Congress Seeks Long-Term Solutions for Drought Crippling Western US

More than 70 million people are affected by a historic drought in the West. Lawmakers and administration officials are scrambling to find a fix. 

Folsom Lake beachgoers traverse desert landscapes to find water. Designed to protect the Sacramento Valley from flooding when the Sierra sheds its coat of winter snow, Folsom Lake is now a visual reminder of the drought plaguing California given the lack of rain and snow two years running. (Courthouse News photo/Nick Cahill)

WASHINGTON (CN) — A crippling drought — largely connected to climate change — is gripping the Western United States, affecting over 70 million people and around 40% of the U.S. 

Large wildfires have already begun in Arizona, California and New Mexico. Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam, has sunk to its lowest level since it was filled, and fish disease and death rates are skyrocketing for the Yurok Tribe in the Klamath River Basin. 

Farmers, scientists, tribal officials, foresters and other groups affected by the worsening drought testified at a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife hearing on Tuesday, asking lawmakers for both short-term relief and long-term solutions from the worsening conditions. 

“Unfortunately, federal investment in water infrastructure has simply not kept pace with the need,” said Democratic Representative Jared Huffman of California, chair of the subcommittee. “Over the past 40 years, the federal government’s share of water infrastructure investment has fallen from 63% of total capital spending to just 9% in recent years.”

Amy Cordalis, a representative of the Yurok Tribe, told lawmakers that within the next couple of months, hundreds of homes will be without drinking water because the streams that feed their municipal systems are expected to run dry. 

The states that rely on the Colorado River for water are also expected to have a water shortage: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. 

“The past 20 years have convinced us that less and less Colorado River water will be available to distribute as temperatures continue to warm — that we must make do with less,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Entsminger said that there’s an immediate need for federal assistance to create large-scale projects to recycle and reuse water on the Colorado River. 

“Unfortunately we have also reached the point where the state now needs to curtail some water users, starting with the most junior users and based on California’s water rights priority system, because there is simply not enough water available and not enough for senior users to adequately maintain state water quality absent these cutbacks,” said Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. 

Witnesses also spoke of the need for active forest management to thin overcrowded forests to ensure that the remaining healthy trees have access to the limited water, so that forests are better able to withstand wildfires, pests and droughts. 

“I think we’ve found ourselves back in a situation that we too often find ourselves in, where we’ve had a lack of management or a hands off approach and now we’ve got to pay the piper,” said Republican Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas. “There’s going to be some very tough decisions that have to be made because there’s only so much water and there’s a lot of demand.”

Westerman says that the U.S. is either going to have to produce more water, use less of it or change the way we manage the use of that water. 

Lawmakers and Biden administration officials said that they were quickly and actively looking for solutions. 

Last week, Huffman reintroduced legislation which supports significant new investment in water infrastructure, like water recycling and reuse projects, improved water data and technology, ecosystem protection and restoration and water job training and education. 

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Klein, senior counselor to the secretary of the Department of the Interior, told lawmakers that the White House created the Drought Relief Working Group last month to identify financial and technical assistance for irrigators and tribes. 

Klein also said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to ensure water supplies remain available, and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation has announced over $40 million in grants to develop water efficiency projects. 

“No amount of funding can offset the severe shortfalls in precipitation being experienced this year. We will experience unavoidable reductions in farm water supplies and hydropower generation, ecosystem degradation, and urban areas will need to conserve water,” Klein said in her written testimony. “However, this is not our first drought; we have new tools and new investments that will enable us to manage through it.”

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