Solutions to Climate Change-Fueled Droughts in the Western US

May 17, 2022 | 1:38 pm
ALUC 15/PIXABAY
Jose Pablo Ortiz Partida
Senior Bilingual Water and Climate Scientist

As human activities continue to spew heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, temperatures rise and cause the air to become “thirstier.” This thirstier air evaporates more water from rivers, lakes, and canals, as well as from soil, forests, vegetation, and crops, making drought conditions extreme. This blog presents the state of the drought in the Western US and some solutions that must be carried out on a large scale to lessen its impacts and increase resilience. 

According to the US Drought Monitor, 63 percent of the country—an area that’s home to more than 80 million people–is experiencing some degree of drought (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Early May 2022 drought conditions in the US. Source: US Drought Monitor

Figure 1. Early May 2022 Drought conditions in the US Source: US Drought Monitor

We have reached the end of the rainy season in most of the West, and so are able to confirm that this is the third consecutive year of drought in the Western United States, perpetuating an abnormally dry period that began in the year 2000 and is considered a megadrought.

There may be people thinking, “The drought can’t be this long; I saw that it rained and even snowed in some areas of the West a few weeks ago.” The answer is that drought does not mean that it does not rain, a drought is defined as the deficit of precipitation over an extended period that results in water shortages. In other words, it rains less than usual or what is required to meet water demands. While there have been intense rainfall events over the past 22 years, precipitation has been insufficient for soil moisture to recover to what would be considered normal conditions (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Drought conditions in the western US since 2000. Despite some wet years, rainfall has been insufficient to fully recover from drought conditions over the past 22 years. Source: US Drought Monitor (https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/DmData/TimeSeries.aspx)

The reason for this long drought has a lot to do with changes in precipitation patterns and rising temperatures linked to human-caused climate change, but it also has to do with human decisions that have led to the overexploitation of water resources of our rivers, lakes, and groundwater and a lack of sufficient policies to protect these resources.

While it may be easy to ignore the drought because water keeps flowing when most of us open the faucet, drought impacts affect us all in multiple ways, including: 

  • Reduced water availability causes the agriculture sector to pump more groundwater, decreasing groundwater levels to a point where some private and community wells dry up. 
  • Along with rising temperatures, drought makes vegetation and forests drier and increases the risk of fires that generate air pollution. 
  • As the water in hydropower reservoirs drops, hydropower production is reduced, possibly increasing energy prices, or forcing some utilities to compensate for energy demands by using more fossil fuels for power generation.  
  • Higher water and energy prices disproportionately affect low-income families. 
  • Inhibited movement of plants, wildlife, and aquatic species, reducing their reproduction, or causing their death. For example, salmon cannot survive when river water is warm.
  • Some agricultural crops and job opportunities for farmworkers are threatened.
  • Water quality is degraded and lower water availability in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs may reduce recreational opportunities such as boating and fishing.
  • Mandatory restrictions on water use may be imposed. 

These impacts vary depending on the characteristics of the region and the degree of drought. For a list of the overall impacts for each state within the varying degrees of drought, you can visit this website.

Solutions

Comprehensive strategies to mitigate drought risk are necessary to reduce impacts associated with droughts. Any solution must be developed to reduce the equity gap that exists between the most vulnerable and under-resourced communities and the rest of the population. Here I share some solutions that I consider important, but specific solutions will depend on each region and must consider the perspectives and challenges of the most disadvantaged communities

Achieving an equitable energy transition

One of the most important steps to limit the risk of droughts and reduce their impacts—and all other impacts of climate change—is to bring global CO2 emissions to zero and even negative (capture more CO2 than emitted) by mid-century. This requires accelerating the energy transition to clean and renewable sources in a way that is equitable.  An equitable energy transition must expand access to clean energy technologies and expand decision-making to include environmental justice and communities that rely on fossil fuels while phasing out coal and gas plants. For more details, you can read “On the Road to 100 Percent Renewables .”

It is estimated that the water sector is responsible for about 5 percent of emissions of heat-trapping gases in the United States. These emissions come from energy demands to purify, transport, supply, and treat drinking water and wastewater, as well as methane and nitrous oxide emissions from wastewater, and decomposition of organic matter in reservoirs among others. This sector can contribute to decarbonization and energy transition to achieve “net zero” emissions in an equitable way that benefits all people and protects the planet by 2050.

Collaboration

Water utilities, irrigation districts, the energy sector, and other organizations need to establish or increase collaboration at all scales to share data and information and to finance, build, and operate water supply infrastructure. For example, some agricultural areas in California’s San Joaquin Valley receive clean water from Sierra Nevada snowmelt while other communities pump contaminated groundwater. Cooperative programs and policies that allow a fair exchange of water could contribute to solving the problem of contaminated water for hundreds of communities. Equitable water management would provide sufficient, clean, accessible, and affordable water to all households, regardless of income or social status.

Reconciliation and collaboration among groups that have historically been seen as adversaries are complicated but not impossible. Creating partnerships to manage water can improve learning and understanding, increase the coordinated use of resources, and facilitate negotiation when the interests of diverse groups are not aligned. Cooperation is also important between urban and rural areas, especially when they share the same basin and therefore some of the same challenges related to water scarcity, flood management, and water pollution. Cities and rural communities can benefit from water savings and better water quality and, in turn, help farmers make the best use of water by incentivizing or compensating those who contribute to water security (e.g. regenerative farming).

Improve monitoring and access to water data and information

Better access to water data and information can provide a variety of benefits for water management. It is necessary to know more precisely how much water we have, what the quality of that water is, and how much we use to improve the management of the resource. Those questions need to be answered for our climate change present and future. Water monitoring should also include information on the state of infrastructure, the health of aquatic ecosystems, hydropower generation, and socioeconomic factors, among other water-relevant data.  

Recent research by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the UC Berkeley Center for Law, Energy & the Environment recommends the following actions, among others, to improve management of water-related data: 

  • Dissemination and collaboration between users and producers of water data to broaden the perspective of its uses and improve its accessibility.
  • A system that addresses data needs in multiple spatial and temporal resolutions, and in multiple different forms and formats.
  • Basing water data on principles of usability and stakeholder engagement requires robust cyberinfrastructure, good governance, and stable funding.
  • Data gaps take a variety of forms and will need to be filled in different ways.  Some of these gaps include data on water rights, groundwater pumping, or water demands by ecosystems. Other examples of data that are required can be found in Table 4 of this article.  

Reduction of soil and water pollution

The contamination of streams, rivers, lakes, and aquifers makes water treatment more expensive, reducing the availability of the resource. Policies to stop sources of surface and groundwater pollution need to be strengthened and enforced. Important actions on this front should focus on reducing the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, eliminating municipal and industrial discharges to oceans and freshwater systems, and reducing overall garbage that reaches rivers. This action is particularly important in terms of equity because water pollution disproportionately affects under-resourced communities with low political representation. 

Green infrastructure

Green infrastructure refers to solutions based on nature. To take advantage of the services that ecosystems provide we must conserve and restore forests, wetlands, soils, floodplains, and coastal ecosystems, as well as create green spaces in urban areas. Green infrastructure helps to sustainably recover and manage water resources, including groundwater that acts as a savings account during dry times. For example, aquifer recharge during wet seasons serves to cushion impacts during dry periods.

Water conservation 

Reduce water use in all sectors, especially agriculture, to sustainable levels. Part of this strategy includes reducing the acreage of crops that use the most water. This does not mean eliminating those crops; it means reducing their area to sustainable levels so that future generations can also have access to those products. Another strategy is to reduce perennial crop acreage that compromises water demands for many years. Non-perennial crops or rainfed crops can be planted during wet years and their surface area can be reduced during dry years to increase flexibility in water demands. Such actions would require support and incentives for small and socially disadvantaged farmers to facilitate the adoption of these and other water-saving strategies without compromising their businesses.

For urban utilities, studies show three important factors for the development of effective water conservation policies: (1) the price of water, (2) investment in tools that help save significant amounts of water, (3) and support for smaller water agencies to facilitate opportunities for the implementation of conservation strategies. 

The price of water should reflect not only the costs of administration, purification, and transportation but also the costs of the environmental impacts generated by the extraction of the resource. Policies and regulations need to focus on environmental protection and prices should be equitably increased to prevent a disproportional burden on low-income families who find it difficult to buy more efficient systems due to their high price. Additional water use restrictions for high-tier water users must be implemented, as wealthier families may decide to pay for more water because it does not represent a significant expense proportional to their income. 

Water education

Water education should go beyond teaching the hydrologic cycle and incorporate components of local hydrology, regulations, and laws. While education on water issues should be incorporated at all levels, it is particularly important for decisionmakers. Water education should also reach media professionals so that they can properly communicate water issues, including issues in rural areas and vulnerable communities. Besides being used as a water conservation strategy, water education has the potential to reduce diseases caused by contaminated water. All people use water every day and many do not know where the water comes from and how complicated it is to have it available at any time in our homes.

Increase water treatment and reuse

Increasing water recycling and reuse, including capturing rainwater, greywater, and treated wastewater is a step toward sustainability, especially as more cities and states limit water use. As more new water reuse technologies are adopted, resilience is increased and the cost of a shortage is reduced.

Maintain and modernize infrastructure and its operation 

It is necessary to increase maintenance and modernize infrastructure to reduce leaks and keep pipes in good condition. For example, nationwide about 17 percent of water is lost before it reaches homes due to leaks in the distribution system. Modernization must also include the operation of our water systems such as dams and conveyance infrastructure. Many of these systems still operate with assumptions based on what our climate was like in the past and have not yet integrated advances in weather forecasting or updated climate information.

Explore new technologies

There are many new promising technologies to produce, filter, or treat water that are more efficient or more effective than current technologies that in general have not expanded due to their high cost or their environmental repercussions. One example is seawater desalination. While the technology exists and in cities like San Diego provides about 10% of the city’s drinking water, seawater desalination is not yet a feasible option for most cities in California and the rest of the country. Desalinated water is simply too expensive (up to 10 times more) and difficult to produce in the volumes needed to make it feasible. All this without considering the damage to the environment caused by seawater pumps that also suck in marine life and by saltwater discharges that increase the salinity of the discharge area, threatening other sea species. Also, desalination is very energy-intensive and it shouldn’t be ramped up without switching to clean energy sources. In that aspect, new solar-driven zero liquid discharge technologies for treating brine are promising.  

There are several companies producing a range of technologies for “harvesting” water from the air. These technologies are potential but relatively expensive solutions (or cheap depending on the case) for drinking water in areas without reliable drinking water sources. These and other technologies should not be considered single silver-bullet solutions, and instead, be part of a portfolio of options to be adopted according to local needs.