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Southwest Struggles as Drought Drains Life From Ecosystem, Agriculture

By By Michael Kuhne, Staff Writer
August 23, 2014, 11:34:23 PM EDT

The withering grip of prolonged drought draining the Southwest of life and agricultural prosperity continues to worsen, raising concerns about the future for sustainable reservoirs, energy, agriculture, wildlife and healthy ecosystems. More than 58 percent of California is now experiencing “exceptional” drought, or the most severe on the scale, with an additional 23 percent of the state cast in extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Western States Prepare for Water Shortages

With drought conditions extending for more than a decade in the southwestern United States, states are now reinforcing preparations for the impending water shortage.

The mighty, blue Colorado River is one of the country’s most vital natural resources, and supplies more than 40 million people with precious water.

A healthy river and reservoir system in the Southwest is essential to hydroelectric power generation, fish and wildlife. In addition, the Colorado River supplies water for municipal, industrial and agricultural use, according to the U.S. Department of the Bureau of Reclamation.

By 2017, officials said there is a greater-than-50-percent chance of a water shortage in the state of Arizona.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns the Southwest will continue to thirst as warming decreases spring snowpack and Colorado River flows.


Severe water restrictions continue in Williams, Arizona, northwest of Flagstaff, where the city has faced a critically low reservoir level since February after an extremely dry winter.

In July, the California Water Resources Control Board gave local agencies the ability to go to court seeking fines on those who fail to implement water conservation.

The water levels in Lake Mead, which supplies 90 percent of the Las Vegas’s water, have also been steadily decreasing for more than a decade. For Vegas casinos, which are vital gears in the city’s economic engine, water conservation is a necessity.

Municipal water agencies in Arizona, California, Colorado and Nevada have now signed a water conservation agreement which will form the Colorado River System Conservation program. The program will protect water resources provided by the Colorado River.

Economic Impacts Burden Ranchers and Consumers

Farmers in one the country’s richest agricultural regions have been plagued by the drought and have resorted to mining for groundwater in order to maintain their crops, but it comes at a price.

Mining groundwater for agricultural use in the the San Joaquin Valley has not only created one of the most productive agricultural regions in the United States, it has also simultaneously altered the surface of the land causing noticeable subsidence or sinking in the region.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Pacific Region Office Deputy Director Dave DeWalt, nearly 11.3 percent of the total value of U.S. agriculture commodities comes from California's prime agricultural region. The costs of the drought will continue to increase consumer prices. Worries mounted earlier this year due to water shortages for wineries in California.

In addition, ongoing drought has caused a severe impact on the nation’s beef cattle supply, causing an increase in consumer prices because areas from Texas to northern California can no longer sustain livestock. Ranchers are faced with culling their herds, losing vital breeding stock and buying more expensive feed for their cattle.


Worries Mount in West as Drought Worsens, Water Supplies Dwindle
Historical California Drought-The Amazing Stats
Global Climate Change Center

The driest year in California history was 2013, prompting Governor Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency on Jan. 17.

Almost half of the fruit and nuts grown in the United States come from the state. California leads the country in the production of many different crops, including almonds, artichokes, grapes, kiwi, olives, peaches, pomegranates, rice and walnuts.

The serious economic impacts for farmers and consumers will persist as the drought with no end in sight continues to deprive crops of water and animals of food.

Food Shortage is Taking a Toll on the Region's Wildlife

Livestock are not the only animals unable to sustain themselves in the dry, barren regions of the Southwest. Indigenous species are also falling victim to the harsh environment. Perpetual drought across the coastal regions of Southern California has left raptors emaciated, silencing their once populated breeding grounds.

In regions usually swarming with hawks and other birds of prey, nests remain empty, Audubon California Bird Conservation Program Director Andrea Jones said.

"We're losing an entire generation," Jones said. "This has been going on for a while and we have seen significant declines in species including red-shouldered hawks, golden eagles and White-tail Kites."

It is still uncertain where many of the birds have gone, or the extent in which their numbers have dwindled at this time. In addition, baby salmon needed to be transported by taking a road trip by land instead of the normal river route to maintain California’s $1.4 billion a year, fishing industry.

The salmon-truck run goes from Coleman National Fish Hatchery near Redding to the San Francisco Bay and its delta. California officials also planned similar efforts, Spokesman Andrew Hughan of the California Department of Fish & Wildlife said.


In areas that are having more extended periods of drought, firefly populations are struggling.

"They are a good indicator of environmental health because when their numbers decline, people notice," Don Salvatore, coordinator of the Firefly Watch program at the Boston's Museum of Science, said. "If all of the crane flies in an area disappear, no one other than a few entomologists would notice. However, if fireflies disappear, everyone notices and become concerned."

While fireflies struggle to gain ground in the drought, an increase in Mormon crickets is occurring in Nevada in places that haven't seen their presence since the last major drought in the mid-2000s.

"There have been several sites across northern Nevada where we found crickets this year for the first time in five-plus years. It should be stressed that this year there are no real threats currently in Nevada from Mormon crickets," Nevada State Entomologist Jeff Knight said.

Contributions to this article were made by other Staff Writers

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