Parched: Western Water Woes



By Larry Morandi

Snowpack is like money in the bank for Western states. Winter accumulations in the high country earn interest from skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Springtime snowmelt feeds into creeks and rivers, amounting to a massive transfer of liquid assets. Rising rivers and reservoirs allow fish to spawn, farmers to irrigate crops and city dwellers to maintain their lawns.

But this year, for the fourth year in a row, little snow fell in California and snowpack was a mere 5 percent of the average. On April 1, Governor Jerry Brown (D) stood in a dry spot 6,800 feet high in the Sierra Nevada and declared a statewide water emergency. In an average year he would have been standing on top of five and a half feet of snow.

With the state suffering from this kind of severe to exceptional drought, the University of California at Davis projected the agriculture industry would lose $2.7 billion this year, leaving 18,000 workers unemployed and 564,000 acres unplanted.

Brown called on residents to reduce urban water use by 25 percent over 2013 levels and offered to help communities replace 50 million square feet of lawn with drought-resistant landscapes.

Absent from the declaration were cutbacks for farmers. Critics argued that agriculture—the largest water user in California and all Western states, accounting for 80 percent of consumption—needed to be part of the solution. But the governor noted that farmers already had sustained deep cuts, with many receiving no water from the federal Central Valley Project for the second year in a row, and the State Water Project reducing deliveries to 20 percent. “They’re not watering their lawns or taking long showers,” the governor told ABC’s “This Week.” “They’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America to a significant part of the world.”

California’s drought continues to make headlines, but it’s hardly alone. Oregon and Washington are also experiencing drought, and each saw record low snowpacks last winter, resulting in irrigation cutbacks for farmers and fish kills in streams with reduced flows.

Costly Wildfires

This abnormal dryness has left much of the water-depleted region vulnerable to wildfire. California suffered more than 40 fires this year that burned more than 500,000 acres. The California Valley fire—the most destructive in state history based on insurance claims—killed four people, consumed at least 75,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,900 structures, including 1,200 homes.

Drought Defined

The National Weather Service defines drought as a deficiency in precipitation over an extended period, usually a season or more, resulting in a water shortage with adverse effects on vegetation, animals and/or people. Drought is a normal, temporary phenomenon and occurs in virtually all climate zones. But human factors, such as water demand and water management, can exacerbate a drought’s impact.

In Oregon and Washington, at least 1.6 million acres have burned  this year. Washington’s largest fire, the North Star, killed three firefighters and charred 211,000 acres, and Oregon’s biggest, the Canyon Creek Complex, consumed 110,000 acres.

What happens out West doesn’t just stay out West, however. The damage from drought, wildfires and flooding may be felt nationwide. California produces half of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the country, and it, along with its neighbors, annually draws hundreds of thousands of tourists from across the U.S. and around the world for skiing, fishing, camping and recreation.

Legislature Offers Relief

The California Legislature took decisive bipartisan action early in the 2015 session by passing a package of emergency bills that fast-tracked $1 billion in drought funding contained in the governor’s proposed fiscal 2016 budget. Together with revenue from Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond measure approved by the electorate in November 2014, the funds will support safe drinking water and water recycling projects, food relief for affected communities, fish and wildlife survival programs and flood control projects to make the water supply infrastructure more resilient.

“When we passed the historic water bond last year we said we would revisit it to do more if needed,” Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D) said when the legislation passed in March. “The package before us today is the first step in fulfilling that obligation and in helping bring relief to Californians suffering the effects of the drought. We will also take additional steps, as needed, going forward. But the severity of the drought requires that action start now.”

Assemblyman Adam Gray (D), a small-business owner from California’s Central Valley—which runs 450 miles from north to south and is the most productive farming area in the state—is moving legislation this session with bipartisan support to increase water storage statewide. He points out that since the early 1970s, “water storage capacity in California has increased by only 1 percent, while the state’s population has doubled.”

“We’ve been living on the credit card of infrastructure for 50 years,” Gray says. Although he recognizes the importance of conservation and temporary options like land fallowing and water exchanges, he emphasizes the need for “more storage and conveyance facilities, including groundwater storage recharge projects.” To effectively respond to drought, Gray believes that nothing short of “all of the above” will suffice.

Initial signs are promising that the efforts are making a difference—urban water use declined by nearly 30 percent in June and July. The governor’s goal is to save 1.2 million acre-feet of water by February 2016. (An acre-foot provides enough water for two families for a year.) The June-July savings amounted to 414,800 acre-feet, or 35 percent of the goal, which puts the state ahead of schedule.

No Nor’wester in Sight

Oregon and Washington face drought conditions similar to, though not quite as severe as, California’s. Most of both states are experiencing severe to extreme drought, compared to central California’s exceptional drought.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D) declared a statewide drought emergency in May after snowpack shrank to less than 20 percent of average. Oregon Governor Kate Brown (D) had declared drought emergencies in 23 of 36 counties by July 27 due to record-breaking low snowpack, high temperatures and significantly diminished streamflows.

The legislative response was quick in both states. The Oregon legislature passed bills authorizing $20 million in lottery funds for water supply development projects and $30 million in bonds for the state’s Water Development Fund. The Water Resources Department’s budget also was increased to support locally driven, or “place-based,” water planning efforts to deal with drought.

Oregon Senator Chris Edwards (D), chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, is a believer in place-based solutions to drought-related problems. He attributes much of Oregon’s success to “stakeholders' willingness to come together in community settings” to reach consensus on issues that might be too intractable to deal with at a higher level.

Long-Term Tools

While the Oregon governor may have taken the immediate lead, Edwards sees the legislature’s role as “coming up with the long-term tools” to ensure the state can survive inevitable water shortfalls successfully. Among the options he supports are “investments in infrastructure that can capture and move runoff in high-water years into storage for future use without diminishing streamflows.”

Washington’s Legislature likewise responded swiftly to the governor’s drought declaration, putting $14 million into the State Drought Preparedness Account and $4 million into the State Taxable Building Construction Account. The funds will provide grants to cities, counties and special districts to develop alternative water supplies, purchase or lease water rights, protect fish and wildlife habitat and build water pipelines.

Washington Senator Jim Honeyford (R) chairs the Joint Committee on Water Supply During Drought and was the prime sponsor of the drought relief appropriation. He views the committee as a “bully pulpit and educational tool” to develop ideas for new legislation. As a former farmer and teacher in rural eastern Washington, he feels it’s important to educate members across the state about water rights.

In response to calls for agriculture to conserve more water, Honeyford points out that “farmers are employing significant efficiencies in their irrigation systems, to an extent that what was formerly leaking and recharging groundwater is no longer doing so, with adverse impacts on groundwater levels.”

Just as in California, many Washington irrigators are switching to groundwater—so-called “drought wells”—as surface supplies recede. Honeyford notes, however, that “many farmers are finding there is hydraulic continuity between groundwater and surface water”—the two sources are connected—and, when drawing groundwater, “they have to pay a mitigation fee to offset the effects on surface water rights.” The tough question they face, he says, is “whether the fee is cheaper than losing farm income by not irrigating.”

Colorado’s ‘Miracle May’

Proving just how unpredictable weather and water can be in the West, as the Colorado Water Conservation Board was preparing its first-ever state water plan last spring, rain and snow saturated the state. By the end of May, snowpack had increased from just 61 percent on April 1 to 212 percent at the end of May.

Governor John Hickenlooper (D) ordered the plan, but Colorado Senate President Pro Tempore Ellen Roberts (R), who chairs the Water Resources Review Committee, has been vigilant in making sure the legislature weighs in on it. Her committee held nine hearings across the state this year to gather public input. She views the plan “as an opportunity for a conversation about what roles conservation, transfers, agricultural efficiency and storage will play in Colorado’s water future.”

One of the strategies in a September draft of the plan called for farmers to share 50,000 acre-feet of agricultural water annually for urban, energy and environmental uses elsewhere through short-term water exchanges, transfers and land fallowing. Roberts isn’t sure there’s enough support on the review committee for this option, however.

“When a farmer fallows cropland, even temporarily, you necessarily decrease the economic benefit to the surrounding community by cutting employees and local spending,” she says.

Roberts notes that the one option that received support at every one of the committee’s public hearings was the need for additional surface and groundwater storage. “Additional storage will help the state better withstand future droughts,” she says, and it will “enable water banking and other water-sharing measures to move forward to test their potential for success.”

The Wildcard

El Niño. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines it as a “large-scale ocean-atmospheric climate interaction” that warms sea surface temperatures across the eastern Pacific. There’s hope and some horror in what El Niño could bring this winter.

Unpredictable, it could bring no rain or deadly downpours, causing an entirely different sort of water problem, like what occurred in northern Los Angeles County in October. Almost 2 inches of rain in 30 minutes produced flash flooding and disastrous mudslides that buried cars, closed highways and stranded motorists.

El Niño is a wildcard because of the opposite effects it can have on states enduring drought. While it typically brings warmer-than-normal temperatures to the entire West, precipitation can vary dramatically—California is usually wetter than normal, but the Pacific Northwest is often much dryer. The U.S. Climate Prediction Center is expecting “a strong El Niño” during the 2015-16 winter. Compared with previous ones, that means heavy rains and snowfalls.

Measuring ocean temperatures, forecasters say this season’s El Niño “is already the second strongest on record for this time of year.” 

Despite these predictions, California Climatologist Michael Anderson said back in August, “California cannot count on potential El Niño conditions to halt or reverse drought conditions. ... Historical weather data shows us that at best, there is a 50-50 chance of having a wetter winter.”

What’s Ahead?

For lawmakers unwilling to rely on the weather when preparing for and coping with drought, there are no simple solutions. Along with some currently nonviable technologies—desalination, cloud seeding and long-distance water pipelines—are feasible options for lawmakers to consider, however. Further conservation, improved efficiency, expanded surface and underground storage, additional land fallowing, water banking, reallocation and exchanges offer an oasis of possible solutions to the parched reality of today.

Larry Morandi recently retired as NCSL’s director of state policy research.

The Future of Federal Wildfire Funding

The high cost of wildfires is not only a hot topic in the states, it has garnered attention from the federal government as well. Both the U.S. House and Senate have introduced the federal Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to fix the inadequate way wildfires are funded currently. The legislation would allow the use of a budget cap adjustment to help states pay for wildfire suppression efforts, the same way they receive funding to cover the costs from floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. NCSL’s members voted to support this federal funding solution, and NCSL staff continue to advocate for this legislation on Capitol Hill.

—Melanie Condon

Groundwater Use: That Sinking Feeling

Groundwater normally meets 40 percent of California’s urban and agricultural needs, but the drought has pushed that figure to over 50 percent as water users seek replacements for dwindling surface supplies.

But as groundwater use has increased, the state’s Central Valley floor has sunk. Aquifers—huge water-saturated rock formations below the surface—can shrink and compact like a wrung-out grocery-store sponge when withdrawals exceed recharge from surface water percolating down through the soil. NASA satellite images show declines of 1 to 2 inches monthly in some places. The effect on overlying land is dramatic, with roads, bridges, canals and pipelines suffering costly damage.

Until last year, California was the only Western state with no management system in place to regulate groundwater use. That changed with passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will require local governments in over-tapped basins to adopt management plans by 2020. The plans include local ordinances regulating groundwater withdrawals and other means to ensure that depletions and recharge are balanced. The state Department of Water Resources designated 21 basins to which the new terms will apply. The question remains, can the state wait five years?

—Larry Morandi

Worse to Come?

The U.S. Southwest and central Great Plains could face a decades-long period of “megadrought” between 2050 and 2100 even if the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, scientists from NASA, Columbia University and Cornell University report in a study published this year in the open-access journal Science Advances.

Severe, prolonged drought could have significant impact on agriculture, ecosystems and city water supplies, says Benjamin Cook, the study’s lead author and a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. “We see some of those impacts going on now in California,” he says, referring to the ongoing drought that is the worst in that state’s recorded history. “Water demand has passed supply in some areas. Throwing 30 years of drought on top of that means we’re going to have to change the way we live out here.”

—Kevin Frazzini

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