Water is a precious resource that many of us take for granted, but that can no longer be the case with the extreme drought conditions plaguing the West. The picture looks grim; drought is now covering 93% of the West, farmers and ranchers are unable to grow crops and feed their herds, wildlife are adjusting their habits – likely to their detriment – and even recreationists and the businesses supporting the industry are hurting.
So — what causes drought, what is our government doing about it, what can we do about it, and where do we go from here? All of those are great questions, so let’s dive into this.
Looking to learn about drought conditions in the West and what you can do to help? We’ve got you covered with the basics.
What Is Drought and What Causes It?
Drought is defined as a prolonged period of shortages in water supply, and in the West, that water supply has been on a steady decline for over two decades. Whether that water supply comes from atmospheric sources (precipitation like rain), surface resources (lakes and rivers), or groundwater, the fact is that the West is dry and only getting dryer. Two other factors that play into the intensity of the situation are soil moisture and temperatures, both of which are dire. And climate change is only increasing these effects.
Unfortunately for humans, wildlife, and fish, the soil gets the first crack at any of the snowpack that melts in spring, and with low snow years happening more frequently, the soil is desperately dry. The extremely high temperatures across the region are only making the issue worse. Any snow that was left is now melted directly into the soil leaving streams, lakes, and reservoirs at dangerously low levels. High temperatures evaporate water out of these surface water sources at a much faster rate leaving reservoirs, like Lake Powell and Lake Mead (that 25 million people rely on for water), at their lowest levels ever (34 and 37 percent, respectively) — all while drying out soil and vegetation even more.
The map below shows what the current U.S. drought looks like as of August 17, 2021. As you can see, the drought is extreme in much of the West.
Drought Impacts on Wildlife
So what does this mean for all the creatures who rely on this water? Well, accounts of wildlife interactions in urban settings are mounting while they try to find food and water nearer communities since it is gone from their homes in the wild. High mountain springs and seeps are drying quickly, and the trickle-down effect to larger water bodies has stopped. This can be devastating as interactions with humans typically don’t end well for wildlife.
In Montana, fishing restrictions, called “hoot owl”, have been set on many rivers to protect the fish who swim there from further harm caused by anglers. Colorado doesn’t have mandated restrictions yet, but the state fish and game managers are asking anglers to be cautious, and in some cases like on the Colorado River for 120 miles, voluntary fishing closures are enacted.
Given all of this, it is imperative that humans give wildlife room to adapt. When out hiking, keep your pets leashed so they don’t scare deer, fox, and other species who would then spend more energy than they have to avoid an interaction.
When water temperatures approach the mid-60s (Fahrenheit), give fish a break and move on to another outdoor activity like plant or bird identification, or find high mountain lakes and streams that stay cooler. Another option for anglers is to pursue warm water species that aren’t affected by these dramatic changes to their habitat.
Pay attention to closures off the water, too. Eight National Forests around the West have restrictions or are completely closed, and more are sure to join that list. This is for the benefit of wildlife and also to decrease the chance of devastating forest fires.
As stewards of our public lands and the wildlife who call them home, we humans can help them survive another season by following orders placed by management agencies. Be mindful and think about how drought affects everything.
Drought and Our Food Supply
While we humans haven’t really ever felt the effects of no water, we are starting to understand the consequences of such severe drought conditions.
Farmers and ranchers are the first to feel the pinch when our water resources run low. Many fields that grow crops for cattle feed as well as for human consumption lay fallow. Ranchers are relegated to selling off their cattle due to a lack of feed and water. In some places, like the Dolores watershed in southwest Colorado, agricultural producers are receiving only 5-10% of their allocated water shares and many were told not to even bother planting crops. On top of that, intense grasshopper invasions are worsening the situation by eating forage that livestock and wildlife depend upon.
All of this combines with drastic effects on markets. Hay prices will increase since many producers aren’t able to grow a full season’s crop, which will, in turn, cause beef prices to increase. And fallowed fields of crops grown for human consumption mean that more food will have to be imported and/or prices will increase significantly due to market supply and demand. Consumers will feel these effects at the grocery store register.
Farmers and ranchers are our first line of defense and offense when it comes to natural resource issues. They care for their land because their lives and livelihoods depend on it. In turn, wildlife and humans benefit from large swaths of healthy acreage that produce food for us, but without water, that health is in jeopardy. Many agricultural producers are investing in ways to improve their irrigation practices, but those can be costly. Incentives from governments or elsewhere could help them transition to less water-intensive crops or even retire the land altogether if no other option is available.
How Can We Reduce the Impacts of Drought?
Mostly, we need to learn to adapt to drier and hotter conditions as drought conditions are inevitable and likely only getting worse. With that in mind, think about how every drop of water gets used.
Here are a few things you can do to help conserve water:
- Replace water intensive landscaping with native, drought tolerant plants and grasses.
- Skip the car wash: Consider whether your car is dirty enough to justify up to 100 gallons of water used at a commercial car wash or 10-50 gallons to wash at home.
- Think about decreasing your meat consumption (on average, one pound of beef takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce), and consider buying produce from a local farmer. Here are 5 ways a plant-based diet benefits the environment.
- Reduce your water consumption: Take shorter showers, flush less often, install a low-flow showerhead and toilet and ensure other appliances are as efficient as possible.
- Install a rain barrel under one gutter of your house to water indoor and outdoor plants.
Governments and municipalities can mandate that industries expand water reuse programs, create restrictions on water usage, allow common area grasses to turn brown, and invest in more water-efficient methods such as recycling greywater, etc.
While conserving water is a good option, it will not save the West from the intense drought conditions it is now feeling, but it will give municipal and agricultural producers some flexibility, and allow us to adapt to our new reality.
Luckily, state, local, and federal governments are paying attention. There is a desire to increase water security and efficiency, and now we just need to impress upon our elected officials the need for more funding for such projects and to get those projects started now. A robust infrastructure package that has elements focused on forest and watershed health could go a long way to mitigating future impacts from drought.
Being aware of the severity of the situation is part of the battle, the rest comes from rallying together, encouraging environmental advocacy, taking small, simple steps on our own, and doing our best to adapt to an ever-changing climate.
We hope this post gives you a better understanding of drought effects and actionable steps to help reduce the impact of dry climates.
Have you been affected by drought conditions? Do you have any other tips for what we can do about it? Share your comments and questions below.