Western cities’ water shortages show we have little time to waste

July 26, 2021
Western cities’ water shortages show we have little time to waste

Climate inaction has left many small Western communities in danger of drying up — literally.

This past week brought a machine gun-like procession of news reports about water supplies dwindling to dangerously low levels in a number of regional towns and rural areas.

Among them:

• Needles, Calif., near the California-Arizona border, is down to its last well that meets state water quality standards, and it’s being tapped 23 hours a day to meet demand. If the pump malfunctions or the well runs dry, the city’s water storage system only has enough capacity to supply homes for 36 hours maximum. The city had used four wells until this year, when the state determined that three of them no longer met standards due to high levels of manganese, a naturally occurring mineral that can cause neurological damage similar to Parkinson’s disease if consumed in more than trace amounts. The tiny town — population less than 5,000 — says it can’t afford a $1.5 million workaround that involves drilling a new well.

“We are incredibly vulnerable,” the city manager told the Los Angeles Times. “We are talking about life and death.”

• In Klamath Basin near the Oregon/California border, wells that provide water for rural homes and farms throughout the area are running dry. It’s a growing crisis that has produced 82 calls to local water officials in the past two weeks from residents whose wells have dried up. The situation occurred after dry conditions resulted in low water levels at Upper Klamath Lake, prompting federal managers to shut off water for irrigation of crops and livestock. That water would usually help keep rural residents’ wells charged as well, but now it’s gone. The situation has forced families to take emergency measures, including selling off livestock.

“It’s coming down to hard choices,” one resident told The Oregonian. “With the way things have gone, I’m probably going to sell my herd. If I can’t water and feed them the way they need to be taken care of then they have to go. They just have to.”

• In Oakey, Utah, a town of 1,750 people 45 miles east of Salt Lake City, water shortages prompted the city to place a moratorium on new construction after the mountain spring that provides the community’s water slowed to a trickle this summer. The halt to development came despite a boom in the local real estate market as remote workers poured in from the West Coast during the pandemic.

• California’s inland agricultural areas are experiencing an epidemic of well failures. PBS News Hour reported that the California Public Policy Institute, a data research nonprofit, estimated that 2,700 rural households could lose their well water by the end of the year in Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties.

Folks, this is a glimpse of things to come throughout the West, including in large cities, unless we ramp up efforts to conserve water and address climate change.

Metros like Las Vegas are better insulated from the problems plaguing small towns, as the larger cities generally get their water from several sources — wells, springs, the Colorado River, etc. — and therefore aren’t completely reliant on a single wellhead.

But water supplies are rapidly dwindling everywhere, including the Colorado, which puts communities of all sizes in growing danger.

With federal officials on the verge of declaring the first-ever water shortage from Lake Mead, which has dwindled to just a bit over one-third full, it’s vital to re-examine current water-sharing agreements among the states that rely on the Colorado River for their water.

What’s needed is the creation of a presidential commission that will give the issue the emergency-level attention it deserves and take an all-angles look at the shortages. This includes reviewing distribution policies, various water covenants and water-use projections with an eye toward creating solutions that will reduce the draw on the river while increasing the capacity of communities to recapture, purify and reuse water.

Further, the commission must be empowered to work across state lines in pursuit of a regionwide strategy to address the crisis.

In addition, federal authorities should bring a new level of scrutiny to the dozen-plus projects currently on the books to draw more water from the Colorado. We’re in a new normal as far as annual precipitation in the river watershed — it’s time to dial up the review processes for water projects accordingly.

The good news for Las Vegas is that we’ve been taking water conservation seriously for years, and are using less than our allotment of water from Lake Mead. That will still be the case after the water-shortage declaration, which will trigger reductions in allotments to the watershed states.

But while we’re safe for now, the bad news is that climate projections give no indication that rainfall and snowfall will rebound anytime soon in the Rockies and throughout the West.

The hard truth is we can’t rely on nature to come to the rescue. We have to save ourselves by taking urgent action, or else the stories of Western communities running out of water are only going to multiply.


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An aerial view of a body of water.