Critical Crops, Industries In Peril
The Dust Bowl pales in comparison to the mega-drought scorching the American West today. According to most scientists, the situation isn’t likely to improve.
The past year has been the driest or second driest in most Southwestern states since record keeping began in 1895. Almost 75 percent of the American West is experiencing severe drought, which puts more than 57 million people in harm’s way. While the West has long experienced boom and bust cycles of precipitation, climate change is increasing the volatility and intensity of these cycles.
While drought and dry weather occur and vary naturally in the region, the increasing temperatures pushing the American West over the edge are human in origin. Some scientists suggest that the word drought is no longer accurate, because it implies that the water shortages may end. According to their analysis, the added heat and winds from climate change supercharged the drying process, making the current drought the second worst in the last 1,200 years. The Colorado and Rio Grande rivers are trickling compared to their long-term averages.
Thanks to global warming and climate change, we can’t rely on the past to predict the future.
Human-caused climate change, in tandem with human reshaping of the natural hydrological systems—by damming rivers, growing vast fields of crops, and more—have shifted the baseline conditions so thoroughly that there is no way to return to what used to be considered normal. Farms and cities have begun imposing water restrictions.
Today’s catastrophic conditions are influenced by many factors, including a La Niña that began last fall. A La Niña makes it more likely that Pacific storm systems curve northward toward the Pacific Northwest and Canada rather than California and the Southwest.
“It’s incredible, how much of the West is in extreme or exceptional drought right now, including much of the Colorado and Rio Grande basins, the two lifelines of the Southwest,” said Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project.
Summer temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere are now higher than they have been in the last 1,200 years. Climate change has bumped up average air temperatures 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the region in just the past 100 years, which evaporates more water from streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, plants and soil.
According to David Simeral, a climate scientist at the Desert Research Institute and an author for the U.S. Drought Monitor, conditions over the last 12 months have created the perfect storm. Brutal heat scorched much of the region last summer, the Southwest monsoon failed to deliver substantial rainfall, and many western states got less precipitation than usual this winter. The region has been in a state of drought nearly every year since 2000, when the Drought Monitor was established.
A new study examined tree ring data from the past 1,200 years. Their analysis found that during the past 1,200 years, the American West cycled through 35 major droughts, including mega-droughts in the 800s, 1100s, 1200s (linked to the collapse of Ancestral Pueblo culture in the Southwest), and one deep, intense stretch in the late 1500s.
“The region would have been in a state of drought regardless, but climate change is pushing this event to be one of the worst in 500 years,” says Ben Cook, a climate scientist at Columbia’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. “The previous mega-droughts lasted 20, 30, even 40 years, really eclipsing anything we’ve had to manage in the last 100 years,” says Cook.
Snowpack in California on April 1, its usual peak time, only reached 59 percent of its long-term average. It has melted away, leaving just 15 percent of its average at this date. Soils are parched.
The effects of the drought are impacting many stakeholders across the West. Unfortunately, millions of Californians are running out of water. Compounding the problem, millions of Americans rely on California for food. Along the California-Oregon border in the Klamath River basin, water reserves are so low that farmers in the region will receive only 8 percent of the water they usually get. The Yurok and Karuk tribes, which steward salmon and other fish populations along the river, are concerned that it won’t have enough water to keep the fish healthy.
The Colorado River, the source of water for almost 40 million people, is dropping. It hasn’t reached the ocean in years. The decline in the river’s flow is exacerbated by both a 20-year drought and climate change. But it has been a century in the making. Cities cannot solve this problem alone because approximately 75-80 percent of Colorado River water is used for agriculture.
In much of the western United States, water demand has exceeded supply for decades.
Global warming and climate change are compounding the problem by shrinking water supplies even more. That’s bad news for millions of people and for the farmland that produces most of the country’s fruits and vegetables. Water cutbacks are reverberating through California’s $50 billion agricultural industry, which employs tens of thousands of people in many small towns across the state.
Tribes in the Colorado River basin, who have long lacked consistent access to the clean and plentiful water to which they have legal rights, are also feeling the effects of the drought.
“Navajo Nation has been the epicenter of drought for years,” says Bidtah Becker, a Navajo attorney and co-author of a new report outlining the water access challenges. “This is a climate change matter, and it’s really important for the federal government to invest appropriately now so that we’re building water systems that are resilient for the future.”
Southwestern states recently negotiated a temporary agreement to use less water as reservoirs keep falling. But tough conversations remain about how the West and its complex system of water rights will adapt.
“It’s an alarming picture,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies how global warming affects extreme weather events.
Across the region, reservoir levels are near record lows and mountain snowpack, which slowly releases water in the spring and summer, is largely depleted. In California, water restrictions are already in effect, with more widespread cuts expected. Dry soil conditions are already increasing fire risk.
“There’s a 100 percent chance that it gets worse before it gets better,” Dr. Swain said. “We have the whole long, dry summer to get through. If the reservoir continues to decline, more aggressive actions will be taken by the lower basin users, including California.”
These recent extreme droughts include the 2011 to 2016 California drought and the 2000 to 2015 drought in the Colorado River basin.
As cities from Denver to Los Angeles began growing in the early 1900s, planners knew they needed reliable water supplies. Engineers drafted plans to build Lake Mead.
Since several states rely on Colorado River water, officials negotiated a deal in 1922. Seven states are located in the river’s basin and affected by the Colorado River Compact: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. First, they determined how much water flowed down the river each year. Officials looked at the previous 20 years of data, which reflected above-average precipitation. They divided up the river water based on unsustainable estimates.
“Politicians in the 1920s ignored science and promised more water to the cities and farms of the west than the river can deliver. So we’d be in trouble even without climate change. But warming temperatures are making the problem worse, by increasing evaporation so less water can make it downstream to users,” John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.
Since the water agreement, the Colorado River has been shrinking. Lake Mead, the largest human-made reservoir in the United States, recently hit its lowest level since 1937. It is now just 37 percent full. The lake, which sits on the border between Nevada and Arizona, is under growing pressure from the prolonged drought, climate change and growing population in the Southwest. The lake is the major water source for approximately 40 million people. The low water levels will affect the dam’s electricity capacity and could prompt the first water shortage declaration from the federal government, which could cut water supplies to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
“We’re about to begin negotiating a new set of Colorado River water management rules, and we need to base the discussions on a realistic assessment of how deeply climate change is going to cut into the river’s flow,” Fleck told The Hill. “There’s a danger of repeating the mistake of a century ago and ignoring the inconvenient science. But only if we take the science seriously can we plan for the difficult future.”
Studies show that since 2000, about half the reduction in the Colorado River’s flow has been due to warmer temperatures. The same climate impacts are being felt elsewhere in California, where a massive network of reservoirs and canals connects the mountains to the Bay Area and Southern California. That water also flows to the Central Valley and other agricultural areas, which grow two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts.
The state’s snowpack in the Sierra Nevada up north is a vital source of water. But in a hotter climate, it’s shrinking and melting earlier in the season. And as in the Colorado River basin, less of that snowpack is turning into water supply.
Usually, melting mountain snowpack helps to replenish reservoirs, rivers and soils throughout the spring and summer. Unfortunately, in the Sierra Nevada mountains and other parts of the lower West, snowpack melted early this year because of higher spring temperatures. Much of the runoff didn’t make it to reservoirs and streams because parched soils absorbed the water.
“We’re getting a lot less stream flow coming off the same amount of snowpack,” says Andrew Schwarz, climate action coordinator at California’s Department of Water Resources. “We’re not seeing as much water showing up in our rivers as we would have expected with the same amount of rain or snow that we had gotten historically.”
According to state research, California’s water supply, which reaches 25 million residents through two state and federal water projects, will shrink with every degree of warming, even if the state gets more rain than average.
The agricultural sector in California has been particularly affected by water shortages, with federal and state allotments drastically cut. Farmers have had to destroy some water-intensive crops in hopes of saving others. At the California-Oregon border, the drought has pitted farmers against fish once more.
Big cities aren’t likely to see major water shortages this summer, but running out of water is a real possibility for some rural areas, especially those that depend on wells.
States on the Colorado River negotiated a hard-fought plan in 2019 to deal with water shortages. As Lake Mead drops, Arizona and Nevada face cutbacks first. If water levels continue to fall, other states such as California will also face restrictions. The solution is temporary, however. States will need to negotiate another plan that would start in 2026, and reservoirs are projected to keep dropping over the next two years. Reexamining the water allotments in the original agreement will not be easy (ratified by both states and Congress).
“It’s difficult,” Kuhn says. “It creates a lot of legal conflicts. It’s a bumpy road, but we’ll get there because we have to.”
California has its own system of rights where water users have claimed more water than is available on average. During the state’s last drought, some water users challenged the state’s authority to regulate them. California officials released a report this year identifying a need to have more adaptable water rights in a changing climate as well as better water use data.
“California’s water system was designed for a climate we don’t have anymore,” says Alvar Escriva-Bou, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “What we are seeing, especially in some parts of California, is that we have been using more water than is available. And that’s causing problems. So the reality here is that we have to make a reduction of water use over the long term.”
The Bureau of Reclamation—which oversees water in the western United States— recently released projections that are setting off alarm bells throughout the country. Those projections estimate that the water level in Lake Mead will fall below 1,075 feet in June of this year, for the very first time. Lake Mead is a vital reservoir that provides water from the Colorado River to California, Nevada and Arizona, and it has been at a consistently low level for decades. That 1,075 foot mark, will trigger the country’s first ever official water shortage declaration, prompting all kinds of cuts in water allocation.
Arizona and Nevada would automatically be subject to significant cuts in water access. The reduction in water in the reservoir would also have severe ramifications on hydroelectric power, which is generated from the Hoover Dam.
In response, the Biden administration announced the formation of an Interagency Working Group, chaired by both the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, to determine how to cope with the worsening drought. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in two counties in the northern parts of the state. This comes with a huge reduction in the amount of available water for agriculture in the region—primarily grapes in wine country. Water removed from the shallow lakes and rivers around the California-Oregon border has long been sent to drier desert areas so they can be farmed, but that has also negatively affected aquatic life, including salmon runs.
Newsom has not declared this emergency for the entire state, but warnings have been sent to tens of thousands of water rights holders, asking them to start conserving water. For farmers, this likely means that what water remains will be used to maintain perennial crops like fruit and nut trees, rather than planting usual annual crops like vegetables.
In the Central Valley of California, the country’s most valuable agricultural land, farmers are urging Governor Newsom to declare a statewide emergency. That declaration would allow for more water to be allocated from other sources to the Central Valley. The region receives very little rainfall even in good years and largely relies on irrigation.
Conservation will be critical in a hotter climate. The vast majority of water used in the West goes to agriculture, and some regions have conserved by investing in more efficient irrigation. Other regions, with older water rights less at risk, have had less incentive to do so.
The good news is that some drought measures seem to stick. Since California’s last drought from 2012 to 2016, residential water use has remained lower than it was before the drought hit. It’s more than just shorter showers. Residents made investments such as water-efficient fixtures and xeriscaping.
As you probably know, prion contamination is real and it is deadly. It’s unstoppable. Prion disease is a pandemic now (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease, etc.) and has been for many years. Victims around the world are producing and spreading prions through their bodily fluids and tissue. They are contaminating the world around them and putting family members and caregivers at risk. Prions migrate, mutate, multiply and kill with unparalleled efficiency. After their discovery, they were regulated as a select agent. Now, they are not regulated at all.
Sewage is the largest prion pathway in the world. Unfortunately, the risk assessments on wastewater treatment and reuse are incomplete. The EPA and others don’t mention prions in their assessments and the wastewater treatment process does nothing to inactivate them. Pumping “treated” wastewater into aquifers, rivers and beyond isn’t such a smart idea. It is likely spoiling our last safe water supplies and reservoirs. Drinking toilet-to-tap water also is based on an incomplete risk assessment.
Prion contamination also is in sewage sludge (biosolids), which is dumped on our crops, where it infects food, water runoff, streams, rivers, lakes and groundwater. It’s also dumped in other places across America, including parks, golf courses and school grounds. Prions are contaminating entire watersheds. Prion contamination is killing people, wildlife and livestock around the world. Just say no until the risk assessment is accurate and complete. Prions + pathways = victims.
Wildfire Prevention & Management
Worldwide, fires are displacing millions of people at a horrifying pace–most of that displacement is happening in North America. In 2020, more than 10.2 million acres of forest burned across the the American West. Fires will claim even more land in 2021. According to experts, climate change has also made it more likely that any wildfires will be bigger and more intense. Last year, the West Coast saw its worst fire season on record, with mega-fires burning in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Dry conditions have set the stage for another bad fire year in 2021. Forests that don’t burn are dying a slow death from thirst and disease. Global warming also appears to be causing more constant winds. Wind compounds the drought and the wildfires.
Meanwhile, many parts of the West are wasting their last freshwater resources in a futile attempt to stop wildfires. It’s like burning your home to stay warm. Elsewhere, firefighters are dumping salt water from the ocean on wildfires. That’s a sure way to kill vegetation for years to come. We are spending billions of dollars, wasting precious resources and putting uninsured firefighters into losing battles. Forest fires are a fact of life. We need to do what we can to prevent them and we need to do what we can to get all forms of life out of harm’s way. It’s time to rethink and reform fire prevention.
“President Biden and his administration understand what our communities face and the immense magnitude of these challenges with hotter, drier and longer wildfire seasons in a climate-changed West,” said Colorado’s Governor Polis.
Colorado saw the three largest wildfires in state history last year. As a result, Polis signed a bill to fund forest restoration, wildfire risk mitigation, wildfire preparedness and post-fire recovery and mitigation efforts as well as a bill to boost an existing Colorado Water Conservation Board grant program to protect watersheds from the impacts of wildfires.
Just a few years ago, one governor of an unnamed western state suggested cutting down our forests to help prevent forest fires and to keep forests from robbing water from cities downstream. Unfortunately, that’s the high-calibre vision and leadership that created global warming, climate change and over-development of the West.
Better Policy Is A Matter Of Life and Death
Growth and greed have driven the region to the brink. Decades of Ponzi schemes over land and water have poured fuel on the fire. Smarter land use and greener cities are part of the solution. Our cities also must become more resilient. Some will not be sustainable. A new age of ghost towns is on the horizon.
COP26 and global agreements to fight climate change offer hope, but not soon enough to save the West and other endangered regions of the world. It’s clearly a matter of self defense for the stakeholders in all endangered regions.
Water conservation is part of the equation. Golf courses, swimming pools and dancing fountains might not be as vital to life as once thought.
Water protection also is part of the solution. We must stop contaminating our watersheds and safe water supplies with sewage, pesticides, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, radionuclides and more.
The West temporarily buffered itself from harsh climatic swings by creating artificial environments and human landscapes, but modern civilization is unprepared for the wrath of Mother Nature. We must face the myths of the past and prepare for a future where fresh water is a diminishing resource. Droughts are harbingers of a new normal where water demand perpetually outstrips supplies.
We also must defend our ecosystems and we must help nature reforest those that have been destroyed. Forest management, or lack thereof, helped create the disaster at hand. These watersheds help cool the planet and help us capture and store our diminishing water resources. Of course, they help provide critical habitat to hundreds, if not thousands, of species large and small. Failure is not an option.
President Joe Biden just nominated Camille Touton to lead the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. If confirmed, the Nevada native will lead negotiations among the states over the future of the Colorado River. The agency is responsible for water in 17 states and power in 13. It’s the second-largest producer of hydropower in the United States, overseeing 491 dams, including the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams. It also manages 338 reservoirs, including Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Hopefully, Touton will bring leadership and the voice of reason to this important region at a critical time. Brace for one of the most heated political and legal battles in American history. There will be few winners as nature takes a new course. There will be even fewer winners if humans don’t change course soon.
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