May 12, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Southwest "megadrought" leads to wildfires and new homicide evidence

January to April average precipitation in California
Data: NOAA; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

It is only May, and the worsening, long-term drought in the Southwest is taxing water managers, firefighters and even homicide detectives in new ways.

Why it matters: The region is stuck in a "megadrought" lasting more than two decades, and studies show it is more severe than any in at least 1,200 years.

The big picture: California just recorded its driest first four months of the year, encompassing a crucial period during the heart of the state's wet season.

Meanwhile... In New Mexico, multiple large wildfires are burning amid scorching heat, high winds and dry air.

  • The National Weather Service has described the conditions there as "dire."
  • At about 259,810 acres as of Thursday morning, the Calf Canyon Fire is the state's second-largest wildfire on record and growing.
  • The Calf Canyon Fire prompted more evacuations on Wednesday, including in the resort communities in Taos County, as the fire expanded, with glowing-hot embers landing on bone-dry vegetation.

Threat level: In California, local authorities have been issuing increasingly draconian water restrictions, and the state is entering a dry season in which both its reservoirs are near record lows.

  • The state is also grappling with the new reality of a much-diminished Colorado River, which helps provide water to several states.
  • The level of water in Lake Mead in Arizona and Nevada, the nation's largest reservoir by volume, is so low that one of the long-serving water intakes, built to transport water to thirsty communities in the Southwest, is no longer submerged.

The intrigue: As the water level drops, long-hidden bodies have begun to be unearthed. The first instance of skeletal human remains was discovered on May 1, inside a rusted metal barrel.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the wildfire was south of Los Angeles, not north of it.

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