history at a glance
- Despite the deluge of rain that hit California earlier this winter, more water conservation is needed to help the West meet the challenges brought on by decades of drought.
- Thanks to climate change, reliable sources of water are threatened by unpredictable weather.
- In future, cuts will fall largely on the agricultural sector, experts say.
The large storms that hit California earlier this winter dumped more than 32 trillion gallons of water in the state, helped drive some of the reservoirs in the region and increased snow cover in key mountains throughout the West.
But despite this temporary postponement, the region will need to work on water conservation and reduce demand due to climate change.
Global warming has worsened aridity in the West. Coupled with increasing demand from a growing population, it is depleting the Colorado River, which supplies water to seven states and helps feed the country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
“If we want to have a stable Colorado River system in the future, we have to reduce consumptive use, there’s no way around it,” said Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute.
“We can’t increase supply, so the only part we have control over is the demand part of the equation. And it is a difficult task”.
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Climate change brings warmer and unpredictable weather that is a threat to the reliable supply of snow melt in rivers. Warmer temperatures increase evaporation from reservoirs and exacerbate a host of other factors that threaten Western water supplies.
Reducing demand is the “big button we have in the system, and ultimately we can put ourselves in a position where we don’t have a choice,” said Adrian Harpold, an associate professor of mountain ecohydrology at the University of Nevada, Reno. . .
The seven states that draw water from the Colorado River are working to reach an agreement to conserve 2 million acre feet or more of Colorado River water in 2023.
That’s on top of cuts already taking effect in Arizona this month, first announced last August by the Recovery Office. The outages reduced Arizona’s supply by 21 percentNevada at 8 percent and Mexico at 7 percent.
If the states fail to reach an agreement by January 1. 31, the federal government will intervene.
“There has been an over-allocation of Colorado River water for the last 30 years, if not longer,” said Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis. .
Decades ago, some states were not using their full allocations. But demands and allocations have been higher than inputs in the last 20 to 40 years, Lund explained.
“Unless we have an unexpected deluge, we’re going to have to reduce water use in the lower Colorado River basin by a substantial amount, probably 20 or even 30 percent,” Lund said. “Reducing water use is the only way out of this.”
To deal with the growing water crisis in the West, some proposed partial solutions include increasing desalination efforts, but the process is expensive and requires a lot of energy.
Growing managed aquifer recharge projects, or helping surface water filter into aqueducts more efficiently, is also an option for some regions.
But the main problem in the lower Colorado River basin is that there is no water to recharge, Lund said.
The role of agriculture
Around 80 percent of the Colorado River water is used for agriculture. Over the years, several farmers have already adapted to the increasing scarcity.
Some have switched to crops that use less water, while others have implemented new irrigation techniques to reduce water waste.
Still, more is needed.
“When we talk about conservation, urban conservation is good, it’s fine. But even if you just dried up all the cities and made everyone move, you still wouldn’t have reduced water enough to avoid the deficit,” Lund said, noting the importance of farm cuts.
In the future, falling land or setting aside arable land for one or more years before it is returned to cultivation would conserve a significant amount of water, although some growers would prefer avoid this option.
Choosing to grow different crops and selecting the best suitable areas for farming can also help the sector conserve water.
However, any future cuts will ultimately have to balance the demands of rural agricultural areas against those of more urban regions.
“We really need to think about the economic impacts of these decisions in a way that really considers the socioeconomic position of vulnerable people and populations,” Harpold said.
For those most affected, resorting to alternative economic bases could be an option. If cuts are imposed at the federal level, the government could allocate some money to communities to help them transition.
The Cut Inflation Act passed last year includes $4 billion in funding for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas facing similar levels of drought.
Overall, “we have to rethink the way we manage water in the West,” Balken said. “We can’t let a good winter stop that important work.”