Climate Change and the Dry, Wild West

By Krystal Laymon

I grew up in a small town in California called Placerville (population 10,000), located near Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada foothills. There, in the mountains, snow days were frequent in the winter, and for fun in the summer we’d kayak on the Sacramento River.. When I call my family, I get updates on how things are going in Placerville, but I also get regular updates on the ongoing drought in California.

Drought has become a bigger and bigger problem for Californians since I moved to the East Coast four years ago. Just this January, the Governor of California declared a state of emergency and the state has been classified as an Exceptional Drought area (the highest rating of drought possible). As a Fellow with EPA’s Climate Change Division, I wanted to learn more about the causes and effects of drought in my home town, and how climate change may be playing a role.

Under the Palmer Drought Severity Index, the Southwestern United States, which includes Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah, have been experiencing drought conditions since 2000. Low precipitation is part of the problem. Higher temperatures are also playing a role, increasing the rate of evaporation and contributing to drying over some land areas. While much of the American Southwest generally has low annual rainfall and seasonally high temperatures, every part of the Southwest experienced higher average temperatures between 2000 and 2013 than the long-term average (1895–2013). Some areas were nearly 2°F warmer than average.


Caption: A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.  Image: U.S. Drought Monitor

Caption: A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.
Image: U.S. Drought Monitor

Higher temperatures have also prompted early spring melting and reduced snowpack in the mountains in some parts of California. This can result in decreased water availability during hot summer conditions. Snowpack, through runoff, provides about one-third of the water used by California’s cities and farms. Snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas to the Sacramento River, which provides drinking water to about 30 percent of California’s residents, irrigates key crops in the San Joaquin valley, and runs hydroelectric power plants that supply at least 15 percent of the state’s electricity, has decreased by about 9 percent over the past century. The importance of conservation has not gone unnoticed and restrictions were implemented by the State Water Resources Control Board in July, which limits outdoor water use in an attempt to conserve water.

As you can imagine, the drought is having an impact on the daily lives of my family in Placerville, and every Californian. Fortunately, the policymakers in California and at EPA are taking action to help protect against the worst impacts. Check out my next blog for part 2 of this story, looking at some of the impacts of the drought in California, and policy initiatives to address the problem.

About the author: Krystal Laymon is an ORISE Fellow in EPA’s Climate Change Division. She has a background in environmental policy and communications. Krystal received her master’s degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia University and currently resides in Washington, DC with a turtle named Ollie.

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