Water Scarcity and Drought in the Western US: The Real Story

Water Scarcity and Drought in the Western US: The Real Story

Water scarcity is something people in the western US have to live with. Are its causes natural or human made? The answer is complicated.

Water scarcity is now a common state of affairs in the Western US, but how much of it is caused by drought and how much by water overuse? Water advisor Brian Richter wants to make sure you know the difference.

Richter is a global leader in water science and conservation and is the president of Sustainable Waters, “a global organization focused on water scarcity challenges, where he promotes sustainable water use and management with governments, corporations, universities, and local communities.” Richter says right now, the country is experiencing the most intense drought spanning a wider reach than he’s ever seen.

A large part of the Western and Midwestern US is experiencing drought at this time, and in some cases, it is extreme. When droughts happen, they are typically accompanied by water scarcity. It’s the water scarcity that brings so much pain to people. Richter says those two don’t have to go hand in hand, and he wrote down a few key points to help people understand why.

Droughts Don’t Cause Water Scarcity. People Do.

According to the USGS, at its most basic, drought is a period of drier-than-normal conditions that results in water-related problems. The term means different things to different types of people. To farmers, droughts are dry periods that affects crops; to water managers, droughts mean low water supplies that affect water availability and quality; to hydrologists, droughts are extended periods of decreased precipitation and streamflow.

Water scarcity, as Richter points out, “…is human-driven; it is a function of the volume of water consumed by humans relative to the volume of accessible, affordable water resources in a given area.” In other words, droughts aren’t a problem unless you need the water. In the US, especially in the Western states, our water needs far outpace our water supplies during the good years, so droughts hit those regions hard.

Don’t Blame This on the Cities

It would be easy to point fingers at big western cities as the culprits in the over allocation of water use in the West. The problem is that the cities have been getting it right.  A recent assessment of urban water use, which includes residential, commercial, and industrial uses, only accounted for 11% of all water consumption in the West. In addition, the cities have done a good job of reducing their water use since the 1980s, thanks in part to strong education and conservation programs as well as mandated water efficiency in building codes.

Water Scarcity Isn’t a New Story

A large part of the US – including the Western and Midwestern regions, were built on the promise of delivered water, which translated into dams, irrigation and water rights allocations that weren’t always fair. California could never sustain itself as the center of agriculture without all the water deliveries it gets from other parts of the state. The west has always been dry and, in spite of the fact that it is getting drier, its residents are fighting to flourish.

It would be just as easy to point fingers at farmers, given that agriculture is responsible for a huge chunk of water use in the US – 80 to 90 percent, by some estimates. Here too, while there are farmers who need to do better – in some cases, a lot better – many farmers have learned to use their water as carefully as possible, and farming really is a critical water use.

Water Scarcity is a Failure of Governance

The water scarcity we are currently experiencing in the Western US is more aptly described as a failure of our government(s) to recognize and manage the coming shortages. Water is over allocated to all users, regardless of the flawed assumptions about its availability. Water managers and regulators got the equation wrong, and water users are paying the price through lack of availability, higher prices and conflict. The time for cooperation over water was a long time ago but the states continually squabble over who gets allocations of water from which river basins. Meanwhile, the droughts continue and climate change marches on to diminish existing supplies and change precipitation patterns so rain and snow no longer fall when and where we want it to fall.

It’s Time to Start Talking About the Long Game for Water in the West

As a country, we are being forced to live within our natural limits, but that concept doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. As we’ve seen recently, “I’ve got mine” is a sentiment that runs deeply throughout the county. As the climate continues to change and we face new weather patterns along with new human migration patterns, “I’ve got mine” will be as useful as all those inaccurate assumptions about how much water flows through the West.

Droughts will come and go, and, ultimately, all we can change is how much water we actually use, but our philosophy of overuse needs to float away on whatever water we have left in our rivers.

[Sustainable Waters]