Publication Date January 30, 2018

Winter heat wave bakes the Southwest, bringing renewed worries of severe drought

United States
Melting snow forms a pool in a meadow in the Sierra National Forest. Data from snow sensors across the West show that the snowpack has been melting earlier on average as the climate has grown warmer. Photo: Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun

Temecula, Calif. has had three straight 80-degree days and is expected to be in the 80s or nearly that for at least the next 10 days, according to Weather Underground. A winter heat wave has settled over the Southwest and is bringing record high temperatures to parts of Southern California along with dry, gusty winds that have prompted warnings of fire danger. 


An average January, February or even March day in Temecula tops out at 67 or 68 degrees, according to AccuWeather. 

Cantú has worked previously for the California State Water Resources Control Board and until last year was general manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. She now leads the Los Angeles-based group Water Education for Latino Leaders. 

She’s been following the news about the lower-than-average snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies and seeing the warmth trigger the early bloom in her garden left her feeling concerned about the possibility of another severe drought around the corner.


This week, snow sensors across the Sierra Nevada show the snowpack at just 30% of average for this time of year.


The amount of snow on the ground is also far below average across the Colorado River Basin, where a 17-year run of mostly dry years has left reservoirs at alarmingly low levels.

Climate scientists and managers of water agencies describe the situation as a “snow drought,” driven in part by winter temperatures that are well above the long-term average.

“We can have a decent amount of precipitation in a year and still be in a snow drought,” said senior research associate Laura Feinstein at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland, Calif.-based think tank that focuses on water issues. “Even if we get a similar amount of precipitation, more of it falls as rain rather than snow and runs off relatively quickly.