Peter Morici

Opinion: Western water crisis demands a strong federal-state response

Bipartisan bill would spend far too little on hardening infrastructure needed to mitigate climate change

Houseboats are squeezed into a narrow section of Lake Oroville in California. The lake, shrunken by the drought in Western states, is at 23% of its capacity, with the water level 271 feet below its upper limit.

AFP via Getty Images

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Climate change has arrived with a vengeance in the American West.

The region’s 22-year drought is the second-worst since the year 800, and scorching temperaturesmunicipalities and farmers scrambling for water, lost hydroelectric capacity, and conditions from Dante’s Inferno are a chronic condition.

The summer’s heat dome in the Northwest cooked 1 billion sea creatures.

Eight of the 10 biggest California forest fires have occurred in the last four years. In an unprecedented event, the Dixie Fire started in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, burned up to the crest and down the eastern slope.

Are certain storms, fires or droughts connected to climate change? Thanks to a relatively new field called attribution science, climate experts are now more able to provide answers. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains. Illustration: Adele Morgan

Federal officials have ordered cuts in water allocations on the Colorado River Compact, which serves seven states from California to Wyoming to New Mexico.

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Booming economies need water

Western states have supported booming cities and agriculture for more than a century with complex systems of dams, reservoirs and canals and by tapping groundwater.

Opinion: This is how Western states must change because of the Colorado River water shortage

The Hoover Dam, completed in 1935 at the border between Arizona and Nevada, tamed the mighty Colorado River. It created the nation’s largest artificial store of water at Lake Mead. Upstream, the Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1966, created Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir The two lakes are currently at about one-third capacity.

Slipping fast are California’s reservoirs—Shasta, Oroville, San Luis and others—and those patterns repeat throughout the West.

Reservoirs are replenished each spring by mountain snow melts. With warmer winter temperatures, less snow accumulates, and the dry ground, trees and other plants absorb more water before it gets to streams or sinks deeper into aquifers. Higher temperatures cause more evaporation from rivers and lakes.  

The upper Midwest faces more frequent droughts too. The Ogallala Aquifer, which supports farming from Texas to South Dakota, is depleting.

Over the last century, water allocations have permitted farmers and ranchers to prosper, and the nation and the world have become increasingly dependent on Western fruits and vegetables, cattle and other commodities.

Self-sufficiency

The Northeast was much more food self-sufficient 150 years ago, but the opening of the Midwest for crops such as wheat and corn and transcontinental rail transportation and refrigeration created new dependencies. Farmland in the East became suburban subdivisions and forests again. In many places, that cannot be easily reversed.

This interstate trade is based on comparative advantage—California and Arizona have more winter sunshine and fewer field stones than New England. The Northeast could grow its own string beans but it lacks the climate and land to replace California’s winter lettuce.

With globalization, California grows 80% of the world’s almonds, but now the lack of water is forcing farmers to abandon orchards.

In Arizona, Nevada and elsewhere in the West, water has been more effectively conserved by municipalities through higher water rates and novel technologies but with populations rapidly growing, these have limits. 

San Diego draws 10% of its water from the Carlsberg Desalinization Plant. But that is hardly a generalizable solution, because the process is terribly energy intensive and the byproduct of salt and other minerals potentially causes significant environmental damage if dumped back into the ocean.

The more frequent solution has been to shift water allocations from farms to households and businesses, and this supports the region’s tourism, high-tech activities and manufacturing renaissance. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. TSM, -2.52% and Intel INTC, -1.04% are planning chip factories for Arizona.

While those industries may be higher valued-added propositions and create desirable jobs for Western states, the impact on the national food supply and economy could be wrenching. The overall economic cost to the nation imposed by high grocery prices and importing more food could easily outweigh the regional benefits.

Federal-state partnership

With immediate and eminent water shortages threatening so many states, which share common resources, a federal-state partnership to harden water infrastructure and promote patterns of conservation in the national interest is required.

Now read this: Biden tours wildfire damage, pushes infrastructure bill as necessary for coping with climate change

A coalition representing Western farmers, ranchers, water providers, businesses and municipalities has identified a 10-year $49 billion program to invest in conservation and recycling, conveyance, desalinization, groundwater storage and surface storage, and the real need is likely a lot larger.

The bipartisan infrastructure plan moving through Congress spends too little on hardening infrastructure nationally for climate change. It contains $105 billion for water resiliency and drinking water programs—for example, to eliminate lead in the nation’s service lines and pipes—but only $8.3 billion is for Western water projects.

President Donald Trump established a water subcabinet to coordinate interagency efforts to assist state water managers to invest in conservation and new technologies, but more comprehensive federal-state planning is needed to effectively target federal cost-sharing and place agriculture on an equal footing with urban growth.

Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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