Western Drought Isn’t Going Anywhere. It’s Time to Rethink Water Use.

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Climate and EnergyClean Water

by Mark Schlosberg

You wouldn’t know it by the water use in much of the Western U.S., but the region is mired in its worst drought in over 1200 years. Driven by the climate crisis, more than half of the West is in exceptional, extreme or severe drought. Only 17% of the West is experiencing normal conditions. 

This is bad news for our water supplies. Reservoir levels in California and across the West have sunk to historic lows. For instance, the Colorado River system provides water for 40 million people. Its two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are just 26 and 27% full, respectively. 

This drought isn’t going away anytime soon. One study projects a 75% chance that it lasts through 2030. But if climate change escalates unabated, dry conditions could last even longer. 

It’s time for our elected leaders to take a hard look at the biggest water abusers and drivers of climate change. It’s time to take on big agribusiness and the fossil fuel industry. 

The Fossil Fuel Industry Drives Drought While Abusing Our Water

We know that climate change is driving drought and Big Oil drives climate change. Yet in the West, oil and gas keep flowing, as do permit approvals for more drilling. 

In California and New Mexico, for example, the very industries driving the drought continue to flourish. California is the seventh-largest oil-producing state. New Mexico, meanwhile, is the third-largest producer of oil and a top-ten producer of natural gas. 

On top of climate-changing carbon emissions, oil and gas production uses a huge amount of water. In California, the oil and gas industry has used over 3 billion gallons of water since 2018. That’s enough water for nearly 150,000 people for a year. 

Plus, wastewater from drilling can pollute limited fresh water supplies. The industry has even dumped its wastewater into clean aquifers. 

Thirsty Crops And Factory Farms Make Matters Worse

Another culprit behind the megadrought: Big Ag. In the West, thirsty farms abound. Agriculture makes up 80% of California’s water use, most of it industrial. We see this pattern in other Western states like New Mexico and Oregon, too. 

The West’s agriculture industries are so thirsty in part due to water-intensive crops that aren’t suited for our dry climate. Of California’s 80% freshwater used for agriculture, 20% goes to water-intensive tree nuts. 60% of these crops, like almonds and pistachios, are exported abroad.  

Similarly, 16% of that agricultural water goes to growing alfalfa — another water intensive crop, some of which is exported. In New Mexico, it’s the same story: Big Ag uses scarce water resources to grow alfalfa for hay, 30% of which it exports. 

Much of what Big Ag doesn’t export, it uses to support factory farms. These operations also suck up large amounts of water while causing massive amounts of water and air pollution. 

In Oregon, there are 11 mega-dairies with over 2500 cows each. Combined, they consume 8.2 million gallons of water a day just for drinking and washing. This doesn’t even include the water used to grow feed. All this water could meet the average daily indoor water needs of over 124,000 Oregonians. 

In New Mexico, mega-dairies (500 head or more) use over 32 million gallons a day. And in California, mega-dairies use a whopping 142 million gallons a day. That’s enough water for every resident of San Diego and San Jose combined. 

At the same time, factory farms produce huge amounts of waste, polluting air and water and contributing to climate change. Those 11 Oregon mega-dairies produce emissions equivalent to that of 318,000 passenger vehicles

Agriculture is critical and we need to produce food to feed people. But we also need a sustainable food system that works in our current environment.  

Droughts Hurt Communities, Especially Those Already Disadvantaged

These water abuses and the droughts they cause are hurting communities across the West. For example, the drought has caused salmon runs to collapse in California. This significantly impacts the Indigenous communities that have long relied on salmon fisheries. The devastated fisheries, along with limited water and disputed allocations, hits these communities especially hard.

Moreover, the drought contributes to the water scarcity crisis that threatens access to clean drinking water. Hundreds of wells are running dry, while water pollution intensifies. These two factors threaten the human right to safe, accessible, affordable water. In California alone, over a million people lack reliable access to clean water. 

We Need Accountability For Water-Abusing Corporations. Not More Energy-Intensive Projects.

To meet our water needs, elected officials and their appointees must take on these industries. They must also reform water rights and allocations to prioritize the human right to water and protect our water as a public trust resource. 

Moreover, elected officials can conserve our water supplies by stopping permits for new fossil fuel projects and factory farms. Rules and legislation can further rein in senseless water uses in a dry climate that will only get drier. 

Many of the West’s water systems, from California’s aqueducts to the Colorado River system, were established during historically wet conditions. Now, we have swung in the other direction. 

Our governors, state legislators and Congressmembers will need to revisit old assumptions and adapt to our new reality. That means moving toward renewable energy and sustainable farming, while centering water as a human right. 

Unfortunately, some are doing the opposite. Governor Newsom in California, for example, just announced his water plan. While it contains some good measures around stormwater capture and water efficiency, it doubles down on an industrial model. It calls for more dams, a costly and destructive water tunnel and a buildout of ocean desalination plants by gutting regulations. 

These facilities are not only unnecessary — they’re energy-intensive and bad for the ocean environment, too. 

This approach also sidesteps the root of the problem: big corporate water abusers. We won’t see improvements in our water crisis until those in office face down water abusers and rebalance our water system. 

We don’t need energy-intensive and expensive industrial tech fixes. Rather, we need to aggressively transition off fossil fuels and factory farms and towards a renewable and sustainable future. 

Spread the word: A sustainable water future means stopping abuses by Big Ag and Big Oil!