A once-floating dock was left high and dry by drought conditions that lowered the level of Medina Lake some 52 feet (16 meters). The lake, which provides water to Texas farmers and the city of San Antonio, is shrunken thanks to an ongoing drought that includes the driest, hottest 12 months in Texas' recorded history.
Across much of the western United States, similar conditions have caused cities, farms, and businesses to fear for the future of their water supply as demand outstrips availability.
"In the Southwest, if you look at the past three-quarters of a century when people were moving here and farming here and building dams here, all that activity was based on a much wetter period of time than we've had historically or what we're likely to have in the future," said Sandra Postel, founder of the Global Water Policy Project and the National Geographic Society's Freshwater Fellow.
Photograph by John Davenport, San Antonio Express-News/AP
Nebraska National Guard aviators use a "Bambi Bucket" to dump water on the raging flames of the High Park fire west of Fort Collins, Colorado. The blaze was ignited by a lightning strike on June 9, the kind of natural occurrence that is more frequent during drought conditions.
By the time the fire was fully contained on June 30, it had destroyed more than 250 homes and torched nearly 90,000 acres (364 square kilometers). The High Park fire was the most destructive in Colorado history—but only for a few weeks. Before its flames were completely extinguished, the Waldo Canyon blaze broke out, killing two people, burning some 350 homes, and adding the most destructive chapter yet to a historically bad fire season.
And more water-related problems may be yet to come in the wake of such fires. "The fires complicate things in terms of water quality," Postel explained. "With rains the sediments and debris run off burned-out watersheds, causing floods and impacting water quality or clogging treatment systems. This happened last year in New Mexico with the Las Conchas blaze and its one-two punch of fire and flooding."
Photograph from Colorado National Guard via Reuters
Fish Out of Water
A fish out of water surveys the scene at old Bluffton, a Texas town that was flooded in 1937-38 during the creation of Lake Buchanan. As lakes across the Lone Star State have shrunk in the current drought, they've left some wildlife high and dry but also revealed ruins, gravestones, fossils, ancient tools, and other artifacts.
Though many of these relics were submerged by 20th-century dams, some ancient artifacts date to a time when Southwest droughts were far more common, Postel said.
"If you go way back you find these mega droughts that are believed to have undone civilizations like those in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde," she said. "It's in our history to have much more serious drought than we've had in the last century."
Misting fans keep Maureen Pauly-Hubbard and other celebrants cool at the July 4 fireworks celebration in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Dry, hot weather across the region pushed temperatures into triple digits and helped to create drought conditions. Some communities canceled fireworks displays to reduce fire risk.
"It's too early to tell, but this drought in the Midwest could rival the 1988 drought, which decimated grain production in the Midwest," said Postel. "It's even being compared to the Dust Bowl years of the '30s. While these kinds of extremes fit with the frame of natural variability, the climate science says that we'll likely be seeing more of this."
Drought conditions on America's southern plains have been hard on donkeys, like these once abandoned animals now under care in Athens, Louisiana. Many Texas and Louisiana grazers, faced with dried-up lands, have been forced to sell off their cattle and abandon the donkeys that once helped to tend those animals but have become too expensive to keep.
Droughts can devastate agriculture of all types and spawn famine with horrific consequences. An estimated 40 million people died during the 20th century's drought-induced famines, and the 21st century's toll could be higher.
"Droughts are cyclical," Postel said. "You can't pin any one thing that's happening right now on a larger phenomenon of global climate change but all the science is saying that what we're seeing now is what's expected more often in a warming world. It behooves us, I think, to plan on what's likely coming down the pike."
A mud-covered snake slithers through a channel in a lake bed at Indiana's Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area. The now-exposed channel once provided access to a beaver lodge but has dried during harsh conditions that have placed most of the state in severe to extreme drought status and threatened crops across the Midwest.
Droughts may become more common, climatologists say, but humans aren't powerless against them.
"The silver lining in this is that we haven't come close to pulling out all the stops on things like irrigation efficiency, where and how we grow certain types of crops efficiently, and urban conservation—like not watering green lawns in the desert when people are struggling to produce crops," Postel said. "There is a lot that can be done to get more value for each drop of water and I think creative solutions are going to become very important."
A shrunken Lake Powell shows the impacts of drought and illustrates the consequences of human thirst on the Colorado River, which has been dammed and diverted so much that it now runs dry long before reaching its estuary at the Sea of Cortez.
About 30 million people, some as far away as Los Angeles, depend on the Colorado for drinking water. The river also nourishes a major agricultural breadbasket. Water shortages in the basin aren't just a future worry—they're part of the present.
"We're in a depletion situation in the Colorado River Basin, and not just during a drought year," Postel said. "The average ten-year demand is now higher than the average ten-year supply so we're using more water than the river usually has in it basin-wide."
Ninety years ago the Colorado River Compact divided water use among seven states. But demand has soared since then, and the river doesn't hold as much water as planners once thought. "In 1922, the year the compact was signed, it was the end of a pretty wet period," Postel said. "We're not likely to see that again any time soon for any length of time."