World Water Day is 22 March 2021. This annual observance was organized by the UN in 1993 to focus attention on the importance of freshwater and to promote sustainable freshwater management. Each year a different theme is chosen, centered on topics relevant to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. The theme for 2021 is Valuing Water — a conversation about what water means to you. The UN World Water Development Report (WWDR) is also released each year around World Water Day.
Water is the other finite liquid resource that is increasingly becoming a challenge. Unlike petroleum, however, humans can’t live without water. Today around two-thirds of the global population – four billion people – face water scarcity for at least one month a year. As we head deeper into climate change that number will increase, and the intensity of the problem will increase also. Seasonal water scarcity will become long term water stress which is the condition of not having sufficient water to meet needs. Increased stress will be concentrated in the arid regions of the Middle East, North Africa, south and central Asia, and the US Southwest though no region will be free from water worries — even the US Midwest may face moderate water stress by 2050.
Water availability is affected by physical conditions — such as rainfall, rate of evaporation, and land surface morphology — and human management — such as dams, groundwater extraction, and reservoirs. Climate change will likely affect local precipitation patterns as well as evaporation. Of the two, evaporation may be more critical. We tend to think of the water cycle as rainfall to river to ocean back to clouds. In reality evaporation is taking up water at every stage. Evaporation is largely driven by solar radiation and temperature. So climate change has the potential to greatly increase evaporation, leading to decreased flows in streams and rivers, less groudwater recharge (and therefore failing wells), and shrinking reservoirs — perhaps even an inability to store water on the surface at all.
Much of North America is experiencing drought conditions today. Drier conditions in the US Southwest associated with La Niña and the failed 2020 summer monsoon contributed to the development and intensification of the most significant US spring drought since 2013, according to NOAA. Drought currently affects about 44% of the contiguous US, mostly in the western states.
Dry weather is expected to continue this spring, with below-average precipitation forecasted across much of the West. The Weather Channel’s long range forecast currently shows lower than average rainfall through the end of June, with drought conditions creeping into the Plains states as well as Florida. Moreover this will be a hot spring. Except for the Northwest, the entire contiguous US will see above-average temperatures, according to NOAA. The highest probability of above-average temperatures is in the Southwest, which is also dealing with exceptionally low precipitation.
Another contributing factor to the drought is a lack of snow. The Sierra Nevada range, for example, has seen no significant snow accumulation since late January. Sierra Nevada weather stations all show extreme reductions in snowpack, some as much as 90% under average. The Rocky Mountains experienced a welcome record snow storm in March, but snowpack is still low — perhaps as much as a 70% reduction — and yearly snowpack is trending down. Moreover, after years of intensifying drought, soils are so thirsty very little of the snow melt may flow into streams and rivers. This will benefit hard-hit forests, under double stress from bark beetle infestations as well as drought, but it will do nothing to help downstream regions.
However, this may grant a reprieve to flood-prone regions east of the Rockies. The last two years have brought increased flood threats to the Mississippi and Missouri River basins. This year the flood threat for much of the Midwest and Plains regions is lower, which is welcome news for the region’s farmers.
No such luck for agriculture west of the Rockies. The National Integrated Drought Information System — a division of NOAA — tracks crops and livestock affected by drought. Today, more than 150 million acres of crops are under drought conditions in the US. This translates into increasing stress on farmers and as well as increasing costs for our food.
Furthermore, Southwest states are considering cutbacks across the board, and agriculture may see many of the deepest cuts. Agriculture is seen as an “inefficient” use of water. For example in New Mexico, though agriculture’s economic impact is usually just a few percent a year, it is by far the largest consumer of water — irrigation accounted for over three-quarters of Rio Grande water withdrawals in 2015, according to the latest available state engineer report.
In some cases, the accusation is apt. Growing almonds in the Californian desert for export does seem to be a waste of a precious local resource. It takes about a gallon of water to produce one almond. California almond farms use over twice as much water as Los Angeles and San Francisco combined. This does seem inefficient water use. But the inefficiency isn’t bred in farming as much as in growing commodity crops. Almonds are an export crop; most go to China. This isn’t raising food with scarce water; it’s pulling profits out of the desert using water from elsewhere.
In any case, this is going to be a rough year. We’ll all likely see the effects when we buy food, even those of us who buy as local as possible. And farmers are already strained enough. In this climate, we may see widespread farm failures and bankruptcies. One water conservation district manager is going so far as to recommend that if you have a choice to farm or not, it would be best to choose to get out now.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021
Chincar, Allison and Jackson Dill. 19 March 2021. “Expect spring to be even drier out west, says NOAA”. CNN. Accessed at CNN Weather (https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/19/weather/spring-forecast-2021-noaa/index.html) on 21 March 2021 at 6pmEST.
Dunne, Daisy. 5 June 2020. “380 million people could face ‘water stress’ by 2050, climate experts warn”. Carbon Brief. Accessed via World Economic Forum (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/world-population-water-stress-2050-climate-change/) on 21 Marc 2021 at 930pmEST.
Nelson, Cody. 8 March 2021. “New Mexico’s Coming Megadrought Highlights Farmers’ Control of Water”. CoPublished by Capital & Main and High Country News. Accessed at Capital & Main (https://capitalandmain.com/new-mexicos-coming-megadrought-0308) on 21 March 2021 at 4:30pmEST.
Runyon, Luke. 19 March 2021. “A Colorado River Showdown Is Looming. Let The Posturing Begin”. HPPR (High Plains Public Radio). Accessed via https://www.hppr.org/post/colorado-river-showdown-looming-let-posturing-begin on 21 March 2021 at 8:30pmEST.