Drought could have profound implications for Wyoming

By: 
Casper Star-Tribune

T

he past weeks have offered too many reminders of just how dry it is in Wyoming right now. One after another, wildfires have ignited across the state. A blaze prompted pre-evacuation notices in northeast Wyoming. Another near Buffalo left a haze over the region as crews worked to contain the conflagration in nearly impassible terrain. Then earlier this week, a fire near the town of Pine Haven destroyed one home, two campers and an
outbuilding.

Normally, we’d expect to see that sort of fire activity in late summer or early fall, after several months of sustained heat. Now, we’re experiencing it before summer even officially starts — and it will almost certainly get worse.

Wyoming, like much of the West, is experiencing a drought. With the
exception of small areas in the north central and southeast, the entire state is under drought conditions, with the driest portions in the northeast and south central. There’s little reason to expect things will improve in the short term. The seasonal drought outlook for Wyoming, released Thursday by the National Weather Service, forecasts persistent drought conditions across most of the state. And just as concerning, drought is likely to develop in the few areas that aren’t already in that stage.

The implications for Wyoming are profound. The most obvious is the threat of wildfire. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed historic wildfires in other western states that have experienced droughts. Oregon, for example, recorded a particularly destructive fire season last year, one that pushed firefighters to the brink. Last fall, southern Wyoming was home to the state’s largest wildfire in years. Fire officials are predicting an above average season in 2021.

Wildfire might be the most acute concern, but it’s surely not the only one. Water is also critical for our agricultural industry. Ranchers need moisture to provide enough feed for their cattle. Farmers need water to nourish their crops. In central Wyoming, we are blessed with a system of reservoirs that store water for lean years. But even so, drought makes things more difficult for our ag community.

A lack of water could affect other areas of or society as well. Water is a necessary requirement for development and for industry. If there isn’t enough water to go around, that could slow new growth at a time when Wyoming
especially needs it.

With drought, there is no easy fix. We are, unfortunately, at the mercy of Mother Nature. But there are steps we can take. We can be thoughtful about how we use water, taking pains to avoid wasting it. And we can all do our part to prevent wildfires by following fire restrictions, properly dousing campfires, keeping vehicles off dry grass and properly disposing of cigarettes.

The reality of drought isn’t likely to leave us soon. Long-term weather patterns such as La Nina are at play, meaning it’s possible that we’ll be dealing with this reality for years. And with our climate warming, drought and wildfires could become more common across the West. Water is our most precious commodity. We would all be wise to remember that as summer begins.

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