Southwest "megadrought" leads to wildfires and new homicide evidence
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.
- It is also the first megadrought to be driven in large part by human-caused warming, as increased temperatures lead to a thirstier atmosphere in a positive feedback loop that dries out the landscape faster and in turn allows the air to heat up even more.
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.
- The state’s largest reservoir, Lake Shasta, stands at just 40% of its average for this time of year, and the snow cover in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is anemic despite receiving a boost from April into early May in some locations.
- The drought helped fuel a wildfire south of Los Angeles last night and into this morning, which destroyed more than a dozen pricey homes in Orange County.
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.
- Police have speculated that this individual, who showed evidence of a gunshot wound, was the victim of a mob hit dating to a more violent era in Las Vegas, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.
- Another body was found last weekend, the paper reported.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the wildfire was south of Los Angeles, not north of it.