and 16 years of dry conditions in the Southwest, have fueled congressional interest in drought and its near-term effects on water supplies and agriculture, as well as in long-term issues, such as drought forecasting and possible links between drought and human-induced climate change. Surface water conditions in California have recovered dramatically in 2017 from the effects of the drought, but some consequences, such as the decline in groundwater levels from increased pumping, likely will linger for years and may even be permanent. In response to the California drought, the 114th Congress enacted legislation (P.L. 114-322) that altered the authorities regarding how federal water infrastructure in the state is managed and how new water storage may be developed. In the 115th Congress, there is both interest in and concern about the federal role and funding for new water infrastructure to cope with the next drought and with hydrologic conditions that can quickly transition from drought to flood conditions.

Some scientists refer to severe drought as a recurring natural disaster in North America. Reconstructions of drought conditions that extend back over 1,000 years—based on observations, historical and instrumental records, and tree rings—illustrate that portions of the conterminous United States have experienced periods of severe and long-lasting drought termed megadroughts. For example, drought reconstructions from tree rings document that severe multi-decadal drought occurred in the American Southwest during the 13th century. These megadroughts have affected flows in major western rivers. For example, during the years 1130-1154, estimated Colorado River flows were less than 84% of normal. Recent data suggest that Colorado River flows since 2000 are approaching those previous lows—flows have been below average for 13 of the 16 years between 2000 and 2015.

Part of the country is almost always experiencing drought at some level. The land area affected by drought can vary widely by year and also within a particular year. In May 2017, only 3.8% of the total U.S. land area was affected by drought of at least moderate intensity. In contrast, in September 2012, 55% of the nation faced drought of moderate or greater intensity, and 35% of the country was under severe drought.

Predicting the intensity and duration of severe drought over a specific region is not currently possible more than a few months in advance because of the many factors that influence drought. Even though forecasting drought at the regional scale is difficult, understanding potential changes in long-term trends is important for water managers at all levels—federal, state, local, and tribal. Water project operations and state water allocations typically are based on past long-term hydrological trends; significant deviations from such trends may result in difficult challenges for water managers and water users alike.