Just how bad is the drought in the Southwestern United States — and how might it affect swimmers and their safety this summer? To answer that increasingly dire question, look no further than Witchita Falls, Texas. This city of just over 100,000 is already enforcing stage 4 water restrictions, which forbids residents from any outdoor watering or risk a $2,000 fine. The next level is stage 5. If reached, this unprecedented water restriction would mean public pools and waterparks would not be allowed to operate this summer including the popular Castaway Cove waterpark. The city hasn’t said how stage 5 would affect homeowners, but it hasn’t ruled out restricting operation of those pools as well.
In the parched Southwest, this seemingly draconian measure may become the norm rather than the exception. The headlines alone are enough to make you thirsty: Hundred Years of Dry: How California’s Drought Could Get Much, Much Worse; Severe Drought Has U.S. West Fearing Worst; and California’s Drought Is So Bad, You Can See It From Space.
Those headlines aren’t hyperbole, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. The site’s drought prediction map shows the drought intensifying for the western half of the United States at least through April 30. That’s just one month before the traditional start of swim season.
Much of the national news media attention is focused on California’s “mega drought” for good reason. More than 98 percent of the state is below normal levels of water and many areas are in the most severe dry spell since drought started being monitored in 2000, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Filling swimming pools is among the water conservation restrictions being imposed on cities. California Gov. Jerry Brown called the drought an “unprecedented serious situation.” One news report called the state’s drought “a catastrophe in the making.”
But California is far from alone. In January, the feds designated parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, Utah, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Oklahoma and California as natural disaster areas because of a drought.
Drought conditions have threatened pool use since 2008, largely without impact. That looks likely to change this year. Pool owners can help head off disaster with water conservation efforts. But even with those efforts, if this drought persists — and indications are that it will — this could be the first summer on record that drought forces closure of public pools and waterparks across a large chunk of the United States. Combine that with continued record-breaking temperatures, and you’ve got the recipe for a public health crisis. When it gets hot, people will find a way to cool off. If they can’t do it at a pool with lifeguards, they’ll likely jump into rivers and lakes with little or no supervision. So along with record-breaking drought and temperatures, the nation could break another record this summer: the number of drownings.