Arizona is known for its intense heat. We brag about it and commiserate with bumper stickers and T-shirts that say: “It’s a dry heat.” 

But because of that dry heat it’s hard to differentiate: Are we in a drought or is this arid weather normal because we live in a desert? Some locals might be surprised to hear this, but Arizona has been in an ongoing drought for 27 years.

Yep, you read that right. TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS.

So what does it mean to say Arizona is in a drought for that long? The answer is … complicated. 

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, summed up the complications like this: “Drought is not the right way to talk about it. It’s drought, over allocation, and climate change.”

So what can I do?

Arizonans can find ways to conserve water and help with drought conditions. One concrete step people can take is to consider whether water harvesting at home may help with outdoor irrigation, suggests expert Michael Crimmins. 

The climatologist also recommends supporting action on climate change because it is “a step toward protecting water resources across the Southwest.” 

Water policy laws come up in the Arizona legislature frequently. Keep an eye on those laws at this link: https://www.azleg.gov/bills (try searching words like groundwater, watershed and water supply; it will search both House bills and Senate bills). 

Porter was so passionate about these issues that after graduating from Harvard and Arizona State universities, she decided to leave her law career in 2006 to join Audubon Arizona. She wanted to collaborate on addressing our state’s natural-resource challenges. 

Our Arizona Luminaria team also wants to start digging deeper into this for you. So we all understand better. And can get involved in thinking about how we can help our Southwest desert people, flora and fauna thrive. 

This is our second story about drought conditions in Arizona. We heard from our communities that many Arizonans are confused about drought. You’ve told us you want to know more about how it relates to climate, environment, laws, wildfires, water resources, as well as inequalities among people living in cities, rural areas, borderlands and Indigenous nations.

At Arizona Luminaria, we listen to you and what you want to learn more about so you can take action.

We don’t want to miss anyone. So now, we’re officially inviting you to ask your questions about drought. We’ll research, investigate, dig, discuss and report back. We’ll take everything you ask and we learn and put it in our debut AZ Luminaria 101 guide. Por favor, reach out to us on Twitter @AZLuminaria or email  info@azluminaria.org

We’d also love to hear what you want your next AZ 101 guide to be about. Gracias for joining our Arizona Luminaria community!

Short term vs. long term drought

Michael Crimmins says that when you study drought, you need to understand the difference between short- and long-term drought. 

Crimmins is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona and a climate science extension specialist for Arizona Cooperative Extension.

Short-term drought refers to a period that experiences a precipitation deficit for a period of weeks or months. When a precipitation deficit lasts longer than six months, it’s considered a long-term drought.

But short- and long-term droughts have cloudy areas. It is possible to have wet precipitation periods during a long-term drought, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. The opposite can also be true — wet precipitation periods can experience low precipitation patterns that turn into a short-term drought.

If you study climate data over the last 30 or 40 years, as Crimmins has, “you’ll notice that the 80s were particularly wet.”

It wasn’t until the mid-90s that we started seeing a shift in precipitation. Specifically, the drought of 2002 was one of the most epic droughts in the Southwest, he says. After 2002, Arizona began experiencing really dry winters. And starting in 2002, a dry summer, as well. 

When climatologists study weather data in Arizona over long-term periods, it shows that on average we have more dry winters than wet winters. Talking about drought is tricky, Crimmins says. Much depends on whether you’re referring to short- or long-term drought, the timescale and the level of precipitation. 

“I do think largely when we have big stories about drought here in the Southwest, especially when we’re thinking about water and water resources, we’re thinking about long-term drought and winter precipitation points back to that,” he says.

Since 1994 (the year the 27-year drought started), Arizona has had on and off wet and dry years, but because the wet years over a long-term period have not outpaced the dry years, we remain in a drought. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Should I be worried about the Colorado River?

If you’ve been following news about Arizona, you may have come across news headlines about how the Colorado River is losing water and causing shortages for rural farmers, Indigenous communities and agriculture across the state. 

Journalists have been throwing around the phrase “water wars” when they refer to what the future may hold for Arizona because of how quickly the water supply in the Colorado River continues to drop each year.

The majority of Arizona’s water supply doesn’t come from the Colorado River. Groundwater is the other largest source.

“Looking at those different water supplies … where we’re getting our water, it’s very diverse,” says Erinanne Saffell, Arizona’s state climatologist. “Arizona tries to manage its water so that it’s not coming from just one place. So that when something happens, we’re not losing everything.”

We get about 36-38% (it changes a bit every year) of our water supply from the Colorado River, says Saffell, who is also a researcher and lecturer at ASU in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Drought is only one of the problems on the Colorado River, argues Porter, the water policy expert.  

“It’s an over-allocated river,” she says.

“The estimates for average annual production and the amount of water that would be in the river — these estimates were based on super wet years,” Porter says. “And the estimates were arrived at in the 1920s. It’s been known for decades that they overestimated how much water we can reasonably expect.”

When you have an overly-allocated river combined with drought, what we’re experiencing is climate change, Porter says.

Porter cautions people to look into local resources before jumping to conclusions. 

“Whether or not a person should be worried really depends on where they live, and what are their expectations for their community in the future,” she says.

For residents who live in older cities in the Phoenix or Tucson area, “chances are your city is very well prepared for shortages and has a plan for replacing those supplies with other renewable supplies.”

Arizona is currently in the first tier of Arizona’s Drought Contingency plan. The first tier makes cuts to the amount of water allocated to agriculture because it’s the industry that uses the largest supply of water in the state. Water that would normally go to agriculture is being rerouted and used in other places along the Colorado River.

The Tier 1 shortage cuts “about 30% of Central Arizona Project’s normal supply; nearly 18% of Arizona’s total Colorado River supply; and less than 8% of Arizona’s total water use,” according to Arizona’s 2019 Drought Contingency plan

Impacts on agriculture, plants and wildlife

So who’s impacted most by the drought? Right now it is mostly the agriculture industry, but it impacts everyone, Saffell says.

 The Colorado River supplies water to seven states, Mexico, 29 Native American tribes and millions of acres of irrigated farmland

Porter says cities use significantly less water compared with farms and agriculture. So when residents consider how to reduce their water use, it’s not going to have as big of an effect because cities aren’t using as much water as the agriculture industry. 

“It’s helpful at a local level, but it’s not going to solve the problems that we’re looking at,” she says. “That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t reduce their water use.” 

Apart from farms and agriculture, the drought is having an impact on wildlife and plant life in the desert that relies on water to survive.

When plants are stressed because they aren’t getting the adequate amount of water, they can have greater insect infestations as a consequence. And those plants become more susceptible to wildfire.

Krista Kemppinen, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity working on the endangered species program and a researcher and sustainability expert at ASU, says riparian and aquatic species are vulnerable to prolonged drought conditions “due to their imperiled status and habitat requirements.” 

Wildlife and plants that are listed as threatened or endangered, among others, include: Sonora chub (fish), Huachuca water umbel (plant), Canelo Hills lady’s tresses (plant), Quitobaquito pupfish, Sonoyta mud turtle, Little Colorado spinedace (fish), Three Forks and San Bernardino springsnails, New Mexico jumping mouse (besides New Mexico and Colorado, it lives in the White Mountains in eastern Arizona), Loach minnow (fish), spikedace (fish), Zuni bluehead sucker (fish) and Chiricahua leopard frog.

The particular threat each species or plant faces depends on several factors, Kemppinen says, including the “loss of surface water, higher water temperatures, lack of high quality riparian vegetation for nesting, food and shelter, greater susceptibility to diseases and other disturbances. More wildlife and greater (human) water demand are also concerns.” 

An example of the effect drought has on Arizona endangered species is the Sonoran pronghorn, the fastest land mammal in North America, Kemppinen says. The pronghorn lost about 80% of population in 2002 due to severe drought conditions and the associated decline in available water and forage.

The species has grown in population since that time because of conservation efforts, “but to prevent extinction it still needs water, the ability to disperse and reintroduction into suitable habitat,” Kemppinen says.

Will this drought end?

The drought that started 27 years ago isn’t going to end overnight, or even a few months from now. It’s a long-term process, says Saffell, the state climatologist.

“It’s going to take more than one summer,” she says.

Climatologists study the past to understand the present. They have to let years pass by to understand and compare the data over time to come to a specific conclusion. 

The variable that climatologists didn’t predict is how quickly temperatures are rising. 

“This increases the amount of evapotranspiration across the region which is the thirst for water that the atmosphere has,” Crimmins explains. “Warmer temperatures dry out the region more quickly after it rains or melts and evaporates the snow more quickly.” 

The atmosphere this creates for the environment is that precipitation turns out to be less effective and the region becomes more arid. The wet period that comes after won’t be as wet because temperatures will be warmer.

“This is why dealing with climate change is also a water management issue for the Southwest,” Crimmins says. 

Snow is an important element that can contribute to the state coming out of its ongoing drought. That’s because it functions as a natural water reservoir, “storing water on top of the mountains in the winter when there is less demand for it, and gradually releasing it in the form of runoff during spring and early summer, when water demand is higher,” according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources

From studying climate history, climatologists learned that long-term droughts lasted several decades. They ended when El Nino winters became more frequent and created a shift towards wetter conditions.

 “This happened in the late 70’s and lasted into the early 90’s for Arizona and brought wet conditions to the region,” Crimmins says. 

The current drought has the potential to end when Arizona experiences several years of above average precipitation, Crimmins says. There’s no way to predict when that will be — it could happen in a few years or several decades from now. 

Yezmin Villarreal

Yezmin Villarreal is a journalist, writer and editor. They are the creator of Dyke Queen, a zine about art, literature and style.