Congress warned of a ‘real and urgent’ drought crisis throughout the West

By: - May 25, 2021 8:49 pm

The water level at Lake Mead hit a historic low in July 2014. (Photo by Ken Dewey via Climate.gov)

WASHINGTON — A drought crisis unfolding across the West will require short-term relief and massive, long-term federal funding to help states weather the effects of climate change, state water managers and lawmakers said at a U.S. House hearing on Tuesday.

Nearly 90% of the West is now experiencing drought conditions, according to the federal U.S. Drought Monitor. The problem is particularly acute in the Southwest.

“The situation is real and urgent. Current conditions require us to take bold and unprecedented steps to conserve and stretch our existing water supplies,” John Entsminger, the general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told members of Congress.

Iowa’s drought has eased

After recent rains, Iowa’s drought now is a bit less severe than it was at the beginning of the year, and well under the level of three months ago.

Current drought conditions in Iowa as reported by the U.S. Drought Monitor. The dark orange shows severe drought. (Image courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor)

The U.S. Drought Monitor reported 36.43% of the state now is either abnormally dry or in some level of drought. Three months ago, that figure was 47.86%, and at the beginning of the year, it was 37.84%.

The worst drought covers all or parts of the 12 counties in the far northwest corner of the state. That area is in severe drought; no part of the state is in extreme drought. 

Several northwest Iowa counties had been in extreme drought in recent weeks. 

About a third of Iowa’s population lives in an area that is unusually dry now. 

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig reported that most crops have been planted in Iowa. After a chillier spell, the heat this week is expected to help crops emerge and grow, he said in a statement. 

Corn planting is two weeks ahead of schedule and 97% complete. Soybean planting is 15 days ahead of average, and 89% done. 

— By Perry Beeman

Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah just had their driest year in 126 years. Colorado had its fourth-driest year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Snowpack is well below average this year and early snowmelt is raising serious concerns for this summer.

“Droughts are not new, but many are experiencing the impact of one of the driest water years on record,” Elizabeth Klein, a senior counselor at the Interior Department who is overseeing drought response, said at the hearing before a panel of the House Natural Resources Committee. “Competing demands for water can lead to more conflict.”

Among those conflicts are who gets priority for limited water resources: upstream users, farmers, endangered fish, tribes, or municipal water systems.

In some cases, states are in conflict over who has rights to the water. The U.S. Supreme Court has several interstate water disputes on its docket, including cases between Mississippi and Tennessee and Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

‘No more time to waste’ 

The drought conditions are part of an ongoing, concerning trend —due in part to climate change.

“Warmer, drier conditions are expected to increase in the future, leading to extended and more severe drought and fire seasons,” said Craig McLean, acting chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Colorado River Basin is experiencing its driest 21-year period in 100 years of recordkeeping, according to the Interior Department. Forecasts call for extreme or exceptional drought to continue this year for most of the basin.

If the situation on the Colorado River does not improve, it could have serious consequences for people who rely on it for their water and power.

Reservoirs that the river feeds are already dangerously low. Lake Mead is at 37% capacity and Lake Powell is at 34%, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

If hydrology levels continue, Entsminger said, there is a high probability that Lake Mead could get close to the point in the next decade where the Hoover Dam could no longer deliver water downstream and power production there could come to a halt.

“The reality that we knew was coming has arrived. From my part of the world, there seems to be no more time to waste,” Entsminger said.

State officials have worked on water recycling programs and the Nevada state legislature is considering a proposal that would ban watering of decorative turf.

But Entsminger said the problem needs to go beyond what they can do at a state level, with a “focused and robust” federal investment in watershed conservation, water recycling and climate change response.

Biden administration plan

President Joe Biden included drought response in his massive infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan. The proposal includes investment in “nature-based infrastructure” for climate resilience and water efficiency and recycling programs to address the drought crisis.

The Interior Department has also pulled together a favorite federal response, the interagency working group, to address drought relief. The group had its first meeting earlier this month and is working to coordinate funding and programs on drought resilience, according to Klein.

Biden also announced this week he would double the amount of federal funding to help states prepare for natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires.

Rep Jared Huffman, D-Calif., the chairman of the Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee that hosted the hearing, last week reintroduced his drought resiliency bill,  H.R. 3404.

It would direct the federal government to invest more than $1 billion for various water projects, including water storage, recycling and desalination efforts.

“Climate change is making drought more frequent and severe, we know that. And we must help communities prepare now for the new normal of longer and more frequent dry conditions,” Huffman said at the hearing.

He has endorsements from various local water districts, the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation. The proposal previously passed the House within a large infrastructure bill in the summer of 2020.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., the highest-ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Democrats should make more effort to work with Republicans on a long-term solution.

“You reintroduced your water legislation that did not go through regular order in the last Congress … I hope this scenario is not repeated this Congress,” Westerman said. “We must have the political will to act on a long-term strategy.”

But while Democrats and Republicans may disagree on some specifics of how to address the issue, many agree that the drought problem has reached a crisis moment that will require their forward-thinking response.

“We’ve shot ourselves in the foot, and now we’ve got to take a long hike. There are some very tough decisions that have to be made because there is only so much water,” Westerman said.

“If you look in the short term, it is not a very pretty picture,” he said.

Craig Foss, state forester at the Idaho Department of Lands, told lawmakers more aggressive management of dry forests that are prone to wildfire would be one way to help.

“Idaho, like much of the West, is experiencing wildfire seasons that are 30 to 60 days longer,” Foss said. “We can’t change the weather, but we can change the conditions of our forest.”

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based non-profit news outlets that includes Iowa Capital Dispatch.

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