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Southwest “megadrought” leads to wildfires and new homicide evidence

Data: NOAA; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

It is only May, and the worsening, long-term drought in the Southwest is taxing water managers, firefighters and even homicide detectives in new ways.

Why it matters: The region is stuck in a “megadrought” lasting more than two decades, and studies show it is more severe than any in at least 1,200 years.

It is also the first megadrought to be driven in large part by human-caused warming, as increased temperatures lead to a thirstier atmosphere in a positive feedback loop that dries out the landscape faster and in turn allows the air to heat up even more.

The big picture: California just recorded its driest first four months of the year, encompassing a crucial period during the heart of the state’s wet season.

The state’s largest reservoir, Lake Shasta, stands at just 40% of its average for this time of year, and the snow cover in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is anemic despite receiving a boost from April into early May in some locations.The drought helped fuel a wildfire north of Los Angeles last night and into this morning which destroyed more than a dozen pricey homes in Orange County.

Meanwhile… In New Mexico, multiple large wildfires are burning amid scorching heat, high winds and dry air.

The National Weather Service has described the conditions there as “dire.”At about 237,000 acres as of Wednesday evening, the Calf Canyon Fire is the state’s second-largest wildfire on record and growing.The Calf Canyon Fire prompted more evacuations on Wednesday, including in the resort communities in Taos County, as the fire expanded, with glowing-hot embers landing on bone-dry vegetation.

Threat level: In California, local authorities have been issuing increasingly draconian water restrictions, and the state is entering a dry season in which both its reservoirs are near record lows.

The state is also grappling with the new reality of a much-diminished Colorado River, which helps provide water to several states.The level of water in Lake Mead in Arizona and Nevada, the nation’s largest reservoir by volume, is so low that one of the long-serving water intakes, built to transport water to thirsty communities in the Southwest, is no longer submerged.

The intrigue: As the water level drops, long-hidden bodies have begun to be unearthed. The first instance of skeletal human remains was discovered on May 1, inside a rusted metal barrel.

Police have speculated that this individual, who showed evidence of a gunshot wound, was the victim of a mob hit dating to a more violent era in Las Vegas, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.Another body was found last weekend, the paper reported.