A Developing Water Crisis Across the Western US

A Widespread Crisis

California’s extreme drought has dominated regional news for months, all but obscuring the fact that most states in the western U.S. are facing their own water crises. In fact, according to the latest figures from the US Drought Monitor, a full 77% of western states are in some level of drought while 40% of the land has already been classified as severe drought.

The winter snowpack, a major focus of attention in northern California, normally acts as a frozen reservoir, gradually melting in the summer and releasing water into streams and rivers. Many people think spring rains will end a significant drought, but the fact is that most rainfall drains quickly away, leaving no water flowing for the rest of the long, hot summer. While a wet spring season can help farmers and ranchers in the short run, it simply cannot make up for a meager snowpack.

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At an elevation of 6,800 feet, Phillips Station in the Sierra has been measured since 1941, with an average April 1 snow depth of 66.5 inches. April 1 2015 was the first early-April measurement that found no snow at Phillips.

In Oregon, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service reported this week that statewide the snowpack this winter peaked at the lowest levels measured in the last 35 years. This is bad news for major farming communities like the Willamette Basin, where snowmelt traditionally provides up to 80 percent of the Willamette River’s flow in late summer. This year, the snowpack had already melted before the middle of June.

Water usage and availability has become an issue nationwide. In fact, forty states expect to see water shortages in at least some areas within the next decade. In a 2013 GAO survey, state water managers from around the country reported they expect freshwater shortages to continue into the next decade, even under “average” conditions. If those areas suffer unusually low snowfall or rainfall, the situation could become even more serious.

What Does It Mean?

The typical consumer experience of severe drought is browning lawns, unwashed cars and perhaps shorter showers. But the consequences of an exceptional long term drought are considerably more severe. Agriculture is completely dependent upon the availability of water. It’s a simple equation—to have food you must have water, but consumers and many interest groups do not appear to make the connection. Fewer crops as farmers fallow their fields for lack of irrigation mean more expensive food—and not just fresh produce. A lack of crops, like alfalfa to make silage for cattle, means meat prices will increase as well. Even more devastating, financial ruin comes hard on the heels of agricultural layoffs since local economies are quickly ravaged and the ripple effect is felt across the country.

The drought affects more than food production—local economies in states like California and Colorado depend on nature-based tourism and recreation, including skiing, fishing and backpacking in the splendor of unspoiled wilderness. Today, lakes are disappearing, rivers are mere trickles, winter ski slopes are barren dirt tracks, and even whole forests are dying in staggering numbers. In California alone, over 12 million trees have already died because of the drought and heat.

Digging deeper, when we think about the ripple effects of higher temperatures, we consider an increased demand for power for air conditioning, but analysis has shown that the drought is likely to impact the ability of utilities to produce that electricity. The Central Valley Project was constructed to move more than 2 trillion gallons of water annually from the mountains to the Central Valley, generating hydroelectricity as it flowed. With substantially decreased water flow, less (or even zero) power can be produced. Reduced stream flow will impact even the coal-fired power plants’ ability to cool, which could cut power generation capacity by close to 10%.

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With more than 75% of western land in some sort of drought condition, nearly 58 million people are directly affected by water shortages at this time.

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