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People waling along a reservoir near Orinda, California, in February. Photo: Stephen Lam/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Almost a half of the United States — a tract of land stretching from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains and upper Midwest — is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday.

Why it matters: Conditions have prompted weather and agriculture officials to warn of water cutback in California, increased wildfires in the Southwest and damage to wheat crops around the country, according to AP.

  • NOAA said drought conditions, driven by La Niña and one of the driest monsoon seasons on record for the Southwest, are likely to worsen and expand, potentially affecting approximately 74 million people this spring.

What they're saying: "The Southwest U.S., which is already experiencing widespread severe to exceptional drought, will remain the hardest hit region in the U.S., and water supply will continue to be a concern this spring in these drought-affected areas," said Mary Erickson, deputy director of the National Weather Service.

By the numbers: Currently, 66% of the U.S. is under abnormally dry conditions, 44% in moderate drought and almost 18% is in extreme drought, the National Drought Monitor showed Thursday.

The big picture: The National Interagency Fire Center said in its significant wildland fire potential outlook for March that background drought will create above normal significant fire potential this spring for the Southwest, southern Plains and Northern Rockies region.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Congress hunts for shortcut to pass defense funding, debt limit combo

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer returned to his office Monday. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The scramble in Congress to pass the National Defense Authorization Act is being complicated by an effort to tie it to a needed hike in the federal debt limit.

Why it matters: The House and Senate are rapidly coming up against a series of deadlines they must address before the end of the year — or risk disrupting crucial military funding and upending the economy. Congressional leaders are now hoping they can knock out both "must-pass" priorities in one, complex swoop.

Scoop: Inside Jake Sullivan's call with U.S. hostages' families

Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke last week with relatives of U.S. hostages and others wrongfully detained abroad, after more than two dozen families expressed frustrations about their inability to get a meeting with him or President Biden, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Participants on the video call, which began at 7pm ET Friday and lasted more than an hour, told Axios they didn't get satisfactory answers to many of their questions. Nonetheless, they were encouraged by Sullivan's commitment to follow up and pledge to be personally available to them and others going forward.

3 hours ago - World

Biden huddles with European allies on Ukraine ahead of Putin call

Putin in the Kremlin. Photo: Grigory Sysoyev/Sputnik via Getty

President Biden will seek to convince Russia's Vladimir Putin in a phone call Tuesday that the price of invading Ukraine would be steeper than anything he's faced in the past.

Driving the news: Biden held a call on Ukraine this evening with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the U.K., while Secretary of State Tony Blinken called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to offer America's "unwavering support."