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A wake-up call for water resilience in the West

california drought continues march april national forecast dry no water suppliers 15 percent reduction santa clara county valley water board emergency declaration gavin newsom 5.1 billion funding estreme drought severe
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Dry cracked earth is visible as water levels are low at Nicasio Reservoir on May 28, 2021 in Nicasio, California. Marin County is under mandatory water-use restrictions that orders residents to refrain from washing cars at home, refilling pools and watering lawns once a week. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 16% of California is…

As someone working on water issues in the West for more decades than I care to admit, I have found myself repeating the same mantra over and over again: When you’re in a drought, it’s too late to prepare.

Well, we’re in drought, again, and I can’t help feeling a sense of personal failure for how ill prepared we are. This time is worse, however — worse because surely, we should have learned by now to prepare better and worse because record-breaking heat and early wildfires indicate the climate change ratchet has clearly clicked several notches tighter.

An unbearable 114 degrees in Portland, Oregon. Wildfires raging already, in June, in northern Arizona and northern Colorado. These seemingly impossible events, tragic as they are for the people and ecosystems affected, signal a whole new level of challenge when it comes to our water supplies. Even what we should have done 10 or 20 years ago to prepare our water supplies for droughts is inadequate for the future we face.

This year should be a blaring wake-up call for a far bolder, more proactive approach to build water resilience to this climate crisis in the West. Our response should include investing heavily to diversify our water supplies, reducing demand and unprecedented cooperation on targeted solutions for all users, including the environment, disadvantaged communities and Native American tribes — groups that have been overlooked in water policy for far too long.

Diversified water supplies

We can draw valuable lessons from the cities and water agencies that are best prepared, perhaps most notably in Southern California. Those cities and agencies in the best position have taken a clear-eyed view of their drier futures, accepting long ago that climate change is real. They have invested billions to diversify their water portfolios, including reducing demand, desalination, recycling and storing water above and below round.

We have to apply this diversification strategy across the board, not just for well-resourced cities, but also for farms, disadvantaged communities and the environment. We can start by more strategically leveraging water storage capacity — and the most storage capacity can be provided by our groundwater basins. We need proactive groundwater management, as enabled by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in California and active management areas in Arizona.

We must now extend new authorities so that a wider diversity of communities, such as those across rural Arizona, can proactively manage their water futures. With solid management in place, we can then operate groundwater storage projects in concert with improved operation of reservoirs to compensate for reduced snowpack and mitigate for more extreme flooding caused by climate change.

Reducing demand, repurposing land

However, storage can only help if there is enough water to store. Unfortunately, in some areas, it’s clear there simply isn’t enough water to support all the existing uses.

In the second straight year of drought, California already has had to make unprecedented cuts in water deliveries to farms. The severity of cuts has been intensified by extraordinarily warm temperatures in April and May and extremely dry soils, which have absorbed runoff water from snowpack far more than expected.

In the Colorado River basin, Lake Mead has dropped to the lowest level since its creation by Hoover Dam in the 1930s, which will trigger cutbacks to those who depend on the reservoir’s storage. Arizona farmers will take much of the brunt of these cuts.

Switching to less thirsty crops is one option in some arid regions. But taking land out of production also will be inevitable. In California’s Central Valley, it’s been estimated that at least 750,000 acres of farmland — an area the size of Yosemite National Park — will have to be taken out of production to balance groundwater supply and demand in the next 20 years.

The impacts of these changes will be painful, so it’s important that we ease the transition as much as possible while making sure to repurpose these lands to uses that bring new benefits to communities and wildlife, including solar farms, habitat corridors and outdoor recreational spaces. Fortunately, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) sees this opportunity and has proposed $500 million in funding to incentivize farmers to repurpose their lands to deliver these new benefits. 

A grim picture for the environment

The environment is often the last in line when water supplies shrink. So, it’s no surprise that the water picture for the environment is more alarming than ever this year.

The Klamath Basin on the California-Oregon border is ground zero for the water crisis, with one of the worst drought years in four decades causing a major die-off of juvenile salmon. Migratory birds that stop in the Klamath Basin and Central Valley are also in grave danger because of limited water.

If we want water-dependent ecosystems and species to thrive, or in some cases merely survive, this climate crisis, we have to more proactively provide the necessary water flows and habitat conditions in our streams, rivers and wetlands. We simply have to manage our highly engineered water system for ecosystems as we do for people.

The whole suite of strategies used successfully by the most proactive local jurisdictions also provides the most promising pathway for ecosystems: diversity of water supplies, water storage and banking, water transfers, collaboration with neighbors and secure and healthy funding streams.

Washington listening to the West

It is encouraging that this water wakeup call from the West is being heard in Washington, D.C. The recently announced bipartisan infrastructure package dedicates $55 billion to water infrastructure, $5 billion for western water storage and $47 billion for resilience.

President Biden recently met with a bipartisan group of western governors and pointed to the package as key for tackling the drought and wildfires. At the same time, he also has been moving a package that addresses the two largest sources of climate pollution — transportation and electric power — that are putting our water supplies and even our lives at greater risk. 

In addition to acting on crucial funding bills, Congress should move quickly on a host of bipartisan bills that tackle drought through water recycling, efficiency improvements and more.

As we scramble to deal with the multiple emergencies of this latest drought, let’s also seize the moment to invest at federal, state and local levels in solutions that ensure we are far more prepared for the next one.

Let’s stop repeating errors of the past, forgetting about the last drought and waiting until the next one comes around to respond, because the extreme events of past few weeks make one thing all too clear: The next drought may very well be worse than anything we’ve seen before. The time to prepare for it is now.

Maurice Hall is vice president of Environmental Defense Fund’s water for the Ecosystems Program, working to manage groundwater more sustainably and revitalize working rivers and their ability to provide a resilient water supply. 

Tags Climate change Drought extreme heat Gavin Newsom Joe Biden Maurice Hall megadrought Water water shortage

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