Entering the sixth year of a record dry spell in much of the western United States is bad enough. But what really worries the head of the federal agency that delivers water to more than 30 million people and 10 million acres of farmland is what happens when the region's precipitation returns to normal.
“The biggest fear we have is that when this drought breaks and leaves, we still are short of water,” John Keys, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said at a gathering of western policy makers, scholars, environmentalists and industry representatives.
Increases in population and requirements to protect endangered species will compound the juggling act the agency must perform to balance competing demands for an ever-scarcer supply of water in the West this summer, Keys said at the opening of a two-day forum on the outlook for western water supplies.
The drought is a “wake-up call” to examine water use in the West and the potential need for new dams, he said.
“There are some basins that need new storage, period,” said Keys, whose agency has built more than 600 dams in the past century. “There are some that don't.”
Others argue that the West can't build itself out of a looming water crisis.
“Nobody knows whether this is just a normal, typical drought or whether climate change is rearing its head here and we're looking at some sort of major long-term change,” said University of California property law professor John Leshy, who served as Interior Department solicitor during the Clinton administration.
What's needed is a cultural change in the way westerners treat water, said Kay Brothers, deputy general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, which is spending millions of dollars paying homeowners to rip up their highly water-dependent turf lawns and replace them with drought-tolerant landscaping.
But conservation is “not the panacea to addressing all our water shortages,” said Karl Dreher, director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources. Over-irrigation by farmers in the Lemhi Valley recharges the alluvial aquifer that keeps the Lemhi River flowing during months it normally would be dry, and if conservation were ordered, “we wouldn't have the salmon we've got there now,” he says.
Dreher said the drought in the upper Snake River Valley now has reached epic proportions.
“We just never have experienced anything quite like it,” he said.