Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
In Mexico, the body of Indigenous activist Tomás Rojo Valencia was recovered last week in the border state of Sonora. Rojo Valencia was a vocal advocate for the land and water rights of the Yaqui people, who live in the region. The Associated Press reports that the Indigenous rights leader disappeared on May 27 following protests over gas ducts, water pipelines and a railway line. This infrastructure runs across Indigenous territory without much benefit to the Yaqui people. The killing is part of a disturbing global trend. In 2019, over 200 environmental activists were killed, according to data from the advocacy group Global Witness. Indigenous groups suffer more than others. The Global Witness data found that 40 percent of all victims in 2019 were Indigenous, and more than a third of the attacks between 2015 and 2019 targeted Indigenous peoples.
In the United States, farmers in Arkansas continue to deplete their groundwater reserves. According to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, a report from state officials found that only about half the withdrawals from two main aquifers are sustainable. Most of the groundwater in the state goes toward irrigating rice, soybeans, corn, and cotton. Arkansas is second only to California as the state pumping the most groundwater. To protect their aquifers, Arkansas officials are planning two canal projects to deliver river water to farm areas.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on the widespread consequences of drought.
This year, the intensely dry conditions gripping the American West and Upper Midwest are well past the brown hills stage. Nine western states have some form of drought in nearly 90 percent of their area. More than a quarter of the region is considered to be in exceptional drought, which is the worst category in the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Signs of widespread dryness are everywhere. Lakes Mead and Powell, the major reservoirs on the Colorado River, are only 35 percent full with a two-year outlook that worsened each month this spring. California officials told vineyards along the Russian River in May that the system is too depleted for irrigation. In April, in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, sailboats were lifted out of receding waters that were too shallow to float them. In the Klamath River that flows between Oregon and California, few juvenile salmon are expected to survive this season. In Arizona, the Rafael Fire, burning in the Prescott National Forest near Flagstaff, grew to 36,000 acres since it was sparked on June 18 by lightning.
When water stops flowing, painful days are at hand.
Roger Pulwarty has wrestled with the consequences of drought longer than most. He was the director of the National Integrated Drought Information System, a drought monitoring and planning collaborative set up by Congress. And he was the coordinating lead author for a United Nations special report on drought that was published earlier this month. Pulwarty says that most people don’t understand the complexity of the drought phenomenon.
Drought, like a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake, is a potentially dangerous natural hazard. But Pulwarty notes that droughts have distinctive characteristics that separate them from other calamities. They are geographically diverse, spreading across a few counties or entire watersheds and regions. They are slow to begin but can last indefinitely, with some “megadroughts” upending social and political stability over several decades.
Drought, like a fearsome boxer, has a long reach. And like that fearsome boxer, the long reach of drought is pummeling. Specialists like Pulwarty, who is currently a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, describe that long reach with the term “cascade.”
Consider this chain of events. Drought increases the risk of fire. It dries out vegetation and kills trees, turning forests into tinder. Fires located in the headwaters of rivers don’t just burn trees. They also send ash and debris into reservoirs and rivers. When fires rampage through developed areas, they can contaminate plumbing systems and water distribution pipes with volatile organic chemicals. And the smoke is a public health threat as well.
Or consider this scenario: low reservoirs mean that dams equipped with turbines generate less hydropower. For example, the power-generating capacity of Hoover Dam is down 28 percent these days, compared to when its reservoir, Lake Mead, is full. The Western Area Power Administration markets the power from Hoover Dam, and a regional manager told Circle of Blue that the shortfall in cheap hydropower means the agency has to make up the difference by buying more expensive power on the spot market. The added cost is an economic punishment for the small communities, irrigation districts, and Indian tribes that are among the users of that electricity. And that gap-filling power can come from more-carbon intensive methods, adding an ecological cost as well.
The list of drought impacts is long, including hydropower, farm production, shipping on inland waterways, commercial river rafting, and nuclear plants that need water to cool their equipment. As Pulwarty put it “Drought filters through any economic activity in which water is involved.”
Here’s another example. When farmers pump groundwater to make up for low rivers and lakes, shallower domestic wells can dry up. That’s beginning to happen throughout California. As of June 21, the Department of Water Resources had received 64 reports of dry wells this month. That’s more than any month in almost five years.
And not only did wells go dry, pumping too heavily in California’s San Joaquin Valley caused the land to compact and sink. It’s another example of the cascade. That land subsidence, in turn, buckled the canals that carry irrigation water, reducing their water-carrying capacity in some areas by 60 percent. The estimated cost to repair the three major canals suffering from subsidence damage is more than $2 billion.
Drinking water providers that rely on lakes instead of groundwater have a different concern in times of drought: the presence of algal blooms. Though some blooms contain toxins that are harmful to humans, the sheer mass of algae is also a problem, encumbering the water treatment process. The algae clog filters, which have to be replaced more frequently. There is more sludge to discard. These all raise costs, according to the general manager of Konocti County Water District, in northern California.
Droughts leave deep bruises that may not surface for months or years, Pulwarty said. Even after rains return, reservoirs and aquifers take time to refill. Trees killed this year are fuel for next year’s fire. Too much heat and too little rain can cause ecosystems to collapse and hasten the spread of non-native species.
The same recovery lag affects California’s salmon populations. Salmon cannot survive in warm rivers. For winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River system even a water temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit can be deadly. Salmon are born inland, swim to sea, and then return inland years later to spawn. Because of this lifecycle, hot, dry conditions this year will leave an imprint on the salmon’s future.
As for what’s next, over the coming decades, a warming climate will cause more frequent and intense droughts, especially in the Colorado River basin. Some researchers say that using the term “drought” is misguided. The climate is drier. The entire frame of reference has shifted.
In the near-term, however, there are signs of what may be ahead this year and next. The first clue, Pulwarty said, is the Southwest monsoon. This rain in July and August is part of a seasonal precipitation pattern bringing moisture to Arizona and New Mexico. It wets the soil and dampens fire risk. When the monsoon fails, conditions in the Southwest can go from bad to worse. Pulwarty said “The question is, as we go through the summer, is there going to be enough to help us stave off a high fire risk? There wasn’t last year and there wasn’t the year before that.”
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at circleofblue.org. This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.