Brief # 116 – Environmental Policy

Drought and Plans to Deal with Running Dry


By Todd J. Broadman

June 15, 2021


Policy Summary 

A prolonged period with little or no precipitation combined with an extended period of abnormally high temperatures has created “extreme” drought conditions in much of the western half of the U. S. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has placed 41 counties under a state of drought emergency. In some areas of Oregon and California, scientists conclude the drought is the most severe it has been in centuries. In California, about 40 percent of all water use is agricultural, and in the Central Valley nearly 85 percent of all employment and revenues are from growing fruits, nuts and vegetables grown with irrigated water.

Much of the West depends upon water stored in reservoirs for agricultural and residential use. The largest reservoir in the U. S. is Lake Mead which was formed by the Hoover Dam built in the 1930s. The lake’s waters supply vast tracts of irrigated farm land along with 25 million people – including residents of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas. The water level in the lake has dropped to its lowest level ever: 1,072 feet above sea level. Overall, the reservoir has fallen 140 feet in the past 21 years.

The reservoirs are in turn fed by watersheds and mountain snowpacks. The trend we are witnessing is less snowpack and earlier melting due to increased temperatures. The extremely dry soils contribute as well by requiring more water to saturate them. The water supply sustaining southern California comes primarily from the Colorado River and the Northern California Sierra Nevada mountain range. 

The effects of the drought conditions extend well beyond human needs for water. Fish populations are being devastated. A noteworthy example are juvenile Klamath River salmon that are dying of parasitic infections because of a lack of river flow downstream from dams. A senior water policy analyst with the Yurok Tribe in northern California, Michael Belchik, said “We are starting to talk about the ‘extinction’ word around here.” In an effort to save the species, over 140 trucks have been deployed to transport over 17,000,000 fish between 50 to 100 miles to their destination.

The extended drought is a major contributor to the killing of millions of trees as well. Drought weakens trees and when attacked by insects, particularly the Bark beetle, the stressed trees often succumb. In 2019, over 15 million trees died; in 2016 over 62 million trees died, the most devastating year on record. Drought is a clear sign and contributor to an out of balance biosphere. Drought creates ideal conditions for wildfires.

In a plea to President Biden for additional funding, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla (both D-Calif.) joined Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden (both D-Ore.), wrote to “provide relief to states that are struggling with the impact of extreme drought and wildfire this summer and uncompensated damage from past wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and storms.” On the heels of the unprecedented scale of the 2020 wildfires, 2021 may be even more destructive.

Alongside and adding to the country’s drought woes is a looming water infrastructure disaster; decades of neglect has exposed millions of Americans to water unsafe to use, untreated sewage, and bills that pay for water that never gets to its destination due to fractured pipes. Sponsored by Bernie Sanders, The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (Water) Act, would allocate $38 billion to safeguard the increasingly sparse water that still flows through municipal pipes.

In what has become a confrontational decision, the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced that there would be no further release of water from the reserves in Oregon’s Klamath Basin for farmers downstream. With the severity of the water shortfall, the Bureau was obligated by law to channel the water to the Klamath river to assist salmon hatchlings – a species protected for Native American tribal groups, the Yurok tribe in particular. The decision sparked a militant response from a group of farmers and their supporters.


Along with its vegetables, fruits, and nuts, California’s dairy production is the largest in the country and employs over 400,000 full-time and contract laborers. The drought will impact more than the raw supply of produce coming from the Central Valley and resulting grocery store prices; the entire economic supply chain is impacted. In the Klamath region to the north, lakes and marshland had been drained to create a vast farming economy based on growing alfalfa for dairy cows and potatoes for industrial food manufacturers (Frito-Lay chips).

While there are those like Gail Snyder, founder of Coalition for the Deschutes, who insist that “We need a cultural paradigm shift that leads to better stewardship by all of us,” there are militant groups led by Ammon Bundy and others who favor armed takeover of water resources under the banner of protecting their American rights.

In line with Bundy, members of the People’s Rights Network have pitched a large tent next to the headgates of the main canal on a Klamath river dam; they have openly disclosed their plan to “restore the flow of water, even at the price of a confrontation with the federal government.” As drought continues, water wars like this will erupt on an even larger scale. For them, the only endangered species are Americans and their rights, not the environment.

The state of Utah is also under a water emergency. Their new public relations push is #SlowThe Flow! and “survival watering” – to counter water-hungry lush landscapes. They are  educating the public that grass, even if it appears dead, is resilient and can survive with as little as 1″ of water a month.

Engagement Resources   works exclusively for Congress, providing timely, objective, and authoritative research and analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate. is the world’s leader in wetlands and waterfowl conservation. Oregon Public Broadcasting.  brings together progressive and conservative voices in favor of clean energy and climate change action.

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