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Updated Sep 1, 2014 - 10:51 am

New study finds the Southwest might be facing 'megadrought'

In this July 28, 2014 photo, lightning strikes over Lake Mead near Hoover Dam at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona. On the left are the Arizona intake towers of Hoover Dam. The bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water mark of the reservoir which has shrunk to its lowest point since it was first filled in the 1930s. (AP Photo/John Locher)

PHOENIX -- A new study by The University of Arizona, Cornell University and the U.S. Geological Survey says the chances of a "megadrought" that runs 35 years or more ranges from 30 to 40 percent over the next century in the Grand Canyon State.

Arizona State University climate expert Randy Cerveny said the region has been in a megadrought before -- the last happening about 400 years ago.

"It was incredibly destructive to the Native American population that was here at that time," Cerveny said. "But we haven't experienced anything since modern settlement."

"Lake Mead is not only responding to drought, but demand," Cerveny said.

The impacts of a megadrought would be far worse now because tens of millions of people now call the Southwest home.

"Places like Los Angeles are taking a lot more water out of Lake Mead than they used to," the climatologist said. "Lake Mead is not only responding to drought, but demand."

The northwestern Arizona-southeastern Nevada lake is currently at its lowest level since Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s.

"If we don't come out of the drought in the next 20 to 30 years, then we are in a megadrought," Cerveny said.

Cerveny said Arizona has been in drought since 1997 and that there's no way to know if we're entering another megadrought.

"We don't have the good precursors or indicators to tell us we would be entering one now," he said. "The only way to tell if we're in a megadrought is to keep watching, and if we don't come out of the drought in the next 20 to 30, years then we are in a megadrought."

The Arizona Daily Star reports that the southern part of the state is still behind in summer moisture this year, despite August being a very rain-heavy month.

Tucson has received more than 3 inches of rain since the season began June 15, but the summer average is 4.79 inches.

Still, rain has fallen in above-normal amounts in Nogales, Douglas, Bisbee, Safford, Willcox and Sierra Vista. In fact, parts of Sierra Vista near the Huachuca Mountains recorded up to 7 inches of rain in August alone.

University of Arizona climate scientist Mike Crimmins said patterns are favoring more moisture in September. Tucson averages 1.29 inches of rain in September, but he said tropical storms can boost that tremendously.

The Associate Press contributed to this report.

About the Author

Position: Senior News Reporter. Started with KTAR July 4, 1999.

Favorite spots in Arizona: Pinetop-Lakeside, Alpine, Greer.

Have covered some of the biggest stories in Arizona including nine of the top 10 largest wildfires in state history. The Wallow Fire in 2011 became the largest fire in state history. Rodeo-Chediski Fire in June 2002, which is the second largest fire in Arizona. Covered the Yarnell Hill Tragedy in June 2013 that left 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots dead.

Favorite movies: True Grit, both 1969 John Wayne classic and the remake with Jeff Bridges and Lonesome Dove.

Sports Teams: Washington State University Cougars, Texas Longhorns, The University of Montana Grizzlies.


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