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For the second weekend in a row, parts of the American West will be broiling.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Get ready for some serious heat – in fact, dangerous heat on the way this upcoming weekend.

SHAPIRO: This time, it’s in the Pacific Northwest with parts of Oregon and Washington state bracing for triple digits.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Ninety-eight Saturday, 101 on Sunday – this is some serious stuff that we have never seen before, potentially.

SHAPIRO: In Seattle, barely a third of homes have air conditioning. Average highs this time of year are usually in the mid-70s.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: I think people in Phoenix would think this is hot.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: They do, but they all have air conditioning, so they wouldn’t notice, you know. It’d be kind of a cool…

SHAPIRO: Well, how hot is it in Phoenix?


SCOTT DOUGLAS: It’s like opening an oven when you’re baking a pie.

SHAPIRO: Phoenix paramedic Captain Scott Douglas spoke to NPR last week as the city hit 115 degrees for a record six straight days. There were also new temperature records in Omaha, Denver, Las Vegas and Sacramento, all before summer had even officially started.


DOUGLAS: And people say it’s a dry heat. And I’m like, well – you know what? – when it gets to 117, 118 degrees, it doesn’t matter if it’s dry, moist, cool, whatever. It’s hot.

SHAPIRO: All of this is happening while parts of the Western U.S. are in the middle of a historic mega-drought – 22 years of below-average rain and punishing temperatures that may not end anytime soon.


PHIL CHANG: One of the challenges is that this year is coming after a couple of dry years. So there’s a cumulative impact.

SHAPIRO: Phil Chang is a county commissioner in Oregon’s Deschutes County, home to one of the state’s largest reservoirs. He told NPR it’s barely a quarter of the way full.


CHANG: With climate change, I do expect that we need to be prepared for more droughts like this and maybe more severe droughts moving forward.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS – climate change is making heat and drought more extreme, and the consequences are growing more extreme, too. Coming up, how to survive a heat wave. From NPR, I’m Ari Shapiro. It’s Thursday, June 24.


SHAPIRO: It’s CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. When it’s really hot and dry, wildfires get a lot of attention.


GAVIN NEWSOM: You’re already feeling the temperature shifts. You already saw those red flag warnings, which are earlier than we’ve seen in many, many years.

SHAPIRO: California Governor Gavin Newsom said at a recent press conference, California has had a thousand more wildfires this year than the same time last year. But the extreme heat and drought out West has other consequences, too – a literal stream of them that you can follow from the mountains of Colorado to faucets in Los Angeles.


BRIAN DOMONKOS: We are near the headwaters of the South Platte River to figure out how much snowpack we have that’s left to run off into our streams, rivers and reservoirs.

SHAPIRO: Back in May, Brian Domonkos, supervisor of the Colorado Snow Survey, was skiing through the trees, surveying the snowpack. In a lot of places, it’s been far below normal.


DOMONKOS: Even if we had a good snowpack year that was above normal, it may not really boost us out of that shorter-term drought.

SHAPIRO: That’s because soil in the region is so dry it acts like a sponge, soaking up more snowmelt than usual before the water can run off into streams and rivers.


DOMONKOS: That might be the real wow factor for me, where the soil moisture deficits and low stream flows that we’re seeing in the fall prior are having such a massive impact on the current year’s streams.

SHAPIRO: Like so many other streams in the region, that water eventually flows south and west where it meets the Colorado River. That’s a vitally important water source. If you live in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Denver, you’re getting Colorado River water through your home faucet. And if you eat a salad in winter, there’s a really good chance that lettuce was irrigated with the Colorado River. It also feeds huge reservoirs, including the largest in the country, Lake Mead, east of Las Vegas.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Historically low water levels at Lake Mead now – yesterday, breaking yet another record.

SHAPIRO: With water levels in Lake Mead at record lows, farmers are struggling, and the region is bracing for water cuts and rate increases. Other reservoirs are struggling, too. And Southwestern states recently negotiated a temporary agreement to use less water. But that’s not the only problem.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Water levels are the lowest they have been since the construction of the Hoover Dam more than 80 years ago.

SHAPIRO: Lake Mead is also a source of hydroelectric power, power generated by the Hoover Dam. Less water in the reservoir and others like it means less hydropower for the Western power grid.


JORDAN KERN: And when the Western grid loses hydropower, it has to be replaced by something.

SHAPIRO: Jordan Kern is a professor at the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University.


KERN: And almost always, that replacement is electricity from natural gas power plants, which are both more expensive and more polluting.

SHAPIRO: So less hydropower means customers could pay more for electricity this summer. And all of this could really stretch the grid a few months from now when there’s even less snowmelt.


KERN: The issue, really, is what happens after August. The real challenge will be if this drought is associated with a heat wave during those months that are dry usually. That’s what really contributed to the blackouts we saw in California last year.

SHAPIRO: In California, state agencies have taken steps to avoid blackouts this summer by keeping natural gas plants online, increasing energy storage. It may not be enough. The state grid operator is already warning of the possibility of rolling blackouts in August and September.


SHAPIRO: Here’s another consequence of heat and drought for some places out west. There is literally not enough water to build new houses. And by the way, not enough new homes, that’s one of the main reasons the real estate market is so wild right now, with home prices at record highs, up almost 20% from a year ago. Colorado Public Radio’s Michael Elizabeth Sakas reports on one city that’s talking openly about the struggles of growth in a dry state.


MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS: On the east side of Colorado Springs, flags and billboards line the roads advertising homes for sale, turn here. Hundreds of new units are under construction, and each requires water.


SAKAS: A sprinkler waters the new green lawn of a townhouse that’s only a plywood shell, still without siding or roof. Colorado Springs is one of the fastest growing regions in the state, and this boom is expanding.

DAN BLANKENSHIP: We’ve had just a flood of new applications come into our planning department.

SAKAS: That’s Dan Blankenship, director of utilities for the nearby city of Fountain. There are currently fewer than 9,000 taps, or connections, to Fountain’s water supply. Over the last year, Blankenship says developers have applied for nearly 30,000 more. And now…

BLANKENSHIP: The bottom line is we can’t give you something that we don’t have.

SAKAS: Blankenship is telling developers that this Fountain is tapped out. To support that much growth, the city would need to buy additional rights to use more water, and it would need a place to store that water. The city would also need to treat it and find a way to get it to homes. That’s getting harder to make happen in a state like Colorado, where most of the people live on the Front Range, but most of the water is on the Western Slope.

BLANKENSHIP: You don’t see a lot of water around here. But you see a lot of people and a lot of people that want to be here. And so then you have to bring the water from far away. And so the further it goes and the longer it goes, the more expensive it is.

SAKAS: Fountain gets most of its supply from Pueblo Reservoir, which is filled with water that would otherwise end up in the Colorado River. Meanwhile, the river supply is diminishing with climate change and worsening drought. Proposals to move water long distances and across mountains can now face decades of legal battles from environmental groups. Scott Smith is with Oakwood Homes, which owns a piece of land in Fountain.

SCOTT SMITH: Recently, we were informed that they didn’t have available water taps, and so it kind of put our project on the back burner down there.

SAKAS: Smith says it’s becoming more common for developers who want to build big projects to have to secure water rights. But he says the situation in Fountain is unusual.

SMITH: Usually, you don’t have a municipality that says, you know, the development community’s just going to have to get together and figure it out.

SAKAS: This same challenge is playing out in other places. One Utah town recently stopped issuing new building permits because of deepening drought. And in Arizona, Pinal County is also out of water. Troy Day is with EPCOR, which operates utilities in the southwest. He says building in the county is grinding to a halt.

TROY DAY: Developers can’t plat and build homes unless they prove to the state that there is a 100-year water supply.

SAKAS: Day has his eyes on Lake Mead, the reservoir that serves water to Arizona. A two-decade mega drought has brought its levels down to the lowest on record since it was filled in the 1930s. And that’s expected to trigger more water cutbacks in Arizona.

DAY: With climate change, this is probably the new normal, and we’re going to have to figure out how to live on less water.

SAKAS: Kevin Reidy, with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, says water utilities are worried about how to keep up with growth and that in Colorado, Fountain is just the first city to talk so openly about the issue.

KEVIN REIDY: I think we’re going to see a lot more of this pressure happening. We’re kind of hitting that point where people are kind of saying, OK, wow. We’ve got to do things differently.

SAKAS: For Fountain, that means telling developers, if you want to build here, you’ll have to pay to bring your own water.


SHAPIRO: That’s Michael Elizabeth Sakas of Colorado Public Radio. Strained utilities and low reservoirs are big, long-term consequences of heat and drought. But in the immediate term…


KRISTINA DAHL: Of all of the types of extreme weather, people die from extreme heat the most. It typically kills more people in a given year than something like hurricanes.

SHAPIRO: Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me extreme heat isn’t just dangerous for older adults who have more trouble regulating their body temperature, it’s also dangerous to young people who are more likely to ignore the body’s warning signs.


DAHL: Things like dizziness or headache or feeling extremely tired – if you’re experiencing those, no matter what your age, make sure that you take some time to lie down and rest, drink water. And if you can, get to a cool place.

SHAPIRO: And remember, your body is designed to cool itself down, but extreme heat makes that harder to do.


DAHL: For example, if it’s very humid, it becomes harder for the sweat on your skin to evaporate. And it’s that evaporation of sweat that really provides the cooling effect to your body.

SHAPIRO: I’m just thinking. I live in Washington, D.C., a notoriously hot and humid city. And I love to go out for a run and sweat it all out and get exhausted. And it sounds like you’re saying I am gambling with my health by doing that, maybe I should reconsider it.

DAHL: I would just say pay attention. You know your body, and you know its limits. So if you’re starting to feel dizzy, if you’re starting to get a headache, if you’re starting to really lag, listen to those warning signs that your body is giving you and take a break.


SHAPIRO: Kristina Dahl is a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.



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