Sustainability Climate Change

Why California, other western states face growing pressure to reduce water consumption

"We have to be rethinking the way we manage water in the West. We can't let a good winter stop that important work."

Story at a glance

  • Despite the deluge of rain that hit California earlier this winter, more water conservation is needed to help the West meet challenges wrought by decades of drought. 

  • Thanks to climate change, reliable sources of water are under threat from unpredictable weather.

  • Going forward, cuts will fall largely on the agricultural sector, experts say.  

The major storms that hit California earlier this winter dumped more than 32 trillion gallons of water on the state, helped boost some of the region’s reservoirs and increased snowpack in key mountains throughout the West.  

But despite this temporary reprieve, the region will need to work on water conservation and reducing demand given climate change.  

Global warming has worsened aridification in the West. Coupled with growing demand from a rising population, it is depleting the Colorado River, which supplies water to seven states and helps feed the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.  

“If we want to have a stable Colorado River system going forward, we have to reduce consumptive use, there’s no way around it,” said Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute.   

“We can’t increase the supply and so the only part we have control over is the demand part of the equation. And it’s a tall order.” 

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Climate change brings warmer and unpredictable weather that is a threat to the once reliable supply of snowpack melting into rivers. Warmer temperatures increase evaporation from reservoirs and compound a host of other factors that jeopardize the west’s water supply. 

Reducing demand is the “big knob that we have on the system and ultimately, we may put ourselves in a position where we don’t have a choice,” said Adrian Harpold, an associate professor of mountain ecohydrology at the University of Nevada, Reno.   

The seven states that draw water from the Colorado River are working to reach an agreement by the end of the month to conserve 2 million acre-feet or more of Colorado River water in 2023.  

That’s in addition to cuts that already took effect in Arizona this month, first announced last August by the Bureau of Reclamation. The cuts reduced Arizona’s supply by 21 percent, Nevada’s by 8 percent, and Mexico’s by 7 percent.  

Should the states fail to come up with an agreement by Jan. 31, the federal government will step in.  

“There’s been an overallocation of water from the Colorado River for certainly the last 30 years, if not longer,” said Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis.  

Decades ago, some states were not using their full allocations. But demands and allocations have been higher than inflows over the last 20 to 40 years, Lund explained.  

“Unless we get an unexpected deluge, we’re going to have to actually reduce water use in the Lower Colorado River Basin by a substantial amount, probably by 20 or maybe even 30 percent,” Lund said. “Reducing water use is the only way to get our way out of this.”  

To meet the growing water crisis in the West, some proposed partial solutions include increasing desalination efforts, but the process is costly and requires lots of energy.  

Increasing managed aquifer recharge projects, or helping surface water seep into aqueducts more efficiently, is also an option for some regions.  

But the main problem for the Lower Colorado River Basin is that there’s no water to recharge, Lund said.  

The Role of Agriculture  

Around 80 percent of the Colorado River’s water goes toward agriculture. Over the years, a number of farmers have already adjusted to the growing shortages.  

Some have switched to growing less water intensive crops, while others have implemented new irrigation techniques to cut down on water waste.  

Still, more is needed.  

“When we talk about conservation, urban conservation is good, it’s fine. But even if you just dried up all the cities and made everybody move away, you would still not have reduced water enough to avoid the shortfall,” said Lund, pointing to the importance of agricultural cuts.  

Going forward, land fallowing, or setting aside arable land for one or more years before it’s cultivated again, would conserve a significant amount of water, although some growers would prefer to avoid this option.  

Choosing to grow different crops and singling out the best areas suited for agriculture can also help the sector conserve water.  

However, any future cuts will ultimately need to weigh the demands of rural agricultural areas and those in more urban regions.  

“We really need to think about the economic impacts of these decisions in a way that really considers people’s socioeconomic standing and vulnerable populations,” said Harpold.  

For those hit the hardest, turning to alternative economic bases could be an option. If cuts are imposed at the federal level, the government could allocate some money to communities to help them transition. 

The Inflation Reduction Act passed last year includes $4 billion in funding for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas facing similar drought levels.  

Overall, “we have to be rethinking the way we manage water in the West,” said Balken. “We can’t let a good winter stop that important work.”  

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