The Western United States is experiencing a record-breaking drought. The drought, combined with extreme summer heat, is resulting in unusually low river flows and negative impacts on surrounding landscapes. According to an article in The Washington Post titled, “Reservoirs are drying up as consequences of the Western drought worsen.” Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation, is at “its lowest level since the lake filled after the construction of the Hoover dam in the 1930s.” Due to the condition of the Western U.S., water restrictions are necessary to ensure safe water at the household level and the long-term health of our planet.
Droughts are caused by less-than-normal precipitation and warm temperatures. High temperatures cause winter snowpack to melt rapidly and increase evaporation of water from soils and vegetation. The West is hotter and drier than other parts of the country, and droughts have been experienced throughout history. Although, “scientists say that climate change, in the form of warming temperatures and shifts in precipitation, is making the situation worse,” according to a New York Times article titled, “The Western Drought Is Bad. Here’s What You Should Know About It.” Working as a river guide on the Snake and Lower Salmon rivers this summer provided me with a front row seat to these specific impacts of climate change. River flows were at the lowest levels some of the senior guides have ever seen, threatening late season trips. We saw an increase in dead fish floating down the river due to hot water temperatures, which decrease the amount of oxygen dissolved in the water for fish to breathe.
Water use restrictions are necessary. Farmers and ranchers rely on an abundant amount of water to produce crops and livestock. A shift to more sustainable approaches is imperative. According to the Washington Post article, “Shallow wells are drying up as farms draw more heavily on groundwater; one Central Valley community has already run dry and is importing bottled water for basic needs.” Adopting sustainable water use methods could include the implementation of drip irrigation systems and a shift away from the traditional ditch/dam approach. An article titled, “Smart Water Use on Your Farm or Ranch,” published by the Sustainable Agriculture Network, states, “The widely used ditch or dam method, however, directs water unimpeded onto fields and pastures, with an estimated 60% lost to seepage and evaporation.” The use of above ground gated pipes is a great alternative to the use of ditches, as they are less expensive, easy to use and control water flow with holes covered by slide gates.
In order to ensure the health of our rivers and ecosystems, and the availability of water to communities and commercial operations water must be used more conservatively. Ecosystems are being harmed, wildfires are raging and “human-caused warming has intensified what would have been an ordinary dry period in the Southwest into a potential ‘megadrought’,” according to The Washington Post. Water is imperative to all life, and we must treat it as such.