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  • Writer's pictureSteve Brown

Water, water... nowhere, and not a drop to drink

Three-quarters of the American West is in some kind of drought.
Three-quarters of the American West is in some kind of drought.

While water districts, local and county governments, and developers often continue to make decisions as if water was guaranteed to be available into the future, the reality is, well, a lot drier than they make it seem.

The Center for Western Priorities notes that about 58% of the West is classified currently as being in a severe, extreme, or exceptional drought. Other sources put more than three-quarters of the West in a state of drought. The Drought Monitor places about 90% of the West in drought or as abnormally dry, which is among the highest percentages it has tracked over the past 20 years. About 90% of California is in a state of drought - and we just suffered our most destructive wildfire season on record. Snowpacks are around 75% below normal. The California Department of Water Resources notes that "The first half of Water Year 2021 is over, and California’s wet season is almost finished. The first six months of the water year rank as the fourth driest of record based on statewide precipitation."

The two largest reservoirs in the United States are headed for record lows. According to the Arizona Republic, the latest projections from the federal Bureau of Reclamation show Lake Mead could drop below its last record low - from 2016 - and Lake Powell, which is now just 36% full, could keep dropping to a new record low by March of next year.

Meanwhile, a study published in Science one year ago, finds that, "Global warming has pushed what would have been a moderate drought in southwestern North America into megadrought territory. Williams et al. used a combination of hydrological modeling and tree-ring reconstructions of summer soil moisture to show that the period from 2000 to 2018 was the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s and the second driest since 800 CE (see the Perspective by Stahle). This appears to be just the beginning of a more extreme trend toward megadrought as global warming continues." And the Southwest could remain dry - for centuries.

All the studies and signs that show drought is the "new normal" for the West, especially the Southwest, might make one think that how water - and thus growth and development - are managed, and the entire way water supply, management, and conservation is viewed, would be undergoing a profound change in water districts, local and county governments, and even with developers. And in some places, it is.

But in many water districts and localities, it's business as usual, as if water was guaranteed, because, as the reasoning seems to go, you have to have water, therefore, there will be water. Somehow.

Water districts whose groundwater supplies have been increasingly in overdraft for years now rely on water piped in to replenish their aquifers and supplement their supplies. In some districts, service is granted to new projects based on written agreements for future water supplies.

But what happens if guarantees written on paper can't hold up in reality?

Percent of Average Precipitation between October 1, 2020 and April 18, 2021.
Percent of Average Precipitation between October 1, 2020 and April 18, 2021.

The California Department of Water Resources warns, "Going forward, it becomes increasingly important that we improve our ability to forecast dry conditions at longer lead times, to provide more time for implementing state and local agency response actions. A key recommendation in review of state actions during California’s 2012-2016 drought was that response to dry conditions should begin sooner."

The DWR has announced an adjustment to its initial State Water Project allocation for the 2021 water year, halving its projection of water to be delivered, from 5% of requested supplies this year, down from its initial allocation of 10% announced in December 2020.

“We are now facing the reality that it will be a second dry year for California and that is having a significant impact on our water supply,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “The Department of Water Resources is working with our federal and state partners to plan for the impacts of limited water supplies this summer for agriculture as well as urban and rural water users. We encourage everyone to look for ways to use water efficiently in their everyday lives.”

While many agencies are getting better at addressing drought conditions, California's major reservoirs are at 50% capacity, and the Feather River watershed is on track for its second driest year on record.

Meanwhile, rural water agencies like the Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency, the agency that has signed a letter indicating they will provide water for a planned large luxury glamping resort in Flamingo Heights, purchases water from the California State Water Project originating in Northern California, hit hard by drought, to conduct groundwater recharge. This is an agency that has in the past failed to properly test the water it provides to some of its customers adequately. If it lacks the resources to test its water, does it have the resources, training, and education required to address larger challenges?

That is a serious question. And it's not just one agency. We have to ask whether some of the smaller, previously more rural, water districts are up to the task of adequately managing their resources during a time of increased drought-created pressures and a growing demand for service.

That is a question that needs to be included in the consideration of all significant development projects considered for approval in the Mojave Desert. Current residents should approach these projects considering that if increased demand put upon decreasing supply results in a reduction in water service to customers, it will impact their properties and their property values, as well as their qualify of life.

More resources:

DWR Adjusts State Water Project Allocation Following Dry Winter

Statewide Snowpack Well Below Normal as Wet Season Winds Down

DWR Awards $26 Million in Grants to Support Critically Overdrafted Groundwater Basins

A Dry Wrap-Up to the Wet Season

Southwest braces for water cutbacks as drought deepens along the Colorado River

The megadrought parching 77 percent of the Western US, explained

United States Drought Monitor

Persistent dryness in the West is exacerbating region's 'megadrought'

'Megadrought' emerging in the western US might be worse than any in 1,200 years

Large contribution from anthropogenic warming to an emerging North American megadrought

Western U.S. may be entering its most severe drought in modern history

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