Once Again, Extreme Drought, Heatwaves, and Wildfires Threaten Latinos in the West

Drought patterns in the West have gotten so bad that the region is now in the driest state it has been in at least 1,200 years. This, plus the surging temperatures in the region, are creating the perfect conditions for wildfires to grow their destructive path. Climate change is largely to blame for this, and in several Western states, rural and vulnerable communities, particularly Latinos, are experiencing the worst impacts of this climate crisis. Although our action window is closing, there is still time for Congress to act by passing legislation that meets the Climate Test and puts us on the right path to cut pollution in half by 2030 and tackle environmental injustice.

It’s not even Summer yet, but new government maps show nearly all of the West is in a mega-drought state. 

  • The megadrought that has gripped the southwestern United States for the past 22 years is the worst in 1,200 years. Human-caused climate change is a major reason for the current drought’s severity.
  • In an unprecedented move, Southern California officials declared a water shortage emergency and asked roughly 6 million residents to limit all outdoor watering to just once a week. New maps show that 95% of California is suffering severe or extreme drought. 
    • According to a Legislative Analyst’s Office report, low-income rural Latino communities in California were the hardest hit by the latest drought and are the most likely to experience freshwater shortages as extreme drought spreads across the country. 
  • Drought, directly and indirectly, harms health by compounding exposure to heat, increasing the risk of respiratory and infectious disease, worsening water quality, and exacerbating mental health issues, particularly in rural areas and vulnerable communities like Latinos.

Reports of dry wells and draining reservoirs continue to increase in the country, which is limiting access to clean water for many Latino families and threatening their energy security.

  • In the western United States, it is estimated that as many as 1 in 30 aquifer wells are running dry.
  • The historical drought of the Colorado River Basin has led the Bureau of Reclamation to declare the first ever water shortage and reduce water allocations by 18% in Arizona and 7% in Nevada for 2022. 
    • Water levels at Colorado River’s Lake Powell are so low as to endanger the production of hydroelectric power for seven Western states
    • Federal projections show Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the country’s two largest reservoirs, will keep on declining in the coming months, reaching a shortage level likely to trigger larger water cuts in 2023 for Arizona, Nevada, and potentially California.
    • The agriculture sector is expected to face the brunt of the water shortage, which will affect Latino livelihoods disproportionately.
  • One-third of the entire Latino population in the United States lives in the Colorado River Basin.

For yet another consecutive year, extreme heatwaves are threatening the safety of millions of Latinos in the region. 

  • Last weekend, temperatures as high as 112 degrees shattered records in Texas. Searing temperatures into the 90s also spread over parts of Colorado and New Mexico. In Arizona, Phoenix reached the century mark for the first time this year.
    • Exposure to extreme heat has very real effects on human health, including heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heatstroke, and death, as well as exacerbating pre-existing chronic conditions, such as various respiratory, cerebral, and cardiovascular diseases and deaths.
  • Latinos are 21% more likely than non-Hispanic Whites to live in urban heat islands, making them more vulnerable to extreme heat waves that are becoming more frequent in the West as we continuously fail to act on climate change.
  • Extreme heat is historically the leading weather-related cause of death in the country, particularly among farm and outdoor workers, who are 20 times more likely to die from heat-related illnesses than other workers. This statistic burdens the Latino community, as 75% of the country’s farmworkers are Latinos.

The combination of a heatwave, long-term drought, and relentlessly high winds is yielding a historically prolonged period of increased wildfire risk across the Southwest.

  • As of Monday, there are currently 12 large active wildfires that have burned 322,309 across AZ, CO, NM, and TX. 
    • The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in New Mexico has burned 176,273 acres and is 43% contained, with strong winds helping spread the wildfire farther into small farming communities in the state’s mountain valleys. The fire is New Mexico’s second-largest wildfire on record, having destroyed at least 276 structures and led to the evacuation of nearly 13,000 residences to date. 

Latinos are twice as likely to live in areas most threatened by wildfires relative to the overall U.S. population.