“It isn’t enough just to pray for rain.” – former Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire
COMMENTARY: We’ve had good rain this year, but don’t be fooled. New Mexico had many years of serious drought, and a few months of precipitation won’t fix everything.
“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over” is a common saying in the West, illustrating how hard the issue is. But California’s drought shows us how terrible refusing to address water can be. So let’s start now and avoid flailing around for solutions when we face a real catastrophe.
Precipitation is cyclical. Methods like tree-ring data and carbon dating are used to study what rain and snow looked like in the past. What they show is the last period of really wet weather (from the 1970s through the late 1990s) coincided with when population growth rose in most of the West.
However, we’ve been much drier, and while scientists disagree about heading into a mega-drought, there is a consensus that we’re reverting to a period of less precipitation for the foreseeable future. Climate change will probably also be a factor, with data showing that increased warming makes the current drought in many parts of the West worse.
New Mexico’s population has almost doubled since 1980. More people plus less water equals a scary scenario, and California’s drought shows us the extent of how bad it can be. The biggest impact of this has been on agriculture. It will cost farmers $1.8 billion in losses as 30 percent less land is being used for crops than last year. This means the loss of 10,000 seasonal jobs.
Job losses aren’t just in agricultural. California’s three semiconductor plants all can use as much water as a small city. They rely on volume to operate, so less water might mean moving the plants elsewhere. And droughts have already affected the tourism industry, with national parks and ski resorts reporting fewer visitors and early closings.
There has also been severe water rationing, with communities expected to cut their immediate water use by 25 percent. Rationing has led to drops in property values and losses for water dependent businesses such as nurseries and coffee shops.
So why haven’t we seen as big a problem here? Ground water. New Mexico has large stores sitting beneath our feet, and has relied on pumping to keep our faucets running even in drought. These supplies aren’t endless, however, and need to be refilled with water from the surface. Mining this water without letting the levels recharge will mean when that water is gone… it’s gone. This is creating problems around the world.
What we can do
So what can we do? There are real policies that our governments should enact to plan for a drier future.
Since the largest user of water is agriculture, it is important we encourage low-water-use crops. As an example, a bipartisan effort to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp (a high-profit, low-water-use crop) passed the Legislature by a large margin but was vetoed by the governor. We should also make it easier for farmers to exchange water effectively and store water in aquifers during relatively wet years to save for drought.
We also need to a better job thinning forests responsibly. Huge forest fires lead to smaller snow packs, which hurt stream and reservoir levels, making less water available to all of us.
Lastly, “use it or lose it” water laws, which encourage water use no matter how wasteful, must be eliminated, and water rate structures have to encourage efficiency.
California is showing us that acting only when a crisis looms isn’t good enough. We need to immediately act on, and not just talk about, solutions — or we will only look back in the future with regret.
McCamley is the state representative for District 33.