Analysis: The West is drying up. Things will go wrong


Stories are cropping up across the West of possible rationing, upcoming restrictions, and looming standoffs between farmers and government over the most precious natural resource.

Dead end. Up north, there is a heated disagreement in Oregon between farmers cut off from water to irrigate their potatoes and federal officials trying to save an endangered species of fish.

When CNN’s Lucy Kafanov reported on Klamath Basin last week, she took her shot live from the parched bottom of a lake that is expected to be several feet deep.

The farmers set up in a tent outside the entrance gate to the canal and were almost threatening to break in and open the gates themselves, as they did 20 years ago.

The most visible and striking effect of the heat and drought is at Lake Mead, which is at its lowest level since it was filled during the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s.

Less accumulated snow and more evaporation from warm temperatures have wreaked havoc over the decades to the point that it has fallen over 140 feet since 2000 and barely exceeds a third of its capacity.

Now let’s take a break from the Hoover Dam, government spending, and climate change.

The dam: Talk about an infrastructure project! President Joe Biden came to power promising New Deal-level infrastructure investment. That will be reduced by three quarters if he wants to get Republican help to get him through,

Government spending: The latest bipartisan proposal includes $ 5 billion to help address water scarcity in the West, although larger pots of money are intended to improve water and electricity infrastructure; the dam, with less water behind it, produces less energy.

Climate change: But while lawmakers are happy to find a way to spend money on infrastructure as long as they don’t raise taxes, there is no deal with Republicans to do anything directly against the government. climate change, which contributes to this drought. Democrats can try to go it alone and pass a much bigger infrastructure bill that aims to tackle climate change, but it’s not clear they’ll have the voices.

Long time to come. The water in Lake Mead has been slowly declining for years. In 2015, CNN visited St. Thomas, a former town of 500 that was taken over by the government and submerged under 60 feet of water for the sake of Lake Mead. Saint Thomas came out of the depths as the water sank. And continued to decline.

The comparison of the 2000 vs 2021 images is amazing.

Remember, 40 million people living in seven western states and Mexico get their water from the Colorado River system.

The whole of the West is dry. CNN’s climate team put together three maps to put the historic drought into perspective.

The current drought map shows the 88% of the western part of the country in some shade of red and the east is almost entirely unfazed.

The outlook for future precipitation is equally grim, suggesting there will be no relief in the west. And a look at the flow of streams and rivers demonstrates a lack of water moving through the region.

They could have added a fourth with this heat map as the West bakes at record temperatures.

Decades of drought. The Intermountain West – between the Rockies, the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada mountains – has technically been in a drought for decades, since 2000. It’s a vicious cycle: hot weather leads to drought and drought leads to drought. in hot weather.

What makes a drought “exceptional? ” It’s interesting to watch what happens in these maps, which are quite alarming with all the deep red. The data is maintained by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in partnership with government agencies. They have very specific criteria that are specific to each state to distinguish between “extreme drought” and “exceptional drought”.

The criteria they list for “exceptional drought” in California are not far from apocalyptic:

  • The fields are left fallow; orchards are suppressed; vegetable yields are low; honey harvest is small
  • The fire season is very expensive; the number of fires and the area burned are significant
  • Many recreational activities are affected
  • Beginning of the rescue and relocation of fish; mountain pine beetle infestation occurs; forest mortality is high; wetlands are drying up; survival of native plants and animals is poor; fewer wild flowers bloom; the death of wildlife is widespread; algae blooms appear
  • Policy change; agricultural unemployment is high, food aid is needed
  • Poor air quality affects health; greenhouse gas emissions increase as hydropower generation decreases; West Nile virus outbreaks on the rise
  • Water shortages are widespread; surface water is depleted; federal supplies of irrigation water are extremely low; water rights for juniors are reduced; water prices are extremely high; the wells are dry, increasingly deep wells are drilled; the water quality is poor
We know that the short term effects of this drought will be restrictions and new rules. What is harder to see are the longer-term effects, although it is a broader look at water and drought that makes dire predictions of climate refugees fleeing parts of the country that are getting too hot. or arid, or the breakdown of water sharing systems and agreements.

This both seems a long way off, as humans turn to using less water and finding new ways to capture, store, and reuse it. But those far-fetched predictions seem far too close when the country’s largest reservoir literally dries up.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of Lake Mead. It sits on the Nevada-Arizona border.

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