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

Water managers, lawmakers say conditions will require short-term relief and long-term funding

By: - May 26, 2021 4:33 pm
U.S. map of drought conditions

The National Integrated Drought Information System tracks drought conditions across the U.S. and updates its map each day. The yellow areas indicate abnormally dry conditions, the peach color indicates moderate drought, the orange indicates severe drought, the red indicates extreme drought, and the dark red indicates exceptional drought. (Courtesy of the National Integrated Drought Information System)

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 percent 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.

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. Idaho recorded its sixth-driest April in 127 years, and most of the state is experiencing abnormally dry or drought conditions.

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 dryer 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 record-keeping, according to the Interior Department. Extreme or exceptional drought is forecast 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 percent capacity and Lake Powell is at 34 percent, 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 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’s drought response 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,” said Westerman. 

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

Idaho’s Craig Foss, state forester at the Idaho Department of Lands, told lawmakers that 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 nonprofit news outlets that includes the Idaho Capital Sun.