US: West's drought has no end in sight: 'If we do nothing, it’s going to be really bad'

Spring rain storms weren’t enough to fill Utah’s reservoirs or rejuvenate the soil, so Gov. Spencer J. Cox took his plea to Twitter: Fix your leaky faucets, stop taking long showers, get rid of the lawn – and pray for rain.

The crisis isn’t unique to Utah. About 40% of the country is currently experiencing drought conditions, according to U.S. Drought Monitor. Drought has been a consistent problem in the Southwest for about two decades, and it’s increasingly creating an existential dilemma: Does the West have enough water to go around?

Huge reservoirs are now drying up as drought threatens farms and its effects fuel wildfires. Cox, a Republican, warned the drought puts crops, livestock, wildlife, the state’s food supply and “really, our way of life” at risk.

It's all happening at a pace that is surprising and alarming experts. Some worry that without major water conservation efforts, the West could be on track for unprecedented water shortages.

States and local governments are ramping up rules aimed at cutting back water usage, and most of the initial burden is expected to hit farmers, who are responsible for the vast amount of water use. But individuals are also seeing water restrictions impact them — especially if they have a lawn to water.

Even so, conservation efforts may not be enough to fix the problem, Cox feared. “We need some divine intervention.”

Scientists and advocates suggest another solution: The West needs to drastically cut its water usage, and that means more than taking shorter showers.

Rain alone unlikely to fix the drought problem

Droughts can be short-term, but the one facing the West likely isn’t. The problem appears to be too big, the trend too strong to be reversed by drenching rains or a few above average years of precipitation.

“I don’t see a going back to a pre-drought time any time soon,” Veva Deheza, the executive director of the National Integrated Drought Information System, told USA TODAY.

A spring 2020 study warned that the West is exiting an unusually wet time in its history and heading straight into an unusually dry time that could last years, decades or centuries.

Scientists see that trend playing out year after year.

“The anticipation is always that, eventually, rain will come. And so we’re stretching out the water that we do have,” said Nancy Selover, who recently retired as Arizona’s state climatologist.

She compared the water supply issues out West with that of survivors on a desert island. “You have to say, how long do you think it’ll be until somebody rescues us? How much does everyone get when you simply don’t know when the rain will come?”

Typically, states use massive reservoirs to store extra water from years with above-average precipitation so it can be used during drier times. It’s a complex system involving more than just rain water: melted snow from mountainous regions is among one of the biggest concerns.

But these are not normal times.

Scientists describe the past two decades as a drought worsened by climate change, population growth and increased agricultural needs, and say the Colorado River Basin is undergoing “aridification” that will complicate water management for generations to come. That’s especially troubling for the seven states that rely on the Colorado River for water: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Across the country drought is a concern, Deheza said. They're occasional in the East and sometimes extreme in the Midwest. But in the West, particularly in the southwest, they've recently been nearly pervasive.

Droughts in wetter climates can put a short-term strain on water systems that can quickly spiral into a crisis. A 2016 drought in Georgia led to concerns about taps running dry.

But in the already dry southwest, the slow-moving crisis is just as severe, but will take much longer to turn around — especially amid concerns the climate is becoming more desert-like.

“It’s getting harder and harder to recover from these low … years,” John Berggren, a water policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates, told USA TODAY. Berggren said reservoirs are increasingly going down without any good years to help replenish them.

Drought has ripple effects, Berggren said. Just one of them: Dry soil can suck up moisture before it reaches reservoirs, making it hard to fill them back up, even during an unusually wet year.

And Deheza said warming temperatures cause more water to evaporate, also complicating efforts to build up reserves.

It takes intricate planning to ensure dry years won’t have a damaging impact on most people’s day-to-day lives. But with growing uncertainty about the changing climate of the southwest, it’s getting harder and harder to make those plans, Deheza said.

Lake Mead is seen in the distance behind mostly dead plants in an area of dry, cracked earth that used to be underwater near Boulder Beach on June 12.

Drought concerns growing at an alarming pace

The largest reservoir in the country made headlines in early June when it dipped to a record low, a rapid decline that outpaced projections from just a few months ago.

Lake Mead then stood at just 36% of full capacity and the downward spiral shows no sign of letting up, a troubling statistic for the Hoover Dam, where low water levels have reduced energy capacity by 25%. Typically, the dam powers enough electricity to serve more than a million people a year across Nevada, Arizona and California.

A similar situation is currently playing out in Northern California’s Lake Oroville, where one hydroelectric power plant will likely have to shut down for the first time ever due to the abnormally low water levels.

“Things are starting to plummet pretty drastically,” Berggren said.

Doing nothing to reduce water usage could lead to an unimaginable future for the West, Berggren said: “If we do nothing, it’s going to be really bad.”

A high-water mark or "bathtub ring" is visible on the shoreline of Lake Mead at Hoover Dam.

He described a world where rivers run dry, dust overruns the landscape, some taps stop flowing and millions of people flee, seeking water.

But that hypothetical isn’t imminent and much can still be done to prevent it, Berggren said.

Many experts note that while conditions are worsening and only exacerbated by climate change, the West has always been dry and experienced prolonged periods of droughts.

Jay Lund, a professor at the University of California Davis who heads its Center for Watershed Sciences, described the prolonged periods of precipitation and dry periods over centuries, sometimes lasting decades.

“We’ve always had a lot of trouble with droughts. Always,” Lund said. “The difference here is now the temperatures are higher. Now we have more people. Now we have more agriculture. Now we need more water and have an increased demand.”

And just a small adjustment, such as temperatures becoming just a few degrees warmer, can start a ripple effect impacting everything from water levels, food prices, water consumption and the number of wildfires.

Water conservation hits farms, lawns first

Water conservation won’t bring back the rain, but experts say it’s a needed step to help prevent widespread water shortages.

Contingency plans for how to divide up water among states as shortages hit have already been made, and cutbacks are expected in the coming year.

Agriculture — which uses about 90% of ground and surface water in some western states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — is likely to be the first to be impacted by shortages.

There are short and long-term changes farmers can make, all of them challenging. Upcoming water shortages may be temporary, but farmers may have to rethink their approach to low-value crops like hay and alfalfa — especially in areas where a lot of water is needed to grow them. Some farmers might even elect to leave the region, something that also could have ramifications on the interconnected agriculture community and the prices consumers pay in grocery stores.

Selover noted that more farmers are fallowing their fields, letting land rest and go unplanted for a period of time, when water is in short supply. But for some, such as those growing pecans or walnuts, one year without watering an orchard means trees die and won’t be able to produce again for up to a decade.

“If you have one year that you don't provide water to the trees, they die, and next year's water isn't going to bring them back. So now you've lost everything,” she said. “A lot of those trees take five, seven, 10 years of growing before they produce the first nut.”

The choices aren’t easy.

“They’ll either have to plant different crops that don’t use as much water or they’ll just have to fallow their fields,” Selover said.

Berggren said conservation will require changes in the landscapes that surround homes and cities. In many cases, water-guzzling plants and grasses should be replaced with more drought-tolerant native landscapes that look great and are better suited to the climate.

Cutting back on water usage is something parts of California are already familiar with, even if only puts a small dent in overall water usage. In June, a Redding, California, leader said the city may again use "water police" to enforce conservation rules if the drought worsens.

In the past, the workers left door hangers that spelled out water use cutback rules and explained strategies to use less water.

People who watered lawns on days they shouldn't have or otherwise broke conservation rules could expect a visit from the "water police."

Meanwhile, Nevada has moved to outlaw “non-functional turf” in the Las Vegas area — that’s decorative grass that guzzles water and isn’t used by anyone.

In Iowa, Des Moines Water Works has asked central Iowa residents to cut lawn watering by 25%.

But experts know conservation has its limits: “Let’s face it, if these conditions continue to persist and get worse, conservation practices only get you so far,” Deheza said.

Drought-plagued regions may need to make major structural changes in how communities and industry use water. She said history tells us both do a “fantastic job of adapting” when needed. And the southwest has plenty to learn from communities in Africa and the Middle East that have long lived in deserts.

But it's increasingly clear simply waiting for the water to come back won't end the crisis.

“You can never fix this problem,” Lund said. “There is no solution. It’s like fixing the problem with hurricanes on the East Coast. You don’t. You live with it and learn how to manage it.”