Much has been written about the drought gripping the West, which we are being warned may become the worst in modern history. With “boom or bust” water years the new norm, we all knew we’d be back here again.
An infrastructure package working its way through Congress has the potential to promote drought resiliency in the West, protect our food supply and ensure communities have the water they need to run their homes and power their businesses.
Drought-induced water shortages in the West are a national problem that all Americans have an interest in solving. Western states contribute significantly to the nation’s food supply with more than 80 percent of our domestic fruits, nuts and vegetables being grown west of the Continental Divide.
This year, farmers throughout the West are seeing as much as 95 percent of their water supply cut. Some farmers could see their water supply cut to zero.
Similar cuts during last decade’s drought resulted in the fallowing of half a million acres of farmland in California alone, which cost family farms and the state nearly $4 billion in economic activity.
Addressing drought in the West has benefits beyond food supply. Of the 63 national parks, 41 are in Western states. Without water, national treasures like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon suffer, as do the millions of Americans who flock to these parks each year.
Many national forests are the source watershed for urban and agricultural communities alike and are at increasing risk of wildfires during drought.
Furthermore, many of our most important wildlife areas exist alongside Western farmland with countless plants and animals relying on farm water to maintain their habitats.
The Western states are also home to nearly 25 percent of the U.S. population. These families and communities rely on outdated water infrastructure to run their homes, farms, and businesses. As in most states, disadvantaged communities are already suffering from a combination of economic, health and environmental burdens including access to clean drinking water and are among the first to lose water in a drought. Without water, jobs and the quality of life they provide dry up.
There is a solution to help us moderate the inevitable swings between dry and wet years, to make our water supply more reliable in the face of climate change and changing hydrology. But it will require massive, long-overdue investments in our aging water infrastructure.
That’s why a large coalition representing thousands of farmers, ranchers, water providers and businesses have joined together in calling on Congress to include water infrastructure in the package being negotiated in Washington, D.C.
Water managers, farmers, homeowners and businesses, have been doing their part to prepare for more frequent drought. Farmers, who have already spent the last several decades reducing their water usage by double digits, continue to invest in water efficient technologies. Likewise, homeowners and businesses have installed low-flow appliances and drought-friendly landscaping and water managers have advanced drought resilient projects such as storage and water recycling.
Despite our collective best efforts, none of it matters if water is unable to reach our spigots.
Most of the federal water projects that benefit Western communities were built more than 50 years ago and were not constructed with the current population demands in mind.
Rehabilitating our existing reservoirs, dams, canals, pipes, treatment plants and other facilities requires help on a scale that only the federal government can provide.
Building more surface and groundwater storage would allow us to capture water in wet years for use in dry ones, as well as dramatically increase flood control.
In a stark illustration of the present situation, 18 trillion gallons of rain fell in California in February 2019. Had we been able to capture and store more of that water, we could have mitigated the devastating consequences now facing us.
In addition to fixing infrastructure already in place and increasing storage, we need to fulfill the promise of “Build Back Better.” That means pursuing new ways of doing things, such as “green infrastructure,” water recycling and desalination, as well as habitat restoration and forest management that are important components of a healthy water supply.
The urgency of these needs demands that legislation expedite water projects rather than let them meander for years through a convoluted bureaucracy of competing federal, state and local agencies.
Mother Nature has made it clear: we have no more time to waste, which is why we call on Congress to recognize one of the “great needs” of the 21st century and invest in our Western water infrastructure.
Jennifer Pierre is the general manager of the State Water Contractors, representing urban and agricultural water users that receive supplies from California’s State Water Project and provide water to 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland. Dan Keppen is the executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, representing irrigators across 17 western states. Dave Puglia is the president and CEO of Western Growers, representing farmers growing fresh produce in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico.