Jul 29, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Americans have been moving where the water isn't

Photo of Henderson, Nevada

Urban sprawl in Henderson, Nevada, outside of Las Vegas. Photo: David McNew/Getty Image

Even as population growth in the U.S. as a whole slows down, numbers are still rising in the Southwest and Mountain West.

  • One problem: many of these communities are among the most drought-prone in the country, and are likely to get even drier.

By the numbers: In a post this week for the Economic Innovation Group, Daniel Newman calculated that the driest group of communities in the Southwest averaged a total of 245 weeks in severe drought between January 2010 and July 2021.

  • Over the same time period, those places added an additional nearly 7.4 million people, increasing the population by 10% to more than 81.4 million people.
  • Counties mostly in the Northeast and the Midwest that spent less than a year cumulatively in severe drought over the past decade grew by only 5.7 million residents.

What's next: Population projections by NASA's Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center estimate that the U.S. population will grow by nearly 54 million through 2040, of which nearly half will be in counties that have spent more than three years in severe drought over the past decade.

The bottom line: In the age of air conditioning and irrigation, deserts haven't been an impediment to growth — simply gaze upon Phoenix, a city of more than 1.7 million that averages a little over 9 inches of rainfall each year.

  • But moving more and more people into regions that are bone dry and getting drier isn't exactly good climate change adaptation.
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