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  • DRY FOR DECADES?

    'Megadrought' possible, study says

    Research finds long-term impacts to Southwest
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  • Over the next century, there is a 20 to 50 percent chance that the Southwestern United States could experience a “megadrought,” defined as a drought that lasts more than three decades, according to researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and two universities.
    The grim projection was announced Wednesday by Cornell University, referencing a joint study conducted by researchers there along with the University of Arizona and the USGS.
    The study, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate, also found that the chance of a 10-year-long drought in this region is at least 50 percent.
    “For the southwestern U.S., I’m not optimistic about avoiding real megadroughts,” Toby Ault, Cornell assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, said in a written statement.
    The lead author of the study, Ault said “we are weighting the dice for megadrought conditions” as greenhouse gases continue to be released into the atmosphere.
    In the midst of a historic drought, California already has seen a dramatic change in just the past year. A year ago, only 11.36 percent of the state fell into the two worst drought categories of “extreme” or “exceptional.” But that number had risen to 81.92 percent as of last Thursday, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
    In San Bernardino County, drought conditions worsen from east to west. A large swath of the central and eastern county falls into “moderate” or “severe” categories, likely making it the least-impacted drought area in the state, according to the drought-monitoring map.
     A far west strip of the county that encompasses the Victor Valley and ends near Barstow, however, shares an “extreme” designation with nearly a quarter of California, the map shows.
    Yet the map may not tell the whole story, according to Kirby Brill, general manager of the Mojave Water Agency, which serves about 4,900 square miles of the High Desert.
    Because a chunk of water supplies in Southern California are derived from Northern California snowpack, this region is also impacted by what occurs up there, where much of the state is under “exceptional” conditions. On the other hand, MWA made significant investments in conservation, storage and infrastructure projects ahead of the then-looming drought, according to Brill.
    The result is that the agency has reduced per capita consumption by about 30 percent since 2000 and is in the process of expanding its Cash for Grass program by $1 million.
    “For us, we’re not in a position of panic yet,” he said.
    But the kind of scenarios like those presented in the Cornell study have become part of a regular dialogue among water districts.
    “There’s a lot of work that’s been done on trying to forecast and see what (climate change) impacts are,” he said. “We’re looking at it a lot more than we have in the past.”
    But even Brill admits there is no silver bullet that will lead to “perfect” preparation.
    “That’s why I think we need to continue with our conservation ethos,” he said.
    Shea Johnson may be reached at 760-955-5368 or SJohnson@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DP_Shea.
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