Eric Kuhn is on to something.
The term “drought” implies a temporary condition that will be followed by a return to normal.
Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, thinks using the word is a disservice because it doesn’t reflect today’s reality on the Western Slope.
We may be experiencing a permanent shift, where even “wet” years cannot make up for water deficits in the Colorado River system. If that’s the case, the current situation — a shrinking river that was over-appropriated to begin with — is the new normal. And that means everyone who relies on this water supply will have to learn to live with less of it.
That’s a conclusion we all resist with a “hope springs eternal” mindset. When snowpack is meager, we hope for monsoons. When the monsoons don’t materialize, it’s back to fingers crossed for heavy snows and a wet spring. But the Sentinel’s Dennis Webb outlined the myriad factors that make it next to impossible for even record precipitation to restore reservoirs and stream flows.
Hope is a luxury water managers up and down the Colorado River can no longer afford. For the first time ever, the federal government is expected to declare a water shortage on the lower Colorado River later this summer. That will force automatic cuts to the water supply for Nevada and Arizona starting in 2022.
Meanwhile, Upper Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation will begin development of a drought response operations plan, as called for under a 2019 agreement between the states and the Bureau of Reclamation, that seeks to keep Lake Powell from falling below a level required for hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam.
One short-term fix is releases from upstream reservoirs. But, as Webb noted, officials are looking longer-term at approaches including managing demand for water through reduced consumptive use.
Aside from limiting crop production, demand-management scenarios have a built-in challenge: how to ensure that any water saved through such measures actually finds it way to Powell instead of being used upstream.
The gravity of the implications seem to escape most people. Perhaps, like COVID-19 surges, there’s “fatigue” factor when it comes to processing complicated challenges. It’s easier to bury our heads in the sand than to consider a way of life with water restrictions. But that’s the very future we face if we all don’t recognize the importance of conserving water.
The way things are stacking up, it’s the farmers who will make the initial sacrifices if this is, indeed, a new normal. Unfortunately, that scenario won’t be alarming enough for some people. But hoping we never have to test our capacity to reduce household consumption isn’t a reasonable strategy to prepare for a future with less water to go around.