Earlier this year, The New York Times published an article arguing that, “In California, a wet era may be ending.” The article pointed out that California has a long history of drought conditions, and that the wetter-than average conditions that the Golden State generally witnessed over the last 100 years may not be “normal” at all. In fact, looking at tree ring data, scientists have determined that over the last two millennia, California has experienced many periods of drought that lasted a decade or more. In two instances, “mega drought” conditions lasted more than 100 years straight. When Governor Jerry Brown announced mandatory water restrictions in April, he echoed similar sentiments saying that drought conditions across the state are “the new normal.”
California is not alone in facing the lingering effects of the drought that covers much of the Western United States. According to the most recent US Drought Monitor, drought covers 73.47% of the Western United States. Further, extreme drought covers parts of California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Each of these states have implemented plans to address the drought and in some instances limit water usage. In this post, I will review a selection of the states’ drought response programs and assess the potential economic and social implications of the water restrictions.
Drought Response Plans by State
Drought conditions currently cover 100% of Oregon, and extreme drought covers 48.31% of the state. In response, Governor Kate Brown has issued emergency drought declarations for 23 of the 39 counties in the state. Last week, Governor Brown also mandated that state agencies cut their water consumption by 15% over the next five years. The executive order requires that all state agencies report annually on November 1st their progress towards attaining this goal and asks the agencies to explore ways that they can help the communities they serve to reduce water consumption. So far, the water usage cuts only affect state agencies and is not directed at cities, businesses or individual citizens. When announcing the water restrictions, Governor Brown said, “Water is the foundation for our economies, communities, ecosystems, and quality of life,” Brown said in a statement. “State government’s efforts to address climate change must include reduced consumption and other conservation measures as water shortages become the new normal.”
So far, water restrictions have been voluntary. According to the Statesman Journal, cities including Keizer, Lake Oswego, Silverton and Bend have implemented stage 1 voluntary water restrictions. The restrictions include watering lawns on alternate days and avoiding watering during the hottest parts of the day. Other cities such as Yachats, Ashland and Banks warn that mandatory Stage 2 water restrictions may become necessary if drought conditions do not ease this summer.
As in Oregon, drought conditions cover the entire state of Washington, and extreme drought conditions cover 31.74% of the state. In response, the US Department of Agriculture has declared 18 counties in Washington natural disaster areas due to the lingering drought conditions. In response to the low river flows in Washington, state regulators have taken measures aimed to curtail water usage and to reduce the stress on fish stocks across the state. The Department of Ecology curtailed water rights, some going back to before Washington was a state, in the Yakima and Chehalis Basins. The Yakima curtailments affect 129 water rights holders, and the Chehalis curtailments affect 93 irrigators in the Basin. Department of Ecology officials point out that drought has caused the curtailment of water rights in certain basins, most recently in the mid-1980s. However, officials believe that this drought is more severe because the curtailments are happening much earlier in the irrigation season, and modern farming techniques make water use more efficient.
As in California, Washington is trying to reduce the drought-related stress on fish populations. Lower stream flows cause water temperatures to rise, and water temperatures that are too high are lethal for some types of salmon, trout and sturgeon that are native to Washington’s rivers. Last month, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife limited or stopped fishing on 38 rivers including the Kettle and Spokane Rivers.
Idaho and Montana – Drought’s Effects on the Wheat Harvest
Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho collectively produce about one-fifth of the country’s wheat crop. Drought conditions, particularly in Idaho and Montana, are disrupting wheat production. In Idaho, officials declared 41 of the 44 counties drought emergency areas. Western Montana also remains in severe drought conditions despite slightly cooler conditions and a few days of showers. The drought has both short and long-term implications for farmers in the area. First, famers across Idaho and in Western Montana will likely have either a reduced volume or quality crop. In Clearwater County, Idaho for example, farmers estimate that the crop yield may be 40% lower than average. Also, crop quality is a concern. The heat and lack of water caused some crops not to develop properly. The wheat crops that do not develop properly will receive a lower price at market, adding to the financial challenges that farmers face in this drought-stricken region.
Longer term, farmers in the area also face an uncertain water supply. Farmers have drawn down supplies as limited rains provided little natural irrigation during the season. Looking to next season, farmers are not sure how much of a wheat crop the depleted water supplies will support if precipitation does not provide drought relief this fall and winter.
Planning for the “new norm”
Up and down the Western United States, drought is a part of everyday life. From housing developments to farming and fish and wildlife, the drought affects many aspects of our society. As I wrote in my last post, we hope that an El Nino pattern will bring much needed rains to the Western United States. But we can’t be certain that a drought-busting weather pattern will provide the rains that we desperately need. As such, our state and local governments need to continue to plan for periods of prolonged drought. According to a National Geographic report, the same tree ring study that I cited at the beginning of the post showed that the 20th century was the wettest century in the last millennium. During the worst part of the “megadrought” in the 12th century, the flow in the Colorado River averaged 12 million acre-feet, approximately 80% of the average flow of the Colorado during the 20th century and significantly less water than we extract from the River for human consumption alone. While we hope that the water supply in the West does not get as dire as the 12th century “megadrought,” it is likely that we will have to plan for prolonged droughts in the future. The National Geographic article I cited opens by stating, “When provided with continuous nourishment, trees, like people grow complacent.” Hopefully the drought we are experiencing now will shake us out of our complacency. Now is the time to begin planning for the next drought that will inevitably come.