How the West will be Lost
Water shortages need to be addressed immediately
Published: Monday, February 10, 2014
Updated: Monday, February 10, 2014 09:02
Extreme weather: a term that, taken singly, should raise a significant amount of alarm in our minds. Extreme weather: a term that news networks and weather stations have beaten us over the head with time and time again; so much so that we have become numb to its meaning and are willing to attach it to anything.
We’ve heard a lot about the ‘polar vortex’ this winter. We know that a lot of places are seeing low temperatures and getting lots of snow — some regions that don’t normally see snow have even gotten a dusting this season. Broadcasters have found our cold winter so newsworthy, that we have barely heard anything else weather-related for the last few months.
Whether or not the ‘polar vortex’ is actually an extreme weather event, or just a normal North Dakota winter in an age of ever-warming winters is a debate for another time. What we know for sure is that the media coverage dedicated to the ‘polar vortex’ is stealing time from what really is an extreme weather event happening out West right now.
California is in the middle of a three-year drought — one that is being billed as a 500-year event. And with no apparent end in sight, the outlook for cities big and small in the state is darkening daily. Though the drought has already had effects on farmers and ranchers throughout California, its prolonged effects are about to bring shortages in the state’s drinking water supplies.
Last week, California’s State Water Project cut off all water supplies to local agencies that serve around 25 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland. This is the first time in the 54-year history of the agency that it has completely shut down its reservoirs to consumption.
This action from the state has spurred local governments into action, with many demanding a 20 percent decrease in water usage from their citizens. The state has also shut down numerous streams and rivers to fishing, in order to protect populations of salmon and steelhead that are already in danger because of the dwindling water flows.
Historically its wettest season, California’s winter this year has given it little hope of relief. Many reservoirs around the state that rely on rainwater to stay full are dwindling to anywhere from 30 percent to under 10 percent of their capacity. And the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that feeds California’s thirst year-round is only at a meager 12 percent of normal for this time of year.
With the State Water Project cutting off its supply last week, 17 rural communities have declared a state of emergency, saying that their water supplies can only hold out another 60-120 days before they are completely gone.
Even worse for the residents of San Francisco, who get their water via pipeline from the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park, projects currently under construction to provide the city with local water recycling and ocean water desalination could soon be stalled. The pipeline from Hetch Hetchy is currently undergoing repairs that have gone over budget, and funds for the new projects may need to be re-directed to the pipeline.
The fact newscasters across the country are devoting airtime to a winter that some would consider a return to normal rather than drawing attention to the devastating drought that is having much more harmful effect on millions of Californians is a travesty. Cold winters are — or ought to be — the norm for most of our country. A 500-year drought that is forcing ranchers to sell their herds and farmers to let their fields lie fallow is a story that needs to be heard, and responded to.
For those who claim that this year’s cold winter disproves climate change, I would point to California. Yes, droughts happen in the normal cycle of things, even 500-year events.
But the prolonged drought throughout the American Southwest has given us cause for more and more concern in recent years, with some of the nation’s largest reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead sitting well below their normal capacity. The problem is clearly larger than just California.
We need to begin searching immediately for other means of providing our cities and farms with the water they need. If we wish to continue living a lifestyle of the quality we have become accustomed to, even those of us in regions of the country that do not face immediate water shortages should be looking at water conservation. As water leaves other regions of the country, the people there will be looking to wetter areas to get their water.