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Know the West

Senate considers legislation to help the West store and conserve water

Twelve Western states have declared drought emergencies.


Cannon Michael, a 6th generation farmer in California’s Central Valley, this week told U.S. senators about the “disturbing time” he and his family are experiencing because of his state’s multi-year drought.

Because of water shortages, they'd already decided not to plant a quarter of their 10,000 acres. Then, just a few days before he testified in a Senate hearing, Michael learned that much of the tomatoes, melons and corn he did plant are in jeopardy too. The deal between state and federal officials about how to divvy up the scarce water supplies from the Central Valley Project was revoked because water temperatures are higher than anticipated. Officials are legally obligated to ensure cooler temperatures during runs later in the year of endangered Chinook salmon.

At issue is whether Michael and other farmers will get the water they expected through the summer or if the water will be held in a deep reservoir so it can be released later and lower water temperatures when the fish need it.

Michael fears the decision expected any day now could mean that for the first time in six generations his farm would have so little water that his family would have to let thousands of tons of vegetables and fruit die on the vines and take a major financial loss. And he’s just one of many big growers at risk in a region that produces a major amount of the nation’s fruit and vegetables.

Michael’s testimony was part of a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday on droughts that are becoming more severe and frequent as a result of climate change.

Although California’s multi-year drought is most severe, 11 other Western states also have declared drought emergencies.

In Washington state, the agriculture industry expects a $1.2 billion in crop losses this year because of the drought there. It is a “challenging time for fish and farms in Washington,” said Tom Loranger, water resources program manager for Washington State Department of Ecology. The situation this year is better in Arizona, thanks to water storage projects in recent years.

“Arizona is not in a water crisis and is well situated to deal with the drought,” said Thomas Buschatzkedirector of the water planning commission of the Arizona Department of Natural Resources.

Buschatze and Loranger both told senators that their states’ biggest worries concern the next couple of years. For example, Arizona worries that historic low levels in Lake Mead will trigger a need for the state to reduce how much it withdraws from the Colorado River. Washington State worries about the depletion of its reservoirs if the drought continues.

Many Western states are scrambling to figure out how to use water more efficiently and build more storage capacity for water. The federal Bureau of Reclamation has a role to play in many of their projects.

“We need to be as creative as possible and figure out how we’re going to address that role because it is critical and this is the new normal,” Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor said.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the committee, said the testimony would help senators craft new legislation aimed at helping communities and agriculture respond to the challenge of droughts now and in the future across the West.

“We need to be trying to be as long-term in our view and our vision on this as possible because if this is the new normal going forward, then we’ve got a lot of work to be doing,” Murkowski said.

As for whether Michael’s tomatoes, corn and melons will get the water they need this summer, state and federal water and fish managers are meeting this week to figure that out.

State and local officials are legally obligated to make sure water temperatures are cool enough for the endangered Chinook salmon. Calculations they made this spring were off. Lots of factors have driven up water temperatures. The four-year-drought has left water levels low in Lake Shasta, the biggest reservoir, and in rivers. Shallower water is warmer. There’s virtually no snow pack in the Sierra Nevada, so no snowmelt will be coming to cool down those waters. Air temperatures have been warm too.

“That has thrown our whole plan into question,” said Erin Curtis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “How’s it going to impact farmers? We really don’t yet know.”

Officials hope to come out with a new plan about how to divvy up scarce water supplies by week’s end.

In the meantime, Michael is worrying about whether he will have to lay off his 55 workers. “It’s pretty disconcerting,” Michael told HCN in an interview after the hearing. “I don’t get a good night's sleep very often any more.”

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. Homepage image of Hoover Dam by Flickr user Raquel Baranow.