The Heat Is Online

Drought Imperils 11 U.S. States

In the Dry Dry West, a Search for Solutions

The New York Times, June 2, 2003

PHOENIX, May 30  For nearly two weeks now, daytime temperatures in some parts of Arizona have reached well over 100 degrees, far above normal for this time of year and a not-so-subtle reminder that the drought searing the West for the last five years is not going away.

Summer is still three weeks off, but 11 Western states are already experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. And there is little evidence to suggest that relief is coming any time soon.

The governors of Arizona and Utah have already declared their states emergency drought areas for this year, a pronouncement that qualifies them to seek federal aid. Colorado is providing state aid to communities whose local water supplies are drying up. Utah has asked for federal help, mostly so farmers can buy feed for cattle.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the enormous reservoirs on the Colorado River that provide most of southern Nevada's water, are each about half-empty (certainly not half-full, to state water managers), the lowest they have been in 30 years. For the first time, communities that depend on the lakes are collaborating on a regional drought plan, imposing water-use restrictions and raising water rates by as much as 40 percent.

The drought has reached such a prolonged and dangerous point that the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the branch of the Interior Department that manages river flow and water storage, has issued a major new report, "Water 2025," that addresses how to handle water crises when supplies fall, as they are expected to. Arizona, which has never had a drought plan, is finally developing one.

Beyond that, cities and counties in many Western states are stepping up efforts to monitor car washing, lawn watering and other nonessential water uses to the point that they are issuing tickets to people who violate new local restrictions. Other conflicts are landing in court, like a dispute in New Mexico, where diminishing supplies of water in the Rio Grande are pitting farmers against protectors of the silvery minnow.

While 35 states have drought plans in effect, persistent hot, dry conditions are forcing government officials to take a harder look at how to manage declining water supplies at a time when the West continues to be the fastest-growing region in the country and the Endangered Species Act remains sacrosanct.

"With our report, we're trying to say that even once the drought has passed, the crisis has not passed," John W. Keys III, commissioner of the reclamation bureau, said in an interview. "Problems will remain, especially in areas of exploding population like southern Nevada and Phoenix and other areas where federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act have to be taken into consideration."

The report emphasizes the likelihood that Western states will not have enough water for decades, and the need for more ambitious water management plans to blunt the worst of consequences, including wildfires and severe restrictions on use. Several areas are cited as especially vulnerable, including the southern border of Texas, central Colorado, the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico, metropolitan Salt Lake City, northeastern Arizona, the Arizona-California border and the Central Valley of California.

Among Western states, perhaps none took a harder beating from the drought last year than Arizona, where cities have had ample water supplies from the Colorado River and other sources but remote regions are struggling. In the north, dense forests turned into easy kindling as two wildfires converged to become the biggest in state history, destroying more than 400,000 acres. What fire missed, insects ate  and are still munching. Since last summer, more than 700,000 acres of ponderosa pine trees, left dried and defenseless, have been devoured by the biggest outbreak of bark beetles in recent state history.

The drought was so severe that last year, for the first time, Arizona used its entire annual allotment of water from the Colorado, 2.8 million acre feet, to satisfy immediate needs and store water for the future. The same level of use is expected to continue at least through this year, adding to problems in Southern California, which has the largest allotment, 4.4 million acre feet, and counts on unused water from Arizona and other states for the growing needs of California farmers and population centers around San Diego.

Yet it was only several months ago that Arizona state officials met for the first time to contemplate the kind of comprehensive drought response and mitigation plan that other Western states had been developing since the early 1980's.

Why did Arizona wait so long? Until recently, the Colorado River was always unstintingly dependable, and alternative sources, like the Salt and Verde Rivers, were running at capacity. Now, the Colorado is at 60 percent of normal, and the other rivers are running at record low levels.

"Areas here are always under stress, but the drought exacerbated the conditions," said the leader of the group developing Arizona's plan, Herb Guenther, a wildlife biologist and former state lawmaker who was appointed director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources this year by the new governor, Janet Napolitano.

"We began to see larger areas with more people impacted," Mr. Guenther said, "and we needed to get in front of the problem to find them immediate relief."

Mr. Guenther insisted that the state had enough water for the next decade or so, at least enough to satisfy demands from the large metropolitan centers around Phoenix and Tucson. But problems loom. Despite adequate snows this winter in the Rocky Mountains, a key source for the Colorado, much of the snow melt fed the Front Range, helping Denver, even causing flooding in some areas, but depleting the river of nearly a third of its usual supply for states to the south.

Those conditions are raising pressure on state officials here to maintain adequate supplies of water for rural communities, Indian tribes that rely on ground water, livestock farmers and firefighters. And problems like that are not limited to Arizona.

"Lawns are going brown," said Pat Mulroy, manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, ticking off restrictions set for later in the year that include a ban on water for car washes, decorative fountains, shopping center misters and golf course fairways. "This community," she added, "is going through culture shock."

For its new drought plan, Arizona will contemplate immediate and long-term changes. But even with instant application, Mr. Guenther said, none is likely to make much of an impact for more than a decade.

"We look at drought plans and fire plans the same," he said. "There are no real short-term solutions. In the meantime, all we can do is fall back and defend our positions."