Bureau of Reclamation chief says drought is forcing government to operate ‘in a completely different regime’

“When [the system] was built 100 years ago, you can look out the window if you’re in Colorado and see snow, and know that’s your reservoir for spring,” Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Camille Touton said. , to CNN in an exclusive interview. “It’s not like that anymore. What you see there is just a completely different way of running the system.”

After California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains were blanketed in 17 feet of snow in late December, the state went on to experience one of its driest Januarys on record. Denver had an unusually long snowless streak in early winter before the state experienced storms in January.

This lack of consistency and predictability with the winter snowpack means Reclamation is “operating in a completely different regime than we ever have before,” Touton told CNN.

“What we’re seeing in 2022 is good snow, generally, in some places — but at the same time, not consistent,” Touton told CNN. “You’re seeing record events, followed by record dry months. Now add to that low reservoir level, because we didn’t have a lot of inflow to our reservoirs last year.”

The whole picture is startling. The West’s mega-drought is the region’s worst in at least 1,200 years, according to a study published on Monday, and researchers said the human-made climate crisis worsened the mega-drought by 72%.
Western water experts have echoed the concern that the term “drought” may be insufficient to capture the region’s current hydrology. “Aridification” might be more accurate, said Eric Kuhn, a retired former director of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

“Are these temporary conditions? We do not know ; science suggests they are not,” Kuhn said. “This puts Reclamation in a difficult position as they learn to cope with a changing climate. Operating these systems under conditions of deep uncertainty is not what they were designed to do.”

Competing for water

The Bureau of Reclamation, located in the Department of the Interior, has a big role to play in how the West manages its dwindling water resources.

Founded in the early 1900s, Reclamation has built some of the largest reservoirs and dams in the West. It works with states, Native American tribes, farmers and other stakeholders to manage water, generate electricity from hydroelectric dams and prepare for drought.

Touton oversees the office at a time when competition for the remaining water resources intensifies. Last summer, the federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time as Lake Mead and Lake Powell levels hit new lows.

But a mega-drought of this proportion had previously been predicted on the Colorado River — a complex, negotiated priority system that favors some water shareholders over others based on need and historical dependency.

“We’ve never been in these conditions before,” Touton said. “But with the partnerships that we’ve had in the pool for decades, there was always a concern that he might get there. And that was planned and, unfortunately, that’s what we’re seeing now.”

17 feet of snow raised hopes of quelling the California drought.  Then the precipitation
The office is expected to receive $1.66 billion a year for the next five years from the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, doubling its annual budget. In the immediate term, that means it can spend $420 million on rural water supply projects, $245 million on water recycling projects, $100 million each on repair dams and repairs to aging infrastructure, and $50 million for drought contingency planning for the region.

Touton said that as Reclamation fixes some aging water reservoirs and facilities, it will also look at new sources of water, including capturing stormwater when it rains and treating it for more use. late.

John Fleck, a Western water expert and professor at the University of New Mexico, said that for Reclamation, the challenge of repairing aging water infrastructure pales in comparison to drought contingency planning with states, tribes and farmers.

The Colorado River Basin “has a fundamental problem with over-allocation of water,” Fleck told CNN. “These rules that were written on pieces of paper over 100 years ago promised more water to users in the states than the river can actually deliver.”

“A Moment of Opportunity”

Even in years with a decent snowpack, the climate-fueled mega-drought means parched soil absorbs the moisture on it more quickly. This means intense competition for lower levels of water used for drinking, agriculture and power generation.

As CNN has reported, the first group of people affected by the Colorado River water cuts will be Arizona farmers – but municipalities across the state could also see reductions depending on the drop in water levels. River.

Cows graze on dry grass in California's drought-stricken Central Valley in July.

“The vast majority of this water is used for irrigated agriculture in the basin; there’s simply no getting around the reduced footprint of irrigated agriculture,” Fleck told CNN.

Kuhn said home water use ultimately doesn’t make up a big chunk of overall use because many cities reprocess and recycle water from appliances. Los Angeles, for example, is working on a plan to treat and recycle all of its wastewater.
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The biggest problem is how to maintain agriculture and lawns.

“The future of the river will be about grass, it’s not going to be about indoor plumbing,” Kuhn said. “The action is outside. It’s the crops and the herbs.”

Last summer, Nevada banned nonfunctional grass that consumes too much water, and some cities are considering planting native plants and grasses that don’t need constant watering.

Fleck said while the drought causes anxiety, it also creates opportunities for the federal government, states and stakeholders to have a realistic conversation about how to save water.

“When the tanks are full, people blow,” Fleck said. “When they run out, that’s when those opportunities arise. It creates a moment of opportunity; there are tough decisions to be made.”

About Jefferey G. Cannon

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