On July 2, the Bureau of Reclamation announced a $1.5 million commitment, with matching funds from water associations, to conduct studies on water basins in Arizona, California and New Mexico. The announcement is part of a push to develop innovative strategies to meet growing western water demand in a region where agriculture, urban and ecosystem water needs are increasingly in conflict.

When it comes to water, instant gratification is the expectation in the United States. Turn on the sink, the shower, or the hose—out flows a steady stream of clean H2O. This availability of water is a luxury taken for granted, but in much of the western United States this era of luxury may be coming to an end, as major cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas that support millions in arid locations are entering a “new normal” of hotter, drier conditions.

A complex and impressive network of aqueducts, dams and reservoirs has been designed to meet the region’s demand for water resources in a dry environment. The system delivers water to agricultural and residential zones and generates hydroelectric power while working to sustain the environment. 

Tasked with maintaining this critical infrastructure is the Bureau of Reclamation, an Agency within the Department of the Interior. Throughout the 20th century, the Bureau built this remarkable system to bring water to a rapidly developing West, which it did relatively seamlessly. But the 21st century is posing unprecedented challenges.

Since it began its work in the West in 1902, the Bureau has relied heavily on snowpack as a fundamental component of its water strategy. According to National Geographic, spring snowmelt from mountains provides up to 75 percent of the West’s water. In the arid regions of the Southwestern United States, Sierra Nevada snowpack is arguably the most important source of water. When the massive stores of ice and snow held in these mountains thaw each year, they saturate the Bureau’s system with a vital supply.

Today's climate trends, however, are throwing a wrench in the Agency’s model. Amidst an unprecedented fourth year of severe drought in the West, snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevada are “the worst in a century," according to Jeff Anderson, snow surveyor for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. In late March of this year, snowpack levels measured in the Northern California expanse of the mountain range were at their lowest point since record-keeping began in 1950—just six percent of the average. Similarly bleak conditions have been reported across the West.

Drew Lessard, Area Manager for the Bureau’s Central California Office, sums up the situation frankly. “If there’s no snowpack, there’s no water.”  Contributing to the diminished snowpack levels are above average temperatures coupled with below average precipitation. And as EESI reported earlier this summer, an increasing body of evidence suggests the conditions now being experienced are not the work of some climate anomaly, but rather indicative of a “new normal”of longer dry periods and insufficient water supply for much of the West in the coming decades. The driving force, experts argue, is climate change.

In response to this scientific sentiment, Michael Connor, deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, has called for the Bureau to make climate change a central focus. From all sides, the Bureau faces mounting pressure to reimagine its vast network to address 21st century realities; to do more with less.

In a bid to better comprehend the shifting water landscape and devise appropriate strategies in response, the Bureau is studying 22 water basins across the West as part of its WaterSMART initiative. But an easy fix is proving elusive.  

Experts have proposed a range of strategies the Bureau could adopt to more effectively manage water in the region. Planning for climate change should be the first on the list. The Agency could reconfigure its network of reservoirs, for example, to more effectively harness regional rainfall patterns that are expected to change with the climate.

The Bureau could also handle irrigation more sustainably. In California, over three quarters of the state’s water goes to agriculture. Rather than periodically flooding crop fields, the Agency could use a computerized system to irrigate farms intelligently, on an as-needed basis, and save water.

Further recommendations abound. Upgrading the current network of aqueducts to curtail absorption and leaks is crucial. And by investing in desalination, the Bureau could employ vast quantities of clean water from a relatively untapped source.

However, the appetite for such spending in the United States is low, as evidenced by the lack of funding for repairs to other deteriorating pieces of infrastructure, from highways to the electric grid. The proposals made to the Bureau require serious financial support to execute; but this year’s congressional appropriations process is suggesting that additional funding will be hard to come by.

Meanwhile, the West’s ills continue to grow. Stores of critical groundwater are shrinking. Falling water levels at reservoirs like Lake Mead—the nation’s largest when full—threaten to undermine the region’s ability to generate hydroelectric power. Wildfires, crop failures, endangered wildlife; the thin water supply’s consequences are far-reaching.

For now, much of the West is left scrambling to adjust to a new era in which water doesn’t flow like it once did. In California, thus far the hardest hit by drought, the circumstances compelled Governor Jerry Brown to issue mandatory restrictions on municipal water use. Some farmers voluntarily followed suit. Learning to live with less water will be essential for the West’s growing population.

But for the Bureau, the demand reduction isn’t coming quick enough, and praying for snow isn’t part of the job description.


Author: Billy Lee


For more information see: 

Bureau of Reclamation Provides $1.5 Million for River Basin Studies about How to Meet Future Water Demands, Reclamation

Statement of Michael L. Connor, Commissioner Bureau of Reclamation U.S. Department of the Interior, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources  

Drought Sends U.S. Water Agency Back to Drawing Board, New York Times 

Drought in the West a “New Normal” According to Experts at Senate Hearing, EESI 

When the Snows Fail, National Geographic