California drought holds lessons for Colorado
“We can’t rely on the past to predict the future. The California drought, like the continuing drought in the Colorado River Basin, is unlike any we’ve seen before. We can never assume a drought will be normal.”
Coloradans are watching California dreams turn to dust during an unrelenting four-year drought. There, the only way some people can get water is off the backs of delivery trucks. Homeowners are digging up backyard swimming pools, tearing up lawns and shaming water-wasting neighbors with calls to TV stations: The family next door has a leaky garden hose. The nightly news actually covers these types of stories.
The Golden State has seen plenty of dry spells over the past few centuries, but this drought is different. It has has spread farther and lasted longer than any other drought on record. And it has spurred the most draconian water-rationing measures in the state’s history.
Governor Jerry Brown ordered a 25 percent cut in urban water use, and proposed fines of up to $10,000 per violation for the biggest water wasters. And this week, California’s water czars said they may order farmers with 100-year-old water rights to give up some of their water. It’s a nearly unthinkable move that would shake the foundation of the state’s water laws and almost certainly trigger fierce courtroom water wars.
The California drought has intensified strife between cities and farms, the northern and southern parts of the state, and social and economic classes — all of which are being watched carefully by nervous leaders in Colorado.
Even with “normal” snow and rain, the state is facing a water crisis, according to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. By 2050, the state will be billions of gallons short of what it needs to sustain its cities, factories, farms and rivers, Hickenlooper said in 2013 when he ordered state agencies to swiftly tackle one of Colorado’s most urgent issues. The final plan, due by the end of this year, is aimed at averting those shortages, and the California drought experience is helping to shape that plan.
A new lawn
This isn’t anything like I saw in Colorado,” says Jenn Ohlsson, who recently moved from Summit County to Riverside, east of Los Angeles, in the scruffy foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, where things are dry even in the best of years.
TV, radio and the newspapers are all sending out a steady barrage of drought info, which is a little annoying at times but ensures that people are thinking about saving water every day, Ohlsson says.
“They even have helicopters flying around to see who’s wasting water,” she says, adding that she’s cut back a bit on water use. She doesn’t know exactly if she’s met the state’s 25 percent target, but she makes sure her dishwasher and washing machine are full before she runs them. She and her husband haven’t given up their backyard pool yet, but they did get a cover to cut evaporation, and they skip showers once in a while, she says.
But some suburban dreams never die, no matter how hot and dry it gets. Ohlsson says her husband’s grandmother planted a new lawn in the backyard of her Riverside house this past spring, just as California’s rainy season ended with a whimper and the lowest snowpack ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
So is there really a chance that Colorado could see a drought of similar proportions?
It depends who you ask.
“We all know that multiyear drought has happened before and will happen again,” says state climatologist Nolan Doesken. Even in the best of times, some part of Colorado is either going into drought, in drought, in bad drought, or recovering from drought, but the state always has a couple of weather wildcards, Doesken explains. Just like California, Colorado relies heavily on winter rains to refill rivers, lakes and reservoirs. But, here, rainfall in other seasons can help ease water woes.
“Where we are perched, drought will always look different. We can dodge the bullet more easily than California because we have three wet seasons,” Doesken says. “So our droughts are less likely to persist and are more likely to be interrupted and softened,”
Colorado has, in fact, experienced multiple 3- or 4-year droughts over the last century, including one during the 1920s Dust Bowl era. The most recent extended drought, from 1953 to 1956, is a modern water-planning benchmark for Colorado against which cities design last-ditch defenses against running out of water, says Jeff Lukas, a Colorado-based scientist with the Western Water Assessment, a university-based research program tracking climate trends in the West.
Colorado’s longer droughts just haven’t been as intense as in California, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be in the future, Lukas says.
“The hitch is that the planning has assumed that a 1950s-type drought is literally the worst-case scenario,” Lukas says. Now, scientists realize that human-caused global warming and natural climate variation could plausibly lead to even-worse-case scenarios.
How does your garden grow?
Lisa Paul, a 30-year California resident, has been through several drought cycles and says she can’t imagine it getting any worse. During a drought back in the 1990s, when she lived in San Francisco, she used a bucket while showering to capture some water for the garden around her downtown Victorian.
This time around, there was little political leadership in the early stages of the drought, when decisive action could have helped ease some of the pain Californians are feeling now, she says.
Two years ago, Paul moved to San Jose, at the south end of San Francisco Bay, and promptly tore out the lawn from around her house in the historic Rose Garden neighborhood and replaced the grass with native plants.
“I scandalized my neighbors,” she said. “They told me I was the most disruptive person ever to move into the neighborhood, just for tearing out the lawn. I had people practically screaming at me, saying, ‘You’re not going to take my lawn away. It’ll make my property value go down.'”
Paul and her husband also own property north of San Francisco, in Sonoma County, where they planted a two-acre “retirement” vineyard just a year before the current drought started. The timing couldn’t have been worse, but they kept at it, partly by capturing rainwater in a 2,000 gallon cistern.
The attitudes in that rural area are different than those she encountered in urban San Jose, she says.
“In Sonoma, all the farmers have been talking about the drought and climate change for years. You will not find a farmer who doesn’t believe in global warming,” Paul says. The farmers know water is everything, and they know where it comes from.
City dwellers, not so much.
“The farther water is from your livelihood, the more disconnected you are,” she says.
She also finds a political disconnect on some of the charity boards she serves on, where she says some Republicans discount the current California drought.
“The same people that deny climate change are denying the drought,” she says. “They’re attacking environmentalists for fighting to keep water in the rivers for fish, saying that has caused artificial drought,” she says.
Whatever the politics or the climate, Denver Water CEO and general manager Jim Lochhead says he has to be prepared to ensure steady water supplies for 1.3 million customers. He and other water bosses are watching California carefully to see what works — and what doesn’t.
“We can’t be complacent. Once a drought cycle starts, we can’t predict when it will end. Drought responses need to begin at the first signs of drought,” Lochhead says. “We can’t rely on the past to predict the future. The California drought, like the continuing drought in the Colorado River Basin, is unlike any we’ve seen before. We can never assume a drought will be normal.”
The emerging Colorado water plan could help prepare the state by fostering partnerships between cities, farms and environmental groups, Lochhead says.
“The response to the California drought has been delayed because of disagreements between sectors. We need to understand beforehand how we’re going to respond to severe drought,” he says. “Colorado should have a plan for how cities and agricultural producers can share water supplies during severe drought conditions.”
And Colorado can’t address regional drought issues on its own. So much of the state’s water supplies are affected by what happens in other states downstream, especially by dwindling water supplies in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. If those reservoirs drop below a certain level, Colorado could be forced to send water that is needed by the Front Range.
If the long-term regional drought continues, all the Colorado River’s states need to be much more aggressive in developing an emergency response plan, Lochhead says.
“This will mean moving water from reservoirs higher in the basin down to Lake Powell,” he says, adding that some type of interstate program to cut demand will be critical to maintain Colorado River flows required by the law of the river.
Finding more ways to move water around the state during a drought could also help, says California state climatologist Michael Anderson, a Colorado native who knows both states well.
California’s massive network of canals and reservoirs enables the state to move water to where it’s needed most. Other western states don’t have that same ability, which means they get hit by droughts harder and faster, Anderson says.
Previous droughts have also spurred California to make water law changes that let farmers sell their water to cities quickly and on a large scale. Anderson says California does that much more than any other state. Adding that ability in Colorado would be a big step toward better drought preparedness.
But statewide conservation should be first and foremost in any drought and water-planning conversation, says Bart Miller, a conservation attorney with Western Resource Advocates.
The evolving water plan is a chance for Colorado to set a course that minimizes the threat of drastic water rationing and other severe restrictions, Miller says. To do that, the state water plan has to focus on “making the most of the water we’ve already developed.” That means more conservation, more water recycling, and faster, better ways to share water between irrigators, cities, and rivers when supplies get tight.
“The entire Colorado River basin needs to deal with less water going forward and plan accordingly,” he says. “And, we can design new communities to have a smaller water footprint, so that we don’t feel the need to pull more water from the Colorado River Basin on the West Slope. While no one can be truly drought-proof, making smarter choices with the water we already have puts us in a better position to deal with any future drought,” Miller concludes.
The big dry
Even with all the preparations and measures mentioned by Anderson, Californians have been hit hard by the extended dry spell. It all brings back old memories, says Bob Gahl, a 30-year California resident who says he adjusted his lifestyle to match the state’s semi-arid setting many years ago.
“During the last drought, I was filling the tub with a few inches of water for one child, then adding some more for the next, then adding some more for the third,” Gahl says. After bath-time, he would run a hose into the house to siphon the water to his outside gardens.
Gahl says he practices all these conservation measures against a statewide political backdrop that lends itself to cynicism. Urban users take big hit, while California farmers — who use 80 percent of California’s water — continue to get massive subsidies, he says, describing what he sees as inequities in the way the state allocates water.
“California subsidizes farmers growing rice in the desert up around Sacramento,” Gahl says. “And, apparently, in this latest drought, the state has some sweetheart deal with those using fracking to get oil out of the ground, but screws the farmers. One need only drive down Highway 5 to see how they feel about it,” Gahl adds, mirroring concerns that have surfaced in Colorado about water use by the oil and gas industry.
Many of his concerns are exactly the kinds of things Colorado is trying to address upfront in its new water plan, before there’s an epic crisis. Gahl says it’s not really that complicated. California needs to stop subsidizing water use in areas where it doesn’t make sense, and make sure that political cronyism isn’t driving water policy, he says.
“I think that probably cuts across all states,” he says. “This is my third drought rodeo in California, and the same idiocy continues to rear its head each and every drought.”
Top photo: The plains around DIA were parched by the scorching 2012 drought, although groundwater pumping along the South Platte River enabled some farms to continue irrigating. Photo by Bob Berwyn
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