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What Are the Worst U.S. Cities for Drought?

August 14, 2020

A drought is a devastating natural disaster. It may not have the speed or velocity of a hurricane, but its slow spread can be just as damaging.

Each year, droughts in the U.S. cause an average of $9.5 billion in damages and losses. Crops are destroyed. Water shortages become widespread, and the risk of wildfire increases.

The dry soil also causes widespread structural damage. Highways and sidewalks can crack. Bridges can become unstable. And house foundations can fail, causing settlement and cracks to develop in walls and the loss of real estate value.

However, drought does not always strike consistently. Some areas of the country are more prone to drought and water insecurity. Also, some years are drier than others. 

This year, one of the biggest drought risks is in the Rockies and high plains. Colorado has been hit especially hard by an ongoing drought. According to the current drought map from the National Drought Mitigation Center, 95 percent of the Colorado landmass is abnormally dry, and extreme drought is active in 37 percent of the state. 

To understand the big-picture drought risk in the country, let's look at long-term drought trends including which places in the country have persistent drought problems and how drought levels have changed over time. 

Understanding Drought Conditions

A drought often begins with a change in the weather patterns and precipitation. 

First, there is a dry spell when rainfall isn't adequate or occurring at regular intervals. As these conditions persist, significant changes will occur. Groundwater levels decrease, sources of water like springs will dry up, and water supplies like reservoirs are used faster than they're replenished. 

In the worst-case scenario, cities run out of water. For example, during the California drought of 2011, Los Angeles was importing 89 percent of its water from 200 miles away. 

Measuring drought has its challenges. A singular threshold of water saturation does not adequately reflect how the geology of different cities relies on different amounts of water. For example, a drought in Orlando, where there's an average of 52 inches of rain per year, uses a much different measurement than a drought in Phoenix, where there's typically just nine inches of rain per year. 

This is why drought is measured in relation to an area's typical precipitation.

Where in the US is the Highest Likelihood of Drought?

For the past 20 years, the U.S. Drought Monitor program has become one of the standards for long-term data gathering. The organization, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has standardized six different drought classifications: abnormally dry (D0), moderate drought (D1), severe drought (D2), extreme drought (D3), exceptional drought (D4), and no drought. 

To understand which areas are most drought-prone, let's look at historical data to identify which locations have had the highest number of weeks in extreme or exceptional drought. A clear pattern emerges where the southwest, the Rockies, and parts of the southeast have had the longest period of D3 drought or greater.

 

Across the country,153 counties have had more than 300 weeks of drought. That totals more than five and a half years of drought over a 19-year timeframe. 

Some of the worst drought conditions are in the western half of the country where counties have spent 40 to 50 percent of the time in extreme drought conditions. 

Percentage of Time Spent in Drought

  • Arizona
    • Navajo County: 51%
    • Apache County: 50%
    • Coconino County: 42%
  • Colorado
    • Las Animas (Bent County): 47%
  • Nevada
    • Churchill County: 47%
    • Pershing County: 46%
    • Lander County: 45%
    • Humboldt County: 44%
    • Washoe County: 42%
    • Lyon County: 41%
  • New Mexico
    • Colfax County: 47%
    • San Miguel County: 40%
  • Texas
    • Wilbarger County: 47%
    • Val Verde County: 46%
    • Kerr County: 45%
    • Uvalde County: 45%
    • Edwards County: 44%
    • Baylor County: 43%
    • Bandera County: 43%
    • Foard County: 43%
    • Wichita County: 43%
    • Zavala County: 42%
    • Knox County: 42%
  • Oklahoma
    • Tillman County: 45%
    • Jackson County: 42%
    • Texas County: 41%
    • Cimarron County: 40%
    • Greer County: 40%
  • California
    • San Bernardino County: 42%
    • Inyo County: 40%

There is also an emerging hotspot in the southeast. South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama have all experienced extreme drought conditions. 

Percent of Time Spent in Drought

  • Georgia
    • Wilkes County: 29%
    • Oglethorpe County: 28%
    • Greene County: 28%
    • Taliaferro County: 27%
    • Morgan County: 27%
    • Elbert County: 27%
    • Putnam County: 26%
    • Jasper County: 26%
    • Hancock County: 26%
  • South Carolina
    • McCormick County: 27%
    • Abbeville County: 26%
  • Alabama
    • Lee County: 26%
    • Chambers County: 26%

When Were the Worst Years for Drought?

Recently, we've seen more instances of severe hurricane damage than severe drought damage. 

The worst two droughts in modern American history were the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, which covered 70 percent of western North America, and the droughts of 1988 and 1989 which caused $44.8 billion in total damages.

However, the past decade has not been without major drought events. In the chart below, we see that there have been several times where more than 60 percent of the continental U.S. was in drought or abnormally dry conditions.

worst years for drought in US cities

In 2012, a significant drought occurred with the most extreme conditions centered in the Southern Plains area and the Southeast. Total damages were estimated at $34.2 billion. 

The lack of rain was significant. Missouri had the driest year on record, and upper Colorado had the driest conditions it had experienced in 118 years. 

However, the lack of rainfall was only part of the equation. Dry conditions and limited water resources were exacerbated by intense spring and summer heat. The damage was especially severe because the areas where the drought occurred so closely matched the areas of agricultural production. 

Drought damage was not limited to crops and food production. Reports of home foundation damage were widespread. 

One Kansas City homeowner said the first signs were that the doors wouldn't open and the drywall started to crack. This was because the ground beneath the home began to shrink as the ground's moisture was lost. By the end of the year-long drought, the back deck sank by 10 inches and rooms inside the house were tilted by as much as four inches. To repair the damage, foundation piers were installed to anchor the home to the bedrock. This can help keep the home stable, even when the soil conditions change. 

If you're at risk of drought damage, a free inspection from the country's leading foundation and structural repair experts can help you learn how you can protect your home.