A Major Drought Is Gripping The West. Still, There’s Reason To Be Hopeful The Water Situation Will Improve
Concerning news about Utah’s extreme drought keeps coming. On Wednesday, Utah’s Department of Natural Resources said the drought continues to have “a stranglehold on the state,” despite wild weather swings that dumped rain in some areas. Washington Post Columnist David Von Drehle recently wrote an opinion piece about the drought gripping the West. He spoke with KUER’s Pamela McCall about the situation.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Pamela McCall: You write, as the old saying goes, ‘whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.’ How does that outlook set up the way we think about water in the West today?
David Von Drehle: Well, it points to a fact that really everyone has known about the American West from the earliest European settlement. The great explorer of the Colorado River, John Wesley Powell, wrote in 1893 that there would not be enough water to support the significant population of the West. The water wars started almost as soon as there were people making claims on the rivers of the West and people have been fighting over it from the beginning.
PM: Let's get to the Colorado River. You assert that the heart of the problem was divvying up water rights based on the river having a lot more water than it does. Should the people who made the compact have known better?
DVD: Well, there's two versions of that story. One holds that they made the compact during a period of unusual snowfall. Then, there are others who, and I tend to believe more, who feel that probably they knew they were exaggerating how much water the river held in an average year, but it just made it easier to make a deal among the states along the river if they all pretended that there was more water to divide up than there really is.
PM: You write that bipartisan action must be taken on a gargantuan scale and on an emergency timetable. But you also say there isn't one simple solution. What are some of the ideas you think are crucial?
DVD: The largest consumer of water in the West is agriculture. And so certain, vitally important steps need to be taken in Western farms. First, they need to speed up their conversion from sprinkler irrigation and ditch irrigation to what's called drip irrigation. This puts the water directly on the ground where the roots of the plants are.
The second thing that needs to happen is that the federal government needs to stop subsidizing water-intensive crops in the West. Then in our cities, we need to both conserve water and generate more water. And by generating water, I mean primarily two things. One is what's called water recycling, which is high-tech wastewater treatment. Then we need to improve the technology for desalinating ocean water, not necessarily make it drinkable, but bring it to a standard where it can be used for all sorts of other uses.
PM: You have said that immediate action needs to be taken. What happens if it isn't? What do you foresee?
DVD: Tens of millions of very thirsty people. The West is now consuming more water than it has, and we can see that in the great reservoirs of the Colorado River. Lake Mead is at its lowest point since it was filled in the 1930s and onward through the reservoirs all the way up to the source of the Colorado.
There's no place to go and open the tap to fill the downstream reservoirs anymore. Here's another important point: not only will people be thirsty, but they're going to be thirsty and in the dark because these reservoirs are created by enormous dams like the Hoover Dam. It provides electricity to over 25 million people and if there's not enough water in the reservoir, then the dam can’t generate that electricity.
PM: Is there a reason to be hopeful about the water situation in the West?
DVD: There's many reasons to be hopeful. Our appliances are more efficient than they used to be and our irrigation techniques are more efficient than they used to be. So there are all sorts of reasons to be hopeful. The issue is that everything needs to go from laboratories and engineering tables to the top of mind for the state legislatures and the federal government.