Western Drought Hits Extremes
by Ed Burke and Kelly Burke, Dennis K. Burke Inc.
Water management experts call for actionable solutions
The West is currently facing a historic mega drought. In the southwestern U.S., scientists have called this the worst drought the area has seen in 1,200 years. So far this year, over 27,000 wildfires have already burned close to two million acres. It doesn’t seem to matter where you live. Drought has a domino effect that indirectly spills over into the lives of all Americans, from economic losses and food scarcities to higher energy and food prices.
Those dire warnings came from water management experts testifying during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. The June hearing was about actionable solutions for extreme drought conditions in the western states. Senators questioned witnesses on where opportunities exist to further invest in both water supply and demand. The panel gave valuable insight and spoke about a variety of problems. They explored obstacles to addressing the issues and ideas that could be effective in easing the strains of drought.
The group agreed that an “all of the above collective approach” is needed to adapt to these tough conditions, because there are only so many ways to split such a critical and limited resource. They agreed on regulatory issues Congress could remedy. For one, pipelines are tough to build because of policies and federal approvals required to move water around, even within one state at times. They further agreed that federal agency overlap can cause problems and should probably be reviewed. Finally, a long-term coordinated drought effort would require flexible water management strategies and meaningful investment at the state and federal level.
Here is a brief overview of the panel discussion.
Efficiency: Energy efficiency is a commonsense way to reduce energy consumption. It makes sense to look at water through the same lens; water and energy are two sides of the same coin. It takes a lot of energy to treat the water we use in our everyday lives, and it takes substantial amounts of water to produce energy. Given the current drought and high energy costs, water conservation and efficient water use are the lowest hanging fruits to managing demand.
Pipelines: The question is how do we move water in pipelines from other sections of the country? That needs to be discussed. We have pipelines for oil and gas, and we also have pipelines in some areas for transferring water; for example, from New York state down to the city. With respect to pipelines, cost is certainly a big issue.
Desalinization: Some of the most expensive water is in the West (about $2,000 an acre-foot). It comes from the desalinization plant that opened in 2015 in Carlsbad, California for the city of San Diego. They are at the end of the Colorado River water distribution system adjacent to the ocean. Each day, the plant delivers nearly 50 million gallons of fresh, desalinated water to the city. How feasible and economically viable is massive desalinization from the Pacific Southwest into this region to alleviate this problem? It made sense as part of a resilience portfolio for the city as well as in some other targeted areas. However, reaching scale to relieve this whole region is not really feasible.
Storage: Some drought areas are surrounded by areas with more water and excessive precipitation. So, storage is part of the solution, isn’t it? Certainly, storage can be valuable. Especially in the current situation, it can be a helpful tool for making deployment more flexible in most of the West. Frankly, there isn’t enough water to fill the storage today except when there is excessive rainfall in the West.
Evaporation: There is a fascinating experiment going on in California now, building solar panels over canals. This will generate electricity and also diminish evaporation. In fact, there are very large floating solar projects, mostly in Asia, one as big as 320 megawatts. If you could build a solar farm on top of Lake Powell, you could supply electricity for all of the West and reduce the enormous water loss too.
Hydropower: Reservoirs in the Colorado Basin are a crucial source of water for millions of households and thousands of farmers and ranchers, along with wildlife habitat. They also provide power for over 3.5 million homes. Low lake levels put hydropower, which is critical to grid reliability in the West, at risk because the water must be high enough to actually turn the turbines.
Federal Funding: Last year, Congress invested $8.3 billion to fund projects that can provide short-term drought relief and long-term drought resilience. It provided funding for water recycling, desalinization, water storage and aging infrastructure projects. There are also incentives for water conservation and efficiency. Stakeholders have been coming together to develop and implement drought-proof water solutions that tackle water supply and demand, with an eye on population growth and climate change.
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.