Drought Relief for Western States
by Ed Burke and Kelly Burke, Dennis K. Burke Inc.
Water shortage has major implications for hydropower and agriculture industries
Over 70% of the American West, Southwest and Northern Plains has been categorized as a D3 (severe) drought or higher since June.
In October, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released its five-year projections for the Colorado River, which serves 40 million people in the American West. The projections help water managers better plan for the future using the best available data. They also help determine water allocations to the states.
The Bureau of Reclamation is a federal agency under the U.S. Department of the Interior. They oversee water resource management. Specifically, the agency is responsible for oversight and operation of the diversion, delivery, and storage projects that it has built throughout the western U.S. for irrigation, water supply, and hydroelectric power generation.
Currently, the agency is the largest wholesaler of water in the country, bringing 10 trillion gallons of water to more than 31 million people each year. They provide one in five western farmers with irrigation water for 10 million acres of farmland, which produce 60% of the nation’s vegetables and 25% of its fruits and nuts. The agency’s management and recreation activities contribute $63.9 billion in economic output and support about 456,219 jobs.
Snapshots along the Colorado River illustrate the severity of current drought conditions and their impact across the West.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the largest man-made reservoirs in the U.S. The lakes largely depend on snowpack conditions, but they’ve been hard hit by persistent warmer drought conditions over the past 30 years. Both lakes have dipped to historic lows. In October, they had a combined capacity of 39%, down from 49% at this time last year, the Bureau of Reclamation said. The agency declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River.
Lake Mead is a barometer for how much river water some states get. The reservoir, located on the Nevada-Arizona border, is key for those states as well as California (the three lower Colorado River basin states). In the upper basin, Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border is the barometer for Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah.
The seven states that rely on the Colorado River signed off on a drought plan in 2019 to help prop up the lakes by voluntarily contributing water. The federal government has also formed a working group.
The agency says there’s a 22% chance that Lake Mead will drop to an elevation of 1,000 feet above sea level in 2025. Federal officials have said water would become inaccessible to states downstream at 895 feet, often referred to as “dead pool.”
Deep Cuts in Water Allocations
Water allocations have been cut drastically, and the worst could still be yet to come. Bureau of Reclamation projections say that by 2025, there’s a 66% chance Lake Mead will reach a level where California, which has the most senior rights to Colorado River water, would be in its second phase of cuts.
With limited water, farmers and ranchers have to make some hard choices: how many fields they can grow crops on, and how many orchards should be removed. Ranchers are faced with reducing the size of their herds. Due to the drought, there’s less alfalfa hay and animal feed available, and it’s more expensive.
Continued drought conditions put production of these commodities at risk, along with the stability of farms and ranches reliant on their crops and livestock for income.
Some of those able to hold on are trying out different tactics to prepare for the spring planting season. They’re digging new wells and laser-leveling their fields. Planting deep rooted grasses and utilizing jet fan sprinklers, targeted drip irrigation, and sophisticated water measurement systems to control irrigation are just a few farm-level tactics being implemented.
No Water – No Power Generation
The Bureau of Reclamation is also the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the country. They operate 53 hydroelectric power plants, producing about 40 billion kilowatt-hours for millions of homes and businesses each year.
The agency’s projections show a 3% chance Lake Powell will hit a level where Glen Canyon Dam cannot produce hydropower. That could happen as early as July 2022 if the region has another dry winter.
Smaller reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell have been releasing water into the massive lake so it can continue producing hydropower.
“The latest outlook for Lake Powell is troubling,” Wayne Pullan, the bureau’s director for the upper basin, said in a statement. “This highlights the importance of continuing to work collaboratively with the basin states, tribes and other partners toward solutions.”
Bipartisan Bill Offers Hope
Included in the sweeping Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Bill passed in November is $8.3 billion for Western Water Infrastructure. This comes as the West bakes under a decades-long drought that is straining water supplies.
The Western Water Infrastructure provision includes $3.2 billion for aging infrastructure. There’s $1.2 billion for water storage, groundwater storage and conveyance projects. Another $1 billion is allocated for water recycling projects, and $300 million is set for drought contingency plans. The bill would add $250 million for desalination studies and projects to make sea water and brackish water usable for agriculture and industry. The bill also reduces hours of service burdens on livestock haulers.
Given the West’s vital role in providing over a third of American agricultural production by value, effective drought mitigation is vital to secure our domestic food supply.
Ed and Kelly Burke are respectively, Chairman of the Board and Senior Marketing Manager at fuel distributor Dennis K. Burke Inc. They can be reached at 617-884-7800 or firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.