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'How long will it last, and how do we plan?' California drought foreshadows crisis for rest of West

'How long will it last, and how do we plan?' California drought foreshadows crisis for rest of West

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The worst drought in California’s history is a forewarning of problems for the entire West, including Montana and Wyoming.

“There’s every chance this phenomenon will increase in frequency and severity,” said Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Water in the West, a program of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment in California. 

Water in the West is collaborating with other researchers to find ways to help the region deal with what is predicted will be an all-too-scarce resource in the future: water.

It’s already a pressing issue in the Eureka state, which has suffered through an epic drought this year that has dealt a significant blow to the state’s agricultural economy, dried up fisheries and caused political unrest as water managers have had to make difficult choices about how to allocate a scarce resource.

“I think there’s a huge amount of potential to solve the West’s water problems,” Szeptycki said. “For the big-picture stuff, the feds will have to take the lead, and they can help on the local level too, especially with data from the U.S. Geological Survey.”

In the past, storing spring runoff from mountain snowmelt in reservoirs seemed like the answer. Across the West, dams cropped up after the 1930s Dust Bowl.

In Montana, there are 3,500 inventoried dams and possibly as many as 10,000 stock ponds. Wyoming has more than 30,000 dams, and Gov. Matt Mead is eyeing the construction of more.

According to Szeptycki, though, California’s research has shown that construction of more reservoirs would only increase water storage by 1 percent, largely because there’s no water flowing from the once heavily snowed-in Sierra-Nevada Mountains. And with more precipitation falling as rain, instead of snow, the issue is further complicated.

Initially, dams were built to supply farmers with irrigation and stock water, but as the West’s population has grown, farmers in California are finding they are in competition with cities to purchase water on the open market for prices that have hit $1,000 to $2,000 an acre foot.

It’s estimated that 85 percent of the water used in California is for agriculture, despite the state’s large urban population. So water-saving measures by cities and citizens can only cut a small percentage of the overall water usage. But reducing water to agriculture means a huge hit the state that produces more than 60 percent of all U.S. fruit and tree nuts and 51 percent of vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

California farmers desperate for more water decided to drill wells, but now the aquifer is drying up, dropping by 100 feet in some places. Draining the groundwater has caused subsidence in some areas and even dried up some above-ground marshes and streams.

“We don’t have good data about water in the West,” Szeptycki said, “how much they’re irrigating and how much is available under different circumstances. So, California has been struggling to catch up with this lack of data.”

Other states, he noted, are probably just as ignorant and would be playing catch-up if hit with such a drought. Better to start building that baseline data now, Szeptycki said, since the long-term climate predictions for the West aren’t encouraging. History shows examples that over the last 1,000 years the West has suffered droughts that were much longer than anything that Euro-Americans have witnessed. Archaeologists speculate that drought led to the decline of once-great civilizations like the Anasazi of the Southwest.

“There’s every indication that this is the beginning of the problem,” Szeptycki said.

Recent research points to a 20 to 50 percent chance of drought lasting 35 years in the Southwest, with an 80 to 90 percent chance of a 10-year drought.

In an attempt to fill its water needs, California is investing in wastewater recycling and dusting off plans to construct desalinization plants to remove salt from ocean water. Although technology makes such endeavors possible, it’s also expensive.

“What we really have to worry about is water in times of scarcity,” Szeptycki said. “How long will it last, and how do we plan?”


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