LOS ANGELES -- From east to west, the countryside is
as brown as toast. The rich loam of the Great Plains is
crazed with cracks. In South Texas, they're saying it's
as hot as a skillet on a stove in hell.
Stressed-out scrub jays in the Arizona pinyon forests
have abandoned their young. Razorback suckers are stalled
at the shuttered fish ladders along the Gunnison River
in Colorado, dying for snow that never fell.
The California Poppy Reserve closed early for lack of
blooms. The Kansas corn is pitiful. The Montana cows were
sold. New Mexico river rafters have no river left to raft,
and at the marinas around Lake Mead, they've had to move
the docks a quarter-mile to reach the water's ever-retreating
While the wildfires roaring across a dozen western states
have received most of the attention, the conflagrations
are only a symptom of a more insidious and lingering natural
phenomenon: The nation is in deep drought.
"It is triple what we might see in an average year,"
said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought
Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
In a typical year, about 15 percent of the country might
be experiencing drought. Now, more than 40 percent of
the country is suffering. The worst recent drought, in
July 1988, covered 36 percent of the nation; the worst
of the Dust Bowl years was 1934, when in July 65 percent
of the country baked.
Today, the entire West, with the exception of Washington
state, is bone dry. Drought that experts refer to as "exceptional"
and "extreme" has seized the Four Corners states. The
borderlands in Texas along the Rio Grande are rated "D-4,",
which is as bad as it gets (although the central part
of the state is reeling from four days of biblical rains).
Parts of New England and the mid-Atlantic states are in
The Washington area suffered through six straight months
of below-average rainfall from September 2001 to February
2002, and despite some promising June showers, a moderate
drought persists in the region. Central Maryland communities
have been under mandatory restrictions on lawn watering
In Baltimore, city officials turned off the hydrant
sprinklers in inner-city neighborhoods to conserve water.
Things are so dry in Roanoke, where the Carvins Cove reservoir
has dropped more than 25 feet below capacity, that city
officials have forbidden residents to refill their backyard
pools and hot tubs. In fact, a hot zone stretches from
southern Virginia through the Carolinas to central Georgia.
"We have never seen such harsh drought conditions this
early in the summer," said Woody Yonts, chairman of the
North Carolina Drought Monitoring Council, who reported
that 80 percent of the state's streams are running at
less than 10 percent of their normal flow.
Yonts is talking about running out of water -- in North
"This is a serious drought, not unprecedented, but we
still have the hottest two months to go," Svoboda said.
"It could get worse."
The climatologist also pointed out that this drought
has lasted three or four years in many areas, even five
in some, and that the global meteorological patterns appear
to favor continuing dryness.
This spring was the driest in 107 years of data-gathering
in Colorado, and the second-driest in Arizona and Southern
California. Nebraska just weathered the hottest and driest
June on record. New England, along with New York and New
Jersey, just had its warmest year.
Droughts, of course, are as natural as summer wildfires
-- and hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.
In North America, droughts are caused primarily by La
Niña winters -- seasons when warmer waters disappear
along the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Three consecutive
La Niña winters have brought less wet weather to
the United States and pushed the jet stream to the north.
That means less precipitation overall.
While some meteorologists see signs that the pattern
could reverse, forecasters are divided.
The effects of drought are often hard to measure. An
earthquake is over in seconds. A hurricane lasts for hours,
maybe a few days. Droughts are measured in years, sometimes
The estimated cost of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was $25
billion to $33 billion. The 1988-89 drought in the Midwest
cost $40 billion. Droughts wreak havoc in myriad ways.
In the past, droughts were felt most keenly in farming
and ranching communities. But today, with such boomtowns
as Phoenix and Las Vegas rising in the desert, a few years
of drought can suddenly put cities at risk of running
out of water.
"First the drought, then come the fires. That's all
anybody in the West is talking about," said Bill Blackstock,
an outfitter with Far Flung Adventures in Taos, N.M.,
which runs river rafting trips on the Rio Grande and Rio
Blackstock said most of the outdoor recreation companies
are hurting, booking only about 30 percent of their usual
"The outfitters are getting ready to apply for disaster
relief," he said. The Rio Grande will barely float a raft.
The Rio Chama has some water but is off-limits: The surrounding
Santa Fe National Forest is closed because of fear of
While it was once just a slice of the rural economies,
recreation now often rivals agriculture in importance.
At the Navajo Nation in Arizona, tribal officials are
blaming the dry weather for a 50 percent decrease in tourists.
In Montana, they've been living with drought for four
years. "Our ranchers have made as many management adjustments
as they could, but it gets to the point where you just
have no grass left," said Steve Pilcher, executive vice
president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
Pilcher estimates that about 300,000 head of cattle
have left the state because of drought. In the hardest-hit
counties, such as Liberty and Tule, some ranchers have
liquidated their entire herds. That's like selling the
farm, Pilcher said.
Part of the state was blessed with a giant storm three
weeks ago that dumped as much as four feet of snow on
lands around Glacier National Park. "It killed 3,000 head
of cattle," Pilcher said. "But we needed the precipitation."
In the western parts of Nebraska and Kansas, the wheat
would typically reach a tall farmer's belt buckle. "But
our plants come to about your knee," said Kimball County
extension agent Karen DeBoer in Nebraska. The harvest
will begin in a few weeks, but grain yields are expected
to be half of normal.
"I heard one of the specialists from the university
saying the other day that a lot of farmers won't make
enough money from the sale to pay for their harvest,"
There is a white bathtub ring around man-made Lake Mead
where the waves of the great artificial sea used to lap;
water levels have dropped 20 to 30 feet.
"Even though the lake is down because of the drought,
it's still tremendous," said Bob Clark, a vice president
of operations at Lake Mead Resort and Marina. Yet the
lake's 550-mile shoreline has been reduced by about 10
percent, and boat ramps keep closing around the lake because
they no longer reach the water.
Melinda Kassen of Trout Unlimited said the Delores River
in the southwest corner of Colorado requires 78 cubic
feet of dam-released water per second to maintain the
state-mandated "minimum necessary to preserve natural
environment to a reasonable degree." The Delores, almost
a blue-ribbon trout stream, is now running at 15 cubic
feet per second at the dam.
"The fish can't run and they can't hide," Kassen said.
And so what happens to them? "They poach," she said. "Literally."