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A major drought in the West isn’t generating a lot of political heat—yet


A discarded lounge chair sits on the banks of Lake Powell, which is at its lowest level since it was created by damming the Colorado River in 1963. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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As the American West continues to struggle through a historic 20-year drought, state leaders in California, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona are fighting to make ends meet. Ross Hansen, the assistant state engineer for field services at the Utah Division of Water Rights, says it’s a devastatingly simple calculus: The usage exceeds the available supply.

“We don’t have enough to meet the uses that are currently on the books,” Hansen told me. “Every last drop that we have is accounted for and is being fought over.”

But while the drought causes many state leaders to look with concern to an uncertain future marked by dipping reserve levels, its political effect on upcoming congressional elections has been minimal. With other issues crowding the picture in the American West, water conservation’s political appeal has run dry.

Even in areas hit hardest by the drought, candidates running for Congress haven’t made water policy a spotlight issue. Of 76 congressional candidates currently on the ballot at the center of the drought in areas like Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and Southern California, only 18 mention water conservation at all on their websites.

Mark Robertson, a congressional candidate running to represent Nevada’s 1st District, doesn’t list water conservation among his top policy priorities but says he’s well aware of the problem. His policy priorities reflect his stances on topics he’s most frequently asked about—topics like education, inflation, and border security.

“If I haven’t included my feelings on water or my solutions on water on my website that’s a shame, and I’ll be sure to correct that,” Robertson said.

He says that he does talk about water often, mostly to concerned homeowners who fear that their property value is at risk because of drought conditions.

Measuring a drought isn’t easy, especially because varying landscapes collect water differently. The Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) uses temperature, precipitation, and soil data to determine the accumulated water excess or deficit in a given area. The lower the number goes, the greater an imbalance there is between water going out of an area compared with the amount coming in. According to the University of Idaho’s application of the PDSI, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona all find themselves at a –2.0 on the scale, indicating a higher volume leaving the area than entering. By comparison, states like Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina have scores around 3.0.

Jonathan Deason, lead professor of the Environmental and Energy Management Program at George Washington University, says the problem is most readily seen in the shrinking of Lake Mead, Lake Powell, and the Colorado River—three Western sources of water used for power and agricultural production. Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, hit its lowest point in almost a hundred years at just 1,045 feet earlier this month. If it loses just another 100 feet, the lake could cease to become a source of hydroelectric power for the region. Together, Lake Powell and Lake Mead share a dangerously low storage volume of just 28 percent of capacity, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“Those reservoirs are multipurpose waters,” Deason said. “They produce hydropower, but they also provide water for municipal, industrial, and agricultural purposes. We’re running out of water … and that’s a problem.”

In Western states, elements like snowfall and rain provide the water needed to fill reservoirs and maintain water supplies in reserve. In turn, that water reserve dictates how states manage water usage. But rainfall isn’t always consistent, and a tip of the scale can put a huge strain on water suppliers. Hansen explained that, similar to money in a bank, what’s in reserve helps determine what the state of Utah can and can’t do on a yearly basis. It’s the same way in many of the Western states.

“An irrigator might realize we’ve had a bad snowpack year and we’re not going to see as much water in our reservoirs,” Hansen said. “Users definitely adjust their use in accordance with what kind of a water year we are anticipating, and that changes year by year.”

Hansen expressed surprise and concern that more congressional candidates aren’t vocally addressing water conservation policy as part of their platforms.

“We have environmental groups asserting that if [water supplies] continue to decrease, we’re going to have environmental air quality issues and health problems. That tends to get people’s attention real quick. … I kind of think that falls back to politicians. It’s a big deal.”

A wide variety of policy possibilities exists to alleviate the effects of the Western drought but no one clear solution. Proposals include using meters to limit water use, allowing people to reuse used water with oversight, and even an idea called “cloud seeding” to induce clouds to drop precipitation faster.

Deason says he doesn’t find the lack of messaging surprising. He believes that water conservation—while important—doesn’t rally voters as much as other issues currently taking the national spotlight. He suspects that as the drought continues to affect agricultural production, its sting might be felt down the road.

“I think they’re probably focused on more hot-button issues like gasoline prices,” Deason said. “… Actually, over time—a relatively short time—food prices are going to hit people a lot harder. The drought in the West is having and will have a large impact on food prices.”

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