DENVER — The search is on for ways to increase water supply as the West struggles with a third year of drought, intensifying pressure to cut through red tape on infrastructure projects and land management overhauls as conservation efforts plateau.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signaled the sea change last month when he unveiled a strategy that calls for major investments in desalination and storage, including moving ahead with the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta water tunnel and the Sites Reservoir. His plan has no mandatory cutbacks on water use.
Environmental groups were less than thrilled with the emphasis on infrastructure, but Steven Greenhut, Western region director of the free market group R Street in Sacramento, called the governor’s plan “music to my ears.”
“We need to promote a policy of abundance, trying to get more water into the system,” said Mr. Greenhut, author of “Winning the Water Wars.” “I’m not against conservation or anything like that. It’s just that there’s a point of diminishing returns. We have to also look at ways to improve the amount of water that we store during light [moisture] years.”
More than 41% of the continental United States is in drought, according to figures released Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center. Most of the West and Midwest are experiencing abnormally dry or worse conditions in the third year of the North American drought.
The Colorado River, which provides water to seven Western states, has lost 20% of its volume over the past century. Its two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, fell to historic lows this year, prompting the Bureau of Reclamation to order a second year of cuts in water consumption.
Climate advocacy groups argue that the shortages are part of a long-term shift to the “aridification of the American West,” driven by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat, said the “Western states are suffering from aridification, and you’ll notice I did not say drought.”
“This is not some random event. It’s frankly a direct result of the lack of action on climate that we have seen for more than 20 years, and we all collectively own that,” Mr. Heinrich said at a June 14 hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
By other measures, the nation is practically awash in water. The Environmental Protection Agency, citing the Palmer Drought Severity Index, said “the overall trend has been toward wetter conditions” in the lower 48 states from 1895 to 2020.
“Average drought conditions across the nation have varied over time. The 1930s and 1950s saw the most widespread droughts, while the last 50 years have generally been wetter than average,” the EPA said on its Climate Change Indicators: Drought website.
California reported its wettest year on record from 2016 to 2017. The Oroville Dam overflowed into the emergency spillway, prompting the evacuation of 180,000 people. In 2019, the Sierra Nevada snowpack rose to nearly 200% of its average.
State Sen. Brian Dahle, a Republican running to unseat Mr. Newsom in November, said the problem isn’t a lack of water but rather a lack of storage capacity and proper water management.
“Shasta, the largest reservoir in the state of California, was 105% full in 2018,” Mr. Dahle said. “Four years later, we don’t have enough water, and it’s just because we haven’t managed it that well. We are in a drought — I don’t want to discount that we’re in a drought — but we need to manage our water in a different way, a better way.”
Supply and demand
That means moving beyond conservation and embracing a host of technologies and strategies to enhance supply.
“We have 40 million people. We haven’t built significant water infrastructure since the 1970s, when the population was roughly half of what it is. We have a growing population,” Mr. Greenhut said. “On the climate issue, my argument is that instead of embracing state policies that are designed to change the entire globe’s climate, we need to embrace policies as a state that make us more resilient, whatever the climate sends our way.”
Congress last year enacted the $8.3 billion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which includes funding for water storage, desalination projects and reservoir improvements. It also promotes water recycling and incentives for water conservation and efficiency.
Mr. Newsom’s plan received mixed reviews from the Sierra Club, which praised the emphasis on conservation, recycling and stormwater capture but took exception to storage.
“Unfortunately, this strategy doubles down on promoting water storage projects, such as Sites Reservoir, that won’t provide new water supply but will detrimentally affect California’s rivers, lakes, streams and communities,” said Brandon Dawson, director of the Sierra Club California. “And it doesn’t address the harmful impacts that Newsom’s antiquated tunnel project, the Delta Conveyance Project, will have on the Bay-Delta region.”
Mr. Greenhut said less water use is not enough. “We have a status quo that’s just, we can conserve more, we can conserve more, but we need water,” he said.
Western states already have made enormous strides in protecting their most precious resource. Arizona uses less water today than it did in 1957, even though the population has exploded from 1 million to 7 million.
Conservation fatigue is also a problem. After years of scrimping on water consumption, Californians turned the spigots back on this spring. Water use went down in June by 7.6% from 2020 levels, according to state figures, short of Mr. Newsom’s call for a 15% voluntary reduction.
More calls to save are sure to follow. Lake Mead, the nation’s largest man-made reservoir, fell in July to 27% of capacity, its lowest level since it was filled in 1937. Lake Powell, the second largest, dropped to 24%.
For the second year in a row, the Bureau of Reclamation reduced water apportionments to Arizona, Nevada and the nation of Mexico. Arizona pushed back its allotment cut of 21% for 2023 because meeting the targets would “take significant contributions by all water users.”
“It is unacceptable for Arizona to continue to carry a disproportionate burden of reductions for the benefit of others who have not contributed,” the Arizona Department of Water Resources and Central Arizona Project said in an Aug. 16 statement.
A widely publicized study by the University of California, Los Angeles, and Columbia University said the dry spell is part of a 22-year “megadrought.” Researchers said the drought was the worst in 1,200 years, and they attributed it in part to “anthropogenic climate trends.”
Not everyone agreed. Heartland Institute President James Taylor cited studies showing two major droughts in what is now California that lasted from 930 to 1130 and 1250 to 1350.
“The Earth’s a big place. There’s always going to be some places localized when you have drought,” Mr. Taylor said. “Unfortunately for people in the Southwest, this is a period of drought, but it also follows a period of more moisture and rainfall that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.”
The Colorado River flow has decreased by about 20% in the past century, prompting the bureau to seek a 2023 reduction of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet.
Blaming the drop entirely on climate change doesn’t square with Greg Walcher, a former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and now president of the Natural Resources Group, a consulting firm. He pointed to decades of feeble management policies.
“Climate change has played a role, no doubt, but it isn’t the only cause. And, of course, there isn’t anything the government can do about that,” Mr. Walcher said. “But there’s a lot the government can do about the management of public lands, which is a key part of the problem.”
The overgrown national forests fueling catastrophic wildfires are also preventing snow and rainwater from reaching the ground before evaporating. The phenomenon is known as evapotranspiration.
“Snow evaporates off the needles of pine trees before it ever gets to the ground, but when you have 1,000 trees per acre, where in a natural situation it might be 50, then the amount of water is massive that never gets to the ground,” Mr. Walcher said. “And when it does get to the ground, it is absorbed by way too many trees and brush and grasses and so on. A huge percentage of the water that falls in the Rocky Mountains never reaches the rivers.”
He said the Bureau of Reclamation estimates that the Colorado River loses almost 4 million acre-feet per year to evapotranspiration. Exacerbating the problem are invasive plants such as the tamarisk and Russian olive tree.
“Tamarisk is hard to control. Just cutting it off is like pruning it — it grows faster. Burning it doesn’t kill it. You have to essentially cut it and poison the stumps,” Mr. Walcher said. “So it’s a time-consuming, difficult and expensive process, but it’s nothing, nothing compared to the amount of money people spend trying to get more money into cities like Denver and Los Angeles.”
That includes investing in expensive desalination plants, which turn ocean and brackish water into fresh water. Mr. Newsom’s updated water strategy calls for doubling the amount of water produced by desalination by 2040, but the future of the plants has taken a hit.
In May, the California Coastal Commission rejected a proposed $1.4 billion desalination plant in Huntington Beach. It cited concerns about driving up the cost of water and killing marine life and sealing the fate of a project debated for 20 years.
Mr. Dahle said the defeat exemplifies the regulatory barriers associated with building even desperately needed projects in California.
“I’m all for infrastructure, and I’ve been for it for a long time. But, quite frankly, the problem has been that the agencies that do the work, that actually put those projects forward, are failing us,” Mr. Dahle said. “These agencies like the State Water Resources Control Board, they’re stumbling blocks to get anything actually done. We need to be able to streamline the process and get moving because Californians are suffering.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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