Category: Drought

As the climate bakes, Turkey faces a future without water

Read the full story at e360.

No nation in the Mediterranean region has been hit harder by climate change than Turkey. But as heat and drought increase, Turkey is doubling down on water-intensive agriculture and development and spurring a water-supply crisis that is expected to get much worse.

Avoiding water bankruptcy in the drought-troubled Southwest: What the US and Iran can learn from each other

In some drought-stricken parts of the Southwest, water arrives by truck. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

by Mojtaba Sadegh (Boise State University), Ali Mirchi (Oklahoma State University), Amir AghaKouchak (University of California, Irvine), and Kaveh Madani (Yale University)

The 2021 water year ends on Sept. 30, and it was another hot, dry year in the western U.S., with almost the entire region in drought. Reservoirs vital for farms, communities and hydropower have fallen to dangerous lows.

The biggest blow came in August, when the U.S. government issued its first ever water shortage declaration for the Colorado River, triggering water use restrictions.

In response, farmers and cities across the Southwest are now finding new, often unsustainable ways to meet their future water needs. Las Vegas opened a lower-elevation tunnel to Lake Mead, a Colorado River reservoir where water levels reached unprecedented lows at 35% of capacity. Farmers are ratcheting up groundwater pumping. Officials in Arizona, which will lose nearly one-fifth of its river water allotment under the new restrictions, even floated the idea of piping water hundreds of miles from the Mississippi River.

These strategies conceal a more fundamental problem: the unchecked growth of water consumption. The Southwest is in an “anthropogenic drought” created by the combination of natural water variability, climate change and human activities that continuously widen the water supply-demand gap.

In the long run, this can lead to “water bankruptcy,” meaning water demand invariably exceeds the supply. Trying to manage this by cranking up water supply is destined to fail.

Dozens of dead almond trees rowed up on their sides in a field.
A California farmer tore out dead almond trees in July 2021 because of a lack of water to irrigate them. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

More than 7,000 miles away, Iran is grappling with water problems that are similar to the U.S. Southwest’s but more severe. One of the driest years in the past five decades, on the back of several decades of mismanaged water resources, brought warnings of water conflicts between Iranian provinces this year.

As environmental engineers and scientists – one of us is also a former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment – we’ve closely studied the water challenges in both drought-prone regions. We believe past mistakes in the U.S. and Iran offer important lessons for future plans in the U.S. Southwest and other regions increasingly experiencing drought and water shortages.

Groundwater pumping: A temporary fix with consequences

As the supply of water from the Colorado River diminishes, Southwest farmers are putting more straws into already declining groundwater that accumulated over thousands to millions of years. But that is a short-term, unsustainable solution that has been tried across the U.S. and around the globe – with major consequences. The High Plains Aquifer and California’s Central Valley are just two examples.

Iran offers a case study in what can go wrong with that approach, as our research shows. The country nearly doubled its groundwater extraction points between 2002 and 2015 in an attempt to support a growing agricultural industry, which drained aquifers to depletion. As its water tables drastically declined, the groundwater’s salinity increased in aquifers to levels that may no longer be readily suitable for agriculture.

As water-filled pores in the soil are drained, the weight of the overlying ground compresses them, causing the aquifers to lose their water holding capacity and accelerating land subsidence. Iran’s capital, Tehran, with more than 13 million residents, subsided more than 12 feet between 2003 and 2017. Similarly, some areas of California are sinking at a rate of up to 1 foot each year.

Kaveh Madani discusses the drying of the Zayandeh Rud riverbed in Isfahan, Iran.

Interbasin water transfer: A Pandora’s box

Another proposal in the Southwest has been to pipe in water from elsewhere. In May, the Arizona legislature urged Congress to initiate a feasibility study to bring Mississippi River water to replenish the Colorado River. But that, too, has been tried.

In Iran, multiple interbasin water transfer projects doubled the flow of the Zayandeh Rud, a river in the arid central part of the country. The inflow of water supported unsustainable growth, creating demand without enough water to support it. In dry years now, no one has enough water. Many people in Khuzestan – the region supplying water to central Iran – lost their livelihood as their farms dried out, wetlands vanished, and livestock died of thirst. People in central Iran also lost crops to the drought as incoming water was cut. Both regions saw protests turn violent this year.

A couple walk on what was once a riverside path. The river bed is dry and cracked.
Iranians walk near a bridge built in 1602 over the Zayandeh Rud in Isfahan. Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

California diverted water from the Eastern Sierra Nevada to support Los Angeles’ growth in the early 1900s, turning the once prosperous Owens Lake Valley into a dust bowl. Costs of mitigating dust storms there now exceed US$2 billion. Meanwhile, California needs more infrastructure and investment to meet its water demand.

Another project, the California Aqueduct, was constructed in the 1960s to transfer water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California to the Central Valley and southern parts of the state to support agriculture and some urban demand. This also did not close the water demand-supply gap, and it pushed economically and culturally important native fish species and ecological systems in the delta to the point of collapse.

Looking ahead in light of looming water bankruptcy

As the continued influx of population into the U.S. Southwest raises water demand in the face of shrinking water supply, we have to wonder whether the Southwest is heading toward water bankruptcy.

While there is no easy solution, a number of actions are possible.

First, recognize that water shortages cannot be mitigated only by increasing water supply – it’s also important to manage water demand.

Signs on pole show approximate altitude of land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977.
U.S. Geological Survey researcher Joseph Poland shows the high rate of subsidence in California’s San Joaquin Valley. USGS

There is great potential for water savings through efficient irrigation and precision agriculture systems, which could keep agriculture viable in the region.

Cities can save water by curbing outdoor water losses and excess water use, such as on ornamental lawns. Californians successfully reduced their water demand by more than 20% between 2015 and 2017 in response to severe drought conditions. Replanting urban landscapes with native drought-tolerant vegetation can help conserve water.

On the supply side, communities can consider nontraditional water sources, water recycling and reuse in all sectors of the economy, and routing runoff and floodwaters to recharge groundwater aquifers.

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There are also emerging technological solutions that could boost water resources in some regions, including fog water collection, which uses sheets of mesh to capture moisture from fog, and desalination plants that turn seawater and saline groundwater into drinking water. One new desalination plant planned for Huntington Beach, California, is awaiting final approval. Environmental consequences of these measures, however, should be carefully considered. [View an interactive chart illustrating bad drought years in the Western U.S.]

The Southwest monsoon returned this summer after a record dry previous year and a half in the region, but it wasn’t enough to end the drought there. Forecasts now suggest a high chance that a La Niña pattern will develop over the winter, meaning Southwest is likely in for another drier-than-normal start to 2022.

Iran is already in water bankruptcy, with demand exceeding supply. It will take a lot more than a wet year to alleviate its water shortages.

Mojtaba Sadegh, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering, Boise State University; Ali Mirchi, Assistant Professor of Water Resources Engineering, Oklahoma State University; Amir AghaKouchak, Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine, and Kaveh Madani, Visiting Fellow, Yale University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As drought grips American West, irrigation becomes a Michigan selling point

Read the full story at Bridge Michigan.

A new narrative about water and irrigation is becoming more significant on this Manistee County farm and across Michigan. Will there be enough water for the state’s thriving farm sector and for every other use of a natural resource growing scarcer across much of the rest of the nation?

World Meteorological Organization sharpens warnings about both too much and too little water

Read the full story at Inside Climate News.

With global warming intensifying the water cycle, floods and droughts are increasing, and many countries are unprepared.

Illegal marijuana farms take West’s water in ‘blatant theft’

Read the full story from the Associated Press.

From dusty towns to forests in the U.S. West, illegal marijuana growers are taking water in uncontrolled amounts when there often isn’t enough to go around for even licensed users. Conflicts about water have long existed, but illegal marijuana farms — which proliferate despite legalization in many Western states — are adding strain during a severe drought.

As California restricts water use for farmers, low supply levels add to drought’s harsh reality

Read the full story from PBS.

California’s re-emerging drought is placing unprecedented strain on the state’s intricate water system, threatening mass agricultural production and basic drinking water in a way experts say is more severe than in years past.

Clouds affected by wildfire smoke may produce less rain

Read the full story in Science News.

When smoke rises from wildfires in the western United States, it pummels clouds with tiny airborne particles. What happens next with these clouds has been largely unstudied. But during the 2018 wildfire season, researchers embarked on a series of seven research flights, including over the Pacific Northwest, to help fill this gap.

One California city’s creative drought fix

Read the full story in the New York Times.

The wine country town of Healdsburg is offering residents treated wastewater for their yards.

Historic drought slashes hydropower generation in California, other Western states

Read the full story at Utility Dive.

Drought conditions in California and other western states are leading to big cuts in the amount of electricity generated by hydropower plants in the region, according to a report by Moody’s Investors Service.

The plunge in hydropower production has helped fuel a big increase in power prices in the Golden State, which hit their highest levels in five years over the summer, soaring 150% from May to July, according to Moody’s.

The decline in hydropower, and the scramble to replace it with other sources, is putting financial pressure on local hydropower utilities in California and other western states. By contrast, big out-of-state energy companies that sell into the California grid, and which rely on other sources from renewables to natural gas and nuclear, are profiting as demand for their power surges, Moody’s reports.

The West’s megadrought is so bad, authorities are airlifting water for animals

Read the full story at Vox.

Scientists involved in wildlife conservation are concerned that as climate change makes droughts more frequent and severe, they’ll have to work harder to conserve plants and animals. And as more areas are forced to ration the scarce resource of water, they have to answer a difficult question: What do humans owe animals that are perishing from a problem of our own making?

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