Megadrought in West US: Here is what can be done


Silicon Valley-based Gopi Mattel is general partner and CEO at Lifeboat Ventures, a venture fund that creates disaster impact mitigation startups. He is the founder/CEO of CellarStone, Inc; director at Founder Institute; and adviser for Pepperdine University’s Most Fundable Companies program. The views expressed are his own.



Nearly 80 percent of the western United States is experiencing drought now. The US Drought Monitor says that the 2020 drought is the worst in more than two decades.

Deficits for lakes Powell and Mead are significant. Both are part of the Colorado river basin and millions depend on them throughout the West. Long-term deficits have been building since almost 1900 and each drought only makes it worse.

The inflow into Lake Powell was 3.4 million acre-feet below average. An acre-foot is equal to almost 300,000 gallons of water. We are starting from a very big hole.

In the past 1,200 years, the United States has been through four ‘megadroughts’ lasting decades. A megadrought is roughly defined as a severe drought that occurs across a large region for more than a decade.

A study published last year found that a huge region of the west, from California, Arizona and New Mexico north to Oregon and Idaho, is affected by the latest megadrought in the past 12 centuries.

The research team, who published their results in Science, used ancient trees to study their tree rings and reconstruct what the climate looked like in the western US in the past.

Average temperature in the western US has gone up 1.2°C since 2000. An increasingly hotter climate has led to an increase in the severity of the drought. If not for the warming climate this could be a regular drought and not a megadrought. Surprisingly, most people in the US are not aware of this megadrought that we are experiencing. They see it as locally dry weather.

In addition to people needing water for daily use in their homes, many large industries are dependent on adequate water. Agriculture and livestock particularly require large amounts of water, and any impact there will quickly flow to people’s ability to live.

But everyone knows about the fires in the west from the last couple of decades. As is clear, these drought conditions are going to make the fires far worse. Trees are going to by dry and even suffer large-scale death and be ripe for devastating fires.

Water doesn’t go away — net water on earth is still the same. If anything, more water is available due to melting glaciers and ice sheets. The strange thing is that we know that water doesn’t really go way. The number of water (H2O) molecules on earth are roughly going to be the same regardless. They are in three major forms, ice, water and water vapor.

If anything, due to the melting ice sheets and glaciers there is actually more water in liquid form than in the recent few thousand years. The earth has far more water than is necessary to support the global population even if it multiplied a few times.

We just have to be able invest in the techniques and technologies to make it accessible to the places there is a deficit.

In addition, people everywhere should become resilient to water shortages that are inevitable as we are already in the megadrought now.

What if there existed a company to provide balcony-sized vertical farms for city/suburb houses and apartments. If it provided the equipment, seeds, and growing instructions via an app and coordinated the production and sharing of food in neighborhoods, it may be able to achieve food resilience locally. People could pay for this as a subscription service.

Other ideas to help in this area could be condensing water vapor out of air into potable water, and small-scale desalination plants that can use wave power locally.

Lifeboat Ventures is thinking about these and a few more ideas to fund in its quest to mitigate disaster impact on society.