While much of the rest of the United States is dealing with dryness and drought that has come unexpectedly, in California and a lot of the American West the troubles are nothing new. To help put it all in perspective, though, Wade Crowfoot, secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency, presented a drought/water resources update at the recent Food & Ag Issues Summit.

“I’ll share something that you already know: We are facing a worsening regional drought across most of the American West that is really unprecedented in nature,” Crowfoot began. He explained that the Colorado River Basin, which provides water to seven states and two countries, has been facing a water shortage for over 20 years – and is in possibly the driest period in the past 1,200 years. (Researchers from Utah State University’s Center for Colorado River Studies have dubbed this a “millennium drought.”)

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two of the largest reservoirs along the Colorado River, are currently only about one-quarter full, as compared to about 95% full in 2000. “We could hit deadpool [in those lakes],” Crowfoot said – meaning no water could be exported from them.

Farther north, Crowfoot said that the Sacramento River and San Joaquin river systems are also both “in a very bad way.” Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir, experienced a “horrible” winter for precipitation it desperately needed to recharge. “We may be seeing the largest period of fallowing in the Sacramento River Basin ever,” Crowfoot stated. Without water, farmers can’t grow crops.

As this parched period is unlike anything modern California has faced, Crowfoot said the state is in unchartered waters. He said that scientists are telling us that weather even a few degrees warmer in the winter means precipitation comes as rain, and not snow, and that’s a problem in the Colorado River Basin, where both residential and agricultural populations depend on slowly melting snow pack for their water supply. “There is less snow pack to rely on, and then in spring and summer, temperatures are warmer,” Crowfoot said, meaning that water is going into very dry ground or evaporating.

“We are experiencing conditions we have never faced before,” he said. “There are a lot of things we need to focus on to maintain agricultural prosperity, economic prosperity and our way of life in the West.”

The two main activities those in the West need to engage in are modernizing their water infrastructure and their water management to deal with this new normal, according to Crowfoot. For example, California’s water system was created about 100 years ago, and so it is outmoded for the challenges being faced today.

“To our leaders in agriculture – keep doing what you’ve already been doing,” Crowfoot said, talking about water-saving measures many have undertaken. “Become as efficient as possible with the water you have. Get ‘more pop for the drop.’” He also noted that the Golden State is investing in a healthy soils program, which would subsidize farmers who volunteer to improve their soil to hold more moisture.

Crowfoot called for updates and expansion to the state’s current water storage where appropriate, especially for capturing the rain from the “atmospheric rivers” that often accompany stronger winter storms. (These rivers are narrow, fast-flowing streams of moist air.) That water storage includes space underground, in the state’s emptying aquifers. And, while California already has 1,500 reservoirs, Crowfoot acknowledged there are smart locations to install new above-ground storage as well.

“Efficiency, storage, conveyance – we have to be able to move this water. We need to work with an urgency to upgrade these systems,” he said.

A lot more modernization is needed too, in water recycling, desalinization and stormwater capture, Crowfoot continued. “We don’t know when this drought is going to end,” he said, and so the West needs to stretch its water supplies. When it comes to conserving water on a voluntary basis, he said California is seeing mixed results, with some areas of the state reducing their usage by as much as 15% to 20%; in other regions, the numbers are much lower. He said further measures may be needed to enforce conservation if the numbers don’t continue to improve.

“A lot of what we need to do is work together to essentially control our own destiny,” Crowfoot concluded. To learn more about what the California Natural Resources Agency is doing, visit resources.ca.gov.

by Courtney Llewellyn