2020 Was a Record-Breaking Year for Drought, Wildfires, and Heat in Arizona. 2021 is Poised to Be Even Worse.

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By Bree Burkitt

January 11, 2021

Another year like 2020 could have devastating results for Arizona.

It doesn’t quite feel like winter in Arizona.

Temperatures have lingered in the upper 60s in the Phoenix-area — above normal for January, usually the coldest months of the year.

Northern Arizona has also seen above-average winter temperatures and the snowfall lacking as compared to previous years.

The abnormally warm, dry start of the year is consistent with what was saw during the record-breaking 2020. The year brought some of the hottest temperatures to date, with more 100-plus degree days than any other year. It was also one of the driest monsoon seasons in state history, contributing to a devastating wildfire season. 

And climatologists predict 2021 will offer little relief, which could have devastating results for Arizona.

The NOAA forecasted a La Niña weather pattern this winter, meaning the Southwest will again see warmer, drier conditions in the coming months.

This trend could seriously threaten the state’s water supply, environment, and economy with no end in sight. 

“Everybody is Pretty Concerned” 

Arizona’s unseasonably warm weather has been coupled with a lack of moisture, and the state has yet to see any winter storms. This trend will likely continue during the first months of 2021, given the La Niña weather pattern. 

State climatologist and Arizona State University Professor Nancy Selover explained that there’s a 60-70% probability Arizona will remain drier than average through March coupled with abnormally warm temperatures.  

“For us, that’s not good,” Selover said.

Currently, most of the state is considered to be in extreme or exceptional drought conditions. Snow accumulations are far below normal for this point in the year and the precipitation situation isn’t expected to change anytime soon.

Read More: Arizona Is Getting Hotter—And It’s Only Supposed to Get Worse

One storm won’t be enough. The state needs a number of winter and spring storms to make a dent in worsening drought conditions. And, given the dry conditions, even a sudden change that brings an average snowpack won’t be enough to reverse the damage. 

“Everybody is pretty concerned,” she said.

Without these storms, drought conditions and the subsequent wildfire risks will only worsen, compounding the already dry conditions. 

Some have already made adjustments to account for the dry conditions. For example, the Arizona Department of Fish and Game resorted to hauling water for stock ponds and water caches for livestock and wildfires. This will likely have to continue through the winter. 

There’s also concern about the impact the perpetual dryness could have on the Colorado River. Forty million people in the Western United States depend on the Colorado River, and about 40% of Arizona’s water comes from it. The Colorado River has been in a severe drought for the past two decades thanks to the same dry conditions and heat compounded by the effects of global warming. 

While Selover said the Colorado River likely wouldn’t have a shortage this year, a recent forecast from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that operates Western water infrastructure, showed the Colorado River’s largest reservoirs are likely to drop next year if demands stay the same.

 If that occurs, some people will likely see restrictions on water deliveries and limitations on water usage for farming and agriculture.

Selover said Arizonans need to prepare for the worst, knowing what could be ahead. 

“We need to be careful with how we use our water and what we’re doing when we’re going hunting and camping,” she said. “Remembering everything is very dry and need to be careful in terms of fire [risk] and water resources.”

Contact the reporter Bree Burkitt at bree@couriernewsroom.com.


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