Drought forces reform of Water Agency

desert golf course
Click to enlarge — Golf course in the middle of desert sands

Drew Lessard stood on top of Folsom Dam and gazed at the Sierra Nevada, which in late spring usually gushes enough melting snow into the reservoir to provide water for a million people. But the mountains were bare, and the snowpack to date remains the lowest on measured record.

“If there’s no snowpack, there’s no water,” said Mr. Lessard, a regional manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that built and operates a vast network of 476 dams, 348 reservoirs and 8,116 miles of aqueducts across the Western United States.

For nearly a century, that network has captured water as it flows down from the region’s snowcapped mountains and moves to the farms, cities and suburbs that were built in the desert. But as the snow disappears, experts say the Bureau of Reclamation — created in 1902 by President Theodore Roosevelt to wrest control of water in the arid West — must completely rebuild a 20th-century infrastructure so that it can efficiently conserve and distribute water in a 21st-century warming world…

For most of the 1900s, the bureau’s system — which grew into the largest wholesale water utility in the country — worked. But the West of the 21st century is not the West of Roosevelt. There are now millions more people who want water, but there is far less of it. The science of climate change shows that in the future, there will be less still…

President Obama has already started to grapple with that change. Under orders from the White House, the Bureau of Reclamation has begun studies on the impact of global warming on 22 Western water basins and is drawing up multidecade plans to begin rebuilding its Western water management systems.

But a new water infrastructure across half of the United States could cost taxpayers billions of dollars — at a moment when Republicans are still focused on cutting taxes and lowering government spending. In Congress, the Republican majority has targeted climate change research as well as federal policies intended to stop climate change…

Sometimes the question isn’t “stupid or ignorant?” Sometimes stupid prefers ignorant.

alfalfa bales bound for Asia
Alfalfa bales bound for Asia

RTFA if you need to need to know about Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats who oppose federal regulation – but, not federal tax dollars – to pump water into agribusiness instead of national parks. They want states to manage the drought to support farmers who derive a major chunk of their income from export.

Although Western farmers are among the most politically conservative groups in the country, many of them acknowledge the changing climate and say they want the bureau to make the changes necessary to support them…Water policy experts point to dozens of changes that could be made, starting by using climate change models to plan new water-collection reservoirs. While climate change models show that there will be less snowfall in the mountains, there may still be rainfall in other regions. The bureau, they said, could build reservoirs designed to capture and store that rain.

It could also change its methods of irrigation. Today, the bureau sends water to farms in the cheapest way possible, by opening floodgates and soaking agricultural fields. But in the future, the bureau could invest in precision watering technology — computer-operated equipment that measures and moves smaller amounts of water to exactly where it needs to be to help crops grow. Such techniques could be used to continue to irrigate crops while saving lots of water. But they cost substantially more money.

Experts also point to the need for an update and overhaul of the bureau’s system of aqueducts, earthenware channels that absorb water and easily crack and leak. Mr. Connor said they could be rebuilt with more resilient cement, and covered in waterproof, nonabsorbent coating.

The Bureau of Reclamation is also considering the construction of desalination plants — at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per plant — which could convert brackish groundwater to water for drinking – and irrigation.

So, conservatives in Congress still say climate change isn’t happening and, anyway, we’re not responsible for anything. Conservatives at the state level and farmers reaping profits from exporting everything from almonds to alfalfa want federal tax dollars to support their incomes.

I have no problem supporting farms, big or small, growing crops for domestic consumption. Frankly, money spent on export crops can be better spent aiding other nations – especially in Africa – to develop their own domestic agriculture.

Either road, we’re facing conservatives and know-nothings who want everything their own way. Stop the science – but, not the flow of money into their own pockets.

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