The Scary Big Picture of Having Less Water

The Future of Water in the West is Both Complex, and a Hard Issue to Face


As a society, we constantly hear the “drought warning.” Then we employ some water conservation efforts and a couple of years later everything seems to go back to normal. As a result, we have become numb to the word “drought.” Wildfires are brutal and get our immediate attention, but we expect they will also burn out.

Sounding alarms can get immediate attention, maybe some awareness and even short duration actions. But most of the time, real fundamental changes, policy reversals or epic infrastructure planning shifts that are focused on long-term objectives are never achieved. As a society, we seem to only want to pay up once the damage occurs, a quick and easy monetary policy fix as we continue to put ourselves on a course of catastrophic failure.

So, what is the bigger picture? What is the holistic viewpoint of having less water?

Drought is defined as “a period of abnormally dry weather sufficiently prolonged for the lack of water to cause serious hydrologic imbalance in the affected area.”

Most of the time the area we hear about is the nine western states including California. Now, the economy of the State of California is the largest in the United States. With a $3.4 trillion GDP, it represents 14.6 percent of the total U.S. economy, and if it were a country, it would be the fifth largest economy in the world.

California has experienced many droughts, such as 1841, 1864, 1924, 1928–1935, 1947–1950, 1959–1960, 1976–1977, 1986–1992, 2006–2010, 2011–2017, 2018 and 2020-present. So, what happens is, like in the 2012 drought, every year government discussions occurred, but inaction was the theme as they assumed that if the “next” winter was good – everything would go back to normal and the pressure for real change would be relieved as the easy path of avoidance.

Facing the hard facts and engaging the public to address serious issues is never convenient, yet we see the costly results of long-term neglect emerge as Flint, Michigan, Jackson, Mississippi and others.

Forget the Drought Plan. What is Your Aridification Plan?

New alarms are now raised with new data and science developing forecasts and trends by combining modern weather records with 1,200 years of tree ring research. The bigger picture is that drought is temporary, and we may be in a longer, hotter dry period called a mega-drought which could last to 2030. In fact, the term drought should not even be used but Aridification.

“We’re no longer looking at projections, but at where we are now,” notes author and bioclimatologist Park Williams in a 2020 megadrought study for Science journal. “We now have enough observations of current drought and tree-ring records of past drought to say that we’re on the same trajectory as the worst prehistoric droughts.”

Aridity is measured by comparing long-term average water supply (precipitation) to long-term average water demand (evapotranspiration). This is basically a period of transition to an increasingly water scarce environment and setting a new baseline where short term historical wet years do not apply. Aridity is permanent, while drought is temporary and long-term heat, lack of soil moisture restricts any rain and snow run off into our streams and lakes. “Climate change” inherent or man-made can make it more severe. A recent study in Nature Climate Change shows that Earth’s warming climate has made the western drought about 40 percent more severe, making it the region’s driest stretch since A.D. 800.

Most of the time, real fundamental changes, policy reversals or epic infrastructure planning shifts that are focused on long-term objectives are never achieved.

Be Realistic About the Colorado River Flow, Set New Baseline Allocations

Incorrect estimates and assumptions of water flow such as the original work on the Colorado River allocations also makes matter worst. Early 1900s negotiators assumed 20 million acre-feet flowing from the river each year so there would be water enough for everyone. The original estimator’s number of 15 million was ignored and now today we know it is around 12 million acre-feet, according to an article from Vox, and we wonder why Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at all-time lows. These man-made reservoirs supply revenue, recreation, agriculture, ranching, drinking water and hydro-electric power.

Lake Mead is projected to get down to 22 percent of its full capacity by year’s end, while Lake Powell is expected to drop to 27 percent, according to estimations from the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Lake Mead’s Hoover Dam has already cut 30-40 percent of its power generation and as the trend continues not only of drinking water is at risk for 20 million people but electric power as well. At the dead-pool level, power would be needed to pump water through the dam.

Water Politics Flow Down

Nobody likes a doomsday notice or to face a reality that it may be too late in the game to avoid a water crisis on such a magnitude. No water manager at any level of governance wants to offer up severe water cuts if another agency upstream or downstream gets the benefits or takes less of a hit to their economic engine. Reductions in Colorado River allocations have a tremendous ripple effect across the western states and their economies. Cities doing water conservation, metering, secondary water, reducing turf, providing low flow household devices, etc., does not cover the water gap. Agriculture, farmers and ranchers, recreation and sensitive ecosystem protection all having financial incentives to save water, along with technology to optimize water systems are also needed to help close the gap. New land and water use policies mean real change. High water consumption produce, products and industry may need to relocate. There will never be a consensus at the negotiation table, there will be no winners.

The glass is already less than half full with no expectations of refills. Sustainable water planning, sustainable water infrastructure coordination through the entire urban water cycle – source to storage to treatment to distribution to point of use to collection to treatment and reuse “one water” needs to be carefully planned, funded and managed while taking into consideration energy, waste and food production.

We have digital twin technologies, AI, machine learning, sensors, cloud-based asset management and optimization processes and software, new federal and state funding, but it still takes leadership, teamwork, change management, public communications and host of other resilient skill sets to make and implement tough decisions at every level of water governance down to the individual household and business. The “price of water” is when it is sustainable. Everyone needs to be a water manager in the future of water.

Greg Baird is president of the Water Finance Research Foundation and a frequent contributor to WF&M. As a management consultant, he specializes in long-term water utility planning, infrastructure asset management and capital funding strategies for municipal utilities in the United States. He has served as a municipal finance officer in California and as the CFO of Colorado’s third-largest utility. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *