Drought may be the sneakiest of natural disasters. Although human history teems with people engulfed by abrupt aridity — the Akkadians of four millenniums ago, the Maya in the ninth and 10th centuries A.D., the Great Plains farmers of the 1930s — even today drought is a poorly appreciated phenomenon. Unlike mighty storms or thundering eruptions, droughts slink into our lives invisibly, unannounced. It can be hard to know you’re in a drought until it’s too late to do much about it; then, when the rains come back, it can be just as difficult to believe the water will ever run out again, so why worry about the next dry spell? Donald Wilhite, a pioneering scholar of drought, calls it the Rodney Dangerfield of natural disasters. Drought has felled entire civilizations, but still it gets no respect.
The American West is once again facing drought, one of the worst on record. Across a vast region encompassing nine states and home to nearly 60 million people, the earth is being wrung dry. About 98 percent of this region is currently weathering some level of drought, and more than half the land area is under extreme or exceptional drought, the most severe categories.