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Facing Down Drought in the West

a small boat on Lake Powell with the infamous "bathtub ring" showing how water levels fluctuate over time
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Let’s be blunt: the outlook isn’t rosy.

For more than two decades trends for above-normal temperatures and below-normal rainfall have ruled the West. Official maps are painted in wide swaths with angry red and dark-red stripes — category markers for extreme and exceptional water shortages. Water percolating through the Colorado River Basin has dwindled — every drop is allocated to farms and cities before it ever reaches the sea. Mountains that should be getting one to two inches of snow every week of the winter are averaging one tenth of that. Existing mountain snowpacks are melting in March instead of April.

We are smack dab in an ongoing 20-year drought, says Robert Gillies, state climatologist from Utah State University’s Department of Plants, Soils and Climate.

It’s a slow-moving disaster, making it somewhat difficult to process, especially when there are still adequate flows coming from kitchen faucets and garden taps. But consequences are lurking in the wings: Lakes Mead and Powell, the reservoir resource for 40 million people to flush toilets, grow alfalfa, and water their peonies, has dropped to record lows and could reach deadpool within a year (the level at which turbines can no longer crank out power). California’s groundwater is overused to such an extent that the land in some places is physically sinking. The iconic Great Salt Lake now sits at half its historic average with hundreds of square miles of dry lakebed surrounding the briny waterline.

Forecasting models show maximum temperatures rising — and minimum temperatures rising even faster, preventing snowpacks from building and melting them earlier each year, says Gillies. 

Like ripping off a bandage, there is a certain catharsis in finally having to face the quiet calamity that’s hovered at the edge of our desert-dwelling western consciousness — we are running out of water.

The good news is that this drought isn’t news for many researchers and scientists at USU who’ve spent years studying strategies to help communities use water in smarter ways, to decipher the consequences of drought on natural systems, and to understand what will happen next so that we can continue to adapt.

If you’ve lived in the West for long, drought may not actually seem like that big of a deal anymore. We’ve coped before by squaring our shoulders, tightening our hydrological belts for a year or two, and hoping for a good wet spring. But because of a warming climate, these conditions may not be temporary, says Sarah Null, a professor of watershed sciences in the Quinney College of Natural Resources. Something is permanently shifting.

Warming temperatures are making a bad drought worse. Less precipitation falls as snow. Even when we get a good, solid storm, we can’t seem to hang on to it. It slips through our fingers as liquid water, back to the atmosphere through evaporation, into dry soils, or through sun-warmed leaves by transpiration.

These new climate patterns are also volatile, teasing, harder to predict, Null says. Precipitation comes at the wrong time and in the wrong form to do the landscape much good. There might be an intense snowstorm that piles on the ski slopes — and then months of bone-dry sky. Or a hell-raising storm that floods the sandstone gulleys of Washington County — and then weeks of above-average temperatures that suck that soil moisture right back into the atmosphere rather than sending it to reservoirs. Or even an above-average year for precipitation — embedded in a decade of below-average conditions.

This variability has bigger consequences than just yellowing lawns. The hydrologic system in the West is a huge, slow-moving, and complex machine. Groundwork for its structure was established a hundred years ago, in a period when the climate was unusually wet and when the idea of a million-person metropolis sprawling across a desert landscape was no more than a coyote’s fever dream. Now we face a colossal triple-whammy that includes agricultural fields staked for a hungry population, growing urban demands for water, and less water available when we need it most — factors that are pushing the current system to its limits, says Jack Schmidt, from USU’s Center for Colorado River Studies.

Portrait shot of Alfonso Torres-Rua
Alfonso Torres-Rua helps farmers maximize their water allotments by advancing precision agriculture technologies. Photo by Levi Sim.

You might imagine that a good finale to drought would come in a wash of water. And indeed, give the West a good four years of soaking, above normal precipitation, and we could actually catch up on reservoir losses, says Gillies (although it’s not in the forecast). But that’s just one piece of a complex puzzle. Climate change is not so easily reversed, and unfortunately, more water won’t necessarily mean less drought in the big picture. Because of warming temperatures, we may never revert back to the landscapes and relationships with water that we’ve known to now. 

For USU researchers, the next chapter looks more like ongoing adaptation — for farms, in communities, and by the way we manage natural landscapes. There are still plenty of unknowns as this multi-decade drought continues to percolate alongside climate change and urban growth. USU researchers offer insight into what life might look like in a new warmer, dryer, and smarter future.

Rain or Shine

Alfonso Torres-Rua first learned to monitor the amount of moisture in a farm’s soil the old-fashioned way — by rubbing a handful of dirt between his fingers. 

“You can actually tell a lot about what is going on in the soil using just your hands,” he says, demonstrating the technique. It’s still how many Utah farmers gauge whether it’s time to irrigate crops. But with current water shortages there is a lot less flexibility for over-watering error. Hydrological supplies to agricultural users are becoming more limited, and it makes less sense to offer thirsty crops too much water, rather than just enough.

Torres-Rua, M.S. ’06, Ph.D. ’11, a civil and environmental engineering professor, is developing precise watering tools for farmers to use that monitor a field’s water levels in real-time using drone footage and satellite images that he feeds into data-driven models. His work will make it possible for irrigators to use smartphones to see a season-long summary of water use and the current soil moisture status of their crop. It lets individual farmers monitor water consumption within a field to plan future irrigation timing and levels, as well as allow canal and reservoir operators to monitor total water use to plan future irrigation demands for the entire system.

Utah’s farms, orchards, and fields require a lot of water. The stretches of alfalfa, peach trees, rows of onions, bales of hay, and other agricultural products grown in the West, consume more than 80% of all the water available for human use. Knowing this, it’s easy to indignantly point at agriculture as an obvious culprit during drought, but it’s not so simple, says Torres-Rua. We all eat. The romaine lettuce, shredded cheddar, and hay-fed beef you enjoyed for dinner are a direct product of the way we use that water. The beneficiary of agricultural water use is you.

Portrait shot of Sarah Null
Sarah Null investigates how water banking through a market system could respond to drought while supporting agriculture, ecosystems, and communities. The strategy could encourage water conservation and allow willing sellers to lease extra water to those who need it most. Photo by Levi Sim.

Agricultural producers in Utah have already accepted deep cuts into their water shares in response to dwindling supplies, explains Torres-Rua. Cherry orchards in Santaquin, for example, cut water use by 40% in recent years. Other producers with fairly senior water rights were told this summer that they’d get just 25% of their shares. If farmers have to face further drawdown, trees and crops may (at the very least) become stressed and diseased. That’s not a temporary setback. Water decisions today have long-term consequences for more than just farms, says Torres-Rua. They create a cascade of economic and social consequences that ripple across the whole economy. 

Less water for farms means fewer planted fields — and that means fewer workers hired for harvest, fewer supplies purchased from businesses, a tighter food supply, more demand for produce in the grocery store, and rising prices. 

On the flip side, since agriculture requires such a high proportion of the available water, every small improvement in conservation and efficiency also delivers big benefits to available supply. And Torres-Rua is assisting with that.

Dry Run: Urban Growth and Water

Meanwhile farmers are fending off an existential threat on another front — increasing calls to sell water rights to thirsty and expanding urban populations. 

Utah is growing fast, with a population projected to increase by 66% over the next four decades. The state ranks second highest in per capita water use (behind Idaho). We use water to drink, shower, raise gardens, and maintain our lawns. Every new community in the growing state needs access to this resource. But considering the reality of the current drought, it may be time to rethink our foundational relationship with the landscape, says Null.

“We are still trying to make Utah’s desert landscape look like Kentucky,” she adds. “We need to start looking more like Utah.”

Bathing and drinking are certainly non-negotiable. But there is room for improvement in plenty of spaces.

The water that falls in northern Utah shouldn’t necessarily all stay in here. Every gallon that runs through our sprinklers is one less gallon that makes it downstream into the shrinking Great Salt Lake or the diminished Colorado River. It’s one less gallon that supports healthy trout populations and sustains water-scrubbing wetlands, explains Null. Utah is also one of the sources for water for other large populations in Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico.

“It doesn’t work to think of the drought as ‘their problem,’” says Null. “This is a shared system. In two more decades we are going to be facing the same big conundrums that California is facing right now. Their pain is ultimately our pain.”

There is no one magic bullet solution to balancing the management of urban water, but key strategies include urban conservation and water banking, she says.

Until recently, encoded in Utah law is a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ trigger, designed to encourage development of water supplies and to discourage speculation by those who own rights. If a farmer didn’t use their water rights, they risked losing them completely. This deterred farmers from offering unused water toward other temporary needs — such as refilling the Great Salt Lake, boosting a struggling fish population, or supporting outside communities. It created deep motivation to literally pour surplus water onto empty fields rather than lose access to a valuable right.

With recent changes in Utah law (the Water Banking Act of 2020), new opportunities are opening for change. Under the modifications, owners of water rights have an administrative mechanism to temporarily lease their water to those who can’t afford to be without. It could work for drought mitigation, to address aquifer overdraft, to negotiate competing uses, provide more water to meet ecosystem and water quality needs, and meet interstate commitments. But it would be a complex social, legal, and practical change. 

Null’s team investigates how water banking through a market system could respond to drought while supporting agriculture, ecosystems, and communities. The strategy, if managed well, could encourage water conservation and allow willing sellers to lease extra water to farmers, cities, or the environment.

Ecosystem roulette

You’ve likely seen the scenario in movies. Someone hands a terabyte of data to an expert in a lab coat, which she feeds into a black box. Ten minutes later — Ping! Out comes the exact GPS coordinates and trajectory of the asteroid (or tidal wave or sharknado). It seems easy. In the real world there is no black box — unless you count the work of Wei Zhang, assistant professor of plants, soils, and climate, and Hamid Karimi, assistant professor of computer science. It takes them significantly longer than 10 minutes, but their research is an intense effort to organize the mass collection of data about snowpacks in Utah’s mountains to improve forecasting for the spring runoff.

It’s a complex task, but the importance of dependable snowpacks to Utah’s water situation can’t be overstated. Snowpacks act as a huge natural reservoir, storing a full 90% of the state’s water resources safely frozen on mountain slopes until it is needed as the weather warms. When they melt too early, water slips downstream out of state and isn’t accessible at the right time of year. If the soil is too dry, the snowpack seeps into the ground rather than into streams and rivers. If the snowpack isn’t deep enough, there won’t be enough water to distribute to farms and cities over the coming summer months, says Zhang.

In this new, fickle climate, northern Utah — unlike the rest of the drying West — is actually receiving as much precipitation (and sometimes more) than historical averages show that we should, says Gillies. But because of rising temperatures, it is consistently arriving as rain rather than snow. Rain just can’t deliver the same hydrologic punch, he adds, so the extra precipitation doesn’t change the reality of drought.

Portrait shot of Larissa Yocom
Larissa Yocom knows wildfire belongs on western lands. But the fire ecologist studies how to minimize the negative consequences of wildfire. Photo by Levi Sim.

Zhang and Karimi are working to better understand how snowpacks accumulate and melt, and how much of that water will make it downstream to reservoirs. They are short-term clairvoyants, forecasting out to 12 months so that farmers can know what to plant during the coming season and cities can plan for summer water use, while colleague Yoshi Chikamoto, assistant professor of earth system modeling, works on 10-year time-scales using data from oceans to forecast long-term trends.

Ecological systems have complex relationships with water and temperature. Droughts in the southwest can feed on themselves in aggravating ways — dry soils across a region change regional weather pressure systems, pushing late summer monsoons out of their normal position in a way that creates intensified drought in some places, and flash floods in others, says Gillies.

Some landscapes also participate in a sort of ecological roulette with drought and wildfire, says Larissa Yocom, assistant professor of wildland resources. When there’s scant moisture, fewer quick-growing plants are able to establish in wildlands over a summer, reducing the potential for wildfire to carry from one spot to the next. Or you may instead land on option two — drought and extreme temperatures kill trees and shrubs that are already established, creating a packed tinderbox of dry, dead wood, and further drying what’s already on the ground, to support bigger and hotter wildfires.

With the intense severity of the current drought, researchers are seeing more of the latter scenario. Even the hardy and (usually) drought-tolerant trees of southern Utah — juniper, ponderosa, and pinyon — are kicking the bucket in numbers higher than normal, creating the potential for intense and disastrous wildfires in the near future, Yocom says.

Zoom out a bit more, and you can see even bigger shifts happening across ecosystems due to long-term drought. The trees that eventually burn or decompose aren’t being replaced by similar trees; Instead new ecosystems are established with plants that thrive under disturbance and can survive these harsh new conditions — such as cheatgrass.

“Entire ecosystems are fundamentally shifting along the trailing edges at lower elevations,” says Yocom. “They are not reverting back to what they used to look like.  So far, we haven’t been able to define exactly where those thresholds are, where change is inevitable, but in many areas we don’t have much choice but to watch those changes happen.”

By Lael Gilbert

USU Extension’s drought resources provide tips for urban and agricultural producers to reduce water.

Big Gulp: The Perilous Link between Drought, Wildfire, and Reservoirs in the West

Landscape at Lake Powell
Lake Powell is the second-largest reservoir in the United States. It provides water and power to millions of people living in the Southwest. And with much of the West in severe drought, the water level has dropped significantly. Photo by Levi Sim.

Those were good days, so it seemed. It was the 1960s, the tail end of a 50-year dam building blitz. Hundreds of new reservoirs brimmed with water across the West. Intense suppression efforts had slowed wildland fires over the last half-century, and forests were growing green and thick. What many managers didn’t know was that aggressive suppression of wildfire only put off (and exacerbated) the inevitable; the West would eventually burn, and all those new reservoirs would begin to fill with the post-fire erosion sediment.

Aggressive wildfire suppression had allowed dead wood and vegetation debris to stay undisturbed on forest floors. Add to that ecosystem stressors of the ongoing 20-year drought, and today you have a recipe for huge, damaging, and uncontrollable wildfires.

High-severity fires erase vegetation and remove the stabilizing system of roots that hold soil in place. After that, streams and rivers in burned watersheds can transform into muddy deluges, pulling sediment, ash, wood, rocks, and even boulders into the system. The dark surge churns across landscapes, disturbing the environment as it goes, and ultimately dumping the mess into the nearest reservoir, literally filling it from the ground up.

Denver Water recently spent $27 million removing debris and sediment from Strontia Springs Reservoir. The Los Angeles County Public Works will spend $190 million dredging four reservoirs impacted by sediment from a 2009 fire, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Despite soaring costs, the impact of wildfires on reservoirs has been largely overlooked until fairly recently. A team from USU is among the first to document and measure the impact of post-fire erosion on water storage.

Forest ecologist Larissa Yocom and ecosystem hydrologist Patrick Belmont teamed up with researchers to create a model to identify which watersheds are most at risk, how much sediment a particular erosion event might produce, and how far downstream the sediment could reach.

Projections show that future wildfires may cause sediment yields to at least double in one-third of Western watersheds over the next three decades, potentially causing catastrophic losses in water storage for tens of millions of people. Outright solutions are hard to pin down, says Belmont, but increasing the number and size of well-managed, low-severity prescribed burns seems a solid strategy in ecosystems adapted to that pattern.

“A future without wildfire is not an option in the western United States,” he says. “By using prescribed burns, at least we can choose when and where we want the fire and smoke. Extending the lives of reservoirs will have to include addressing the exacerbating effects of drought, which is directly tied to fossil fuel-driven climate change. It’s not going to be an easy fix, but one that we are going to have to inevitably face.”

By Lael Gilbert

Review overview
  • Des Moines January 29, 2023

    Great article and a very serious situation. I wonder if the cheatgrass is taking over.

  • joseph campo September 5, 2022

    Wow, very important article. I spent some time in India and this article makes the west’s situation sound very similar to India regarding water. Hotter temps, less rain, except there they have monsoons, which Utah does not. Still, Utah’s famous snow is the typical savior, but climate change is changing that too. I’m proud of all the work these fine professionals are doing to try to find partial solutions. At least we’re not ignoring the situation.

  • Lyn September 5, 2022

    Excellent journalism. Thanks for this eye-opening article. I hope everyone in Utah and Idaho takes it to heart (the U.S. and world). We all have to do our part to avert this catastrophe.