Guest Column: West trends toward super drought
Colorado’s southeast plains have turned into a swirling dust bowl. Nevada is relocating herds of wild horses and cattle off parched federal rangelands. The Wyoming Weather Modification Pilot Program is regularly seeding clouds to make rain. All of New Mexico is in drought, with the Rio Grande so low it’s been dubbed the “Rio Sand.”
In Texas, 30 communities could run out of water by year’s end, says the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Nearly 15 million people are on water rationing, with no end in sight. The Texas drought is forecast to drag on for 5 to 15 more years.
Mountain snowpack, the source for much of the West’s water, is declining and melting earlier, reducing summer water supplies. As Western water supplies evaporate, water needs are outpacing availability. By 2050, U.S. population will surge by 86 million people, topping 400 million, with many settling in thirsty Western cities.
U.S. agriculture, which now uses 142 billion gallons per day, mostly for Western irrigation, will need more water as temperatures rise and drought deepens.
Drought also impacts Western energy production. Hydroelectric dams supply some 40 percent of Western electricity. Along the Colorado and other river basins, hydro-power production can decrease by a factor of five during drought. Water levels in Arizona’s Lake Mead have dropped 5.6 trillion gallons since 1998, and there’s a 50 percent chance the reservoir will dry up by 2021, forcing Las Vegas and parts of California to find power elsewhere, say Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers.
Water-intensive hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is skyrocketing in drought-stressed regions, especially Texas and Colorado.
Competition for scarce water is already pitting towns against farms, farms against industry, and states against states. A recent Supreme Court battle challenged a state’s control over its own water. Texas wanted to siphon water from a Red River tributary in Oklahoma under the terms of a past interstate water agreement. Oklahoma refused, Texas sued, and the court ruled in favor of Oklahoma, ruling that a state controls the water within its own borders. There are currently seven states in interstate legal feuds over Colorado River water.
If the trend toward drought continues, as most climate models predict, the arid West will face water bankruptcy. In coming decades, shortages could impact public health, commerce and wildlife and force towns to be abandoned. Drought may crash food production, with yields of 36 U.S. crops expected to decline by mid-century.
Addressing the West’s water crisis means rethinking water usage. Current consumption and waste is unsustainable.
Agriculture laps up 80 percent of the nation’s water use, according to the nonprofit American Rivers. Fortifying leaky irrigation systems, planting less water-intensive crops in dry areas, and properly treating wastewater for crop production will conserve water. We also need a long-term solution for the equitable allocation, use and conservation of groundwater based on scientific criteria and cooperation, not competition and litigation.
As aquifers drain, states should adopt legislation that carefully weighs water uses in the public interest. Drinking water and ecosystem needs must balance with industrial and agricultural demands.
And we must — as the world’s second largest contributor to climate change — alter our energy policies, moving away from fossil fuels in favor of clean energy. Many Western states maintain strong resistance to climate change legislation. But if the region is to thrive in the 21st century, it is in these states’ best interest to reverse their position.
Otherwise, the West may find itself between a hot rock and a dry place, without a drop of water left to drink.
Sharon Guynup’s writing has appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times Syndicate, Scientific American, The Boston Globe and nationalgeographic.com.
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