Drought Is Scorching the West

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Drought Is Scorching the West


This summer is so dry that a water department spokesman can sum up the situation in one word. Grim. "Our agriculture economy this year is getting absolutely pounded," said Dick Larsen, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

After a low-precipitation winter, farmers and water officials around the West braced for a rough summer. But few expected the situation to get so bad, so fast. As the summer months pass by with little rain and soaring temperatures, drought conditions have spread southeast from Washington, Idaho and Montana into Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Wyoming. In Idaho, farmers have stopped watering crops like alfalfa because canals have run dry. In Utah, seven wild horses were found dead of dehydration. In Oregon, salmon are cooking as river levels fall and temperatures rise. And Montana has closed part of the upper Big Hole River to protect rare fish.

The arid West has always suffered from a lack of water, relying on an extensive and complex system of distributing the precious resource. That system, known as "first in time is first in right," means that irrigators who first laid claim to water -- even as far back as the 1800s -- have priority when water supplies are low. Therefore one farmer may see his or her water disappear months before a neighbor's. Larsen said that although some farmers still have water, drought periods such as this one don't spare anyone. Wildlife, from fish to large mammals, suffers badly when water supplies run low. Some cattle and sheep have been removed from federal lands because officials fear dry rangeland will be overgrazed.

In Oregon, federal officials cut off water in April to more than 1,000 farmers who had been drawing from the Upper Klamath Lake. The govern- ment said endangered fish that live there were threatened by low water levels. Between 50 and 200 farmers have protested the decision, and recently filed a lawsuit against the government. Although most city dwellers say they are not yet affected by the drought, some will have to decide this summer whether green lawns are worth a quadrupled water bill.

In Salt Lake County, which has to provide for urban residents and agriculture, the water district has already started pumping water from wells -- a last resort -- instead of taking it from reservoirs. The last time they did that was in 1978, a major drought year. Well water is typically more expensive than reservoir water because it needs to be pumped from the ground and treated. "Normally we hold those wells back for emergencies, but this year we thought it was in our best interest to use them first," said Jim Lewis, finance administrator for the Salt Lake County Department of Public Water Utilities.

The agency is saving reservoir water for next year, in case the state faces more below-average precipitation.

There is little indication what next summer will bring. It mostly depends on winter snowfall. And although summer showers may help right now, farmers are dreading August when now-green crops begin to turn brown.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 23, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ