Australia could learn something about America’s droughts

Parts of the United States endured an era-defining mega-drought, but continue to find ways to survive through a diverse policy response.

For two decades, the southwestern region of the United States has been struggling with one of most severe droughts of the last 1200 years. This is a serious challenge for the most basic rights: access to water, basic food production and the habitability of cities. Policy makers across the country have had to be bold and varied in their quest to secure water and learn from the lessons of the past.

The causes of multidecadal drought, often referred to as a “mega-drought”, can be largely attributed to the decrease in precipitation. The deficit is due to natural variability in precipitation patterns, ocean dynamics in the tropical Pacific and exceptionally hot temperatures.

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Together, these phenomena have dried up the ground, reduced the flow of waterways and created snow droughts. It has led to a significant decline in surface and groundwater resources, economic losses, disruption of ecosystems and an increased risk of forest fires.

From January 2020 to August 2021, six southwestern states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah) experienced the lowest total precipitation and third highest average daily temperature recorded since 1895. The weather pattern continued into 2022 and prompted the governors of each of the six states to issue drought emergency declarations. The federal government has released a declaration of unprecedented water shortageordering water restrictions along the Colorado River, a major source of water for agriculture and towns in the region.

The frequency and intensity of these droughts, as well as their transverse and composite effects, are should increase as a result of climate change. In response, policy makers and water agencies in the southwest have developed new water management strategies to improve local resilience to drought. At the local level, such efforts are often embedded in a complex inter- and intra-state institutional framework in which surface water supplies (as opposed to groundwater) are governed by “appropriation”. water rights system.

Administered by state-level agencies, the distribution of finite surface water flows is complicated by the diversity of competing stakeholders – social, economic and environmental – intensify discussions in dry period. Local water management decisions can be hampered by state-level water restrictions enacted ad hoc, intergovernmental treaties concerning transboundary water resources, and Environmental regulations.

Despite the challenges imposed by drought and the region’s Byzantine water policy structure, many of the largest and fastest growing cities in the southwest have been able to adapt and adapt. increase their resilience to drought. Water has been conserved through regulatory and incentive programs that aim to increase the installation of water-efficient technologies and transform urban landscapes from water-dependent lawns to drought-tolerant vegetation.

Residents and businesses located in San Diego, California, for example, have access to a variety of programs and services facilitated by the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA). A wholesale water supplier, the SDCWA serves the city as well as 23 other municipalities and water agencies located in San Diego County. The SDCWAs WaterSmart The initiative includes various rebates and educational resources to subsidize a portion of the costs for residents and businesses investing in more water-efficient technologies and landscapes.

In other regions, policymakers have taken a tougher approach to reducing the use of water-intensive lawns. In 2021, amid the region’s most recent drought emergency, Nevada lawmakers passed unprecedented legislation that “non-functional grass” banned in the Las Vegas area.

Efforts to reduce urban water use have been combined with initiatives to increase water supply diversification. The city of Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the United States, depends largely on water pumped across state lines from the Colorado River. However, the city also receives water in the state of Salt and Verde Rivers via the Salt River Projectwhich are generally less constrained than the Colorado River, as well as a small portion of water drawn from local groundwater supplies.

In 2003, SDCWA took an innovative approach to diversifying its water supply through a water transfer agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District, which provides water for irrigation of farmland located in the Imperial Valley of Southern California. The SDCWA has agreed to fund the irrigation improvements for the district and lease the resulting water savings. With financial assistance from the state government, the SDWCA also lined two transfer channels to reduce water loss from seepage.

More recently, the City of San Diego and the SDCWA have also invested in water main monitoring technology to detect and repair leaks in the city’s water distribution system. Finally, in 2015, San Diego County opened the largest desalination plant. The SDCWA has entered into a public-private agreement which will cover approximately 10% of San Diego’s water needs.

Water recycling has also played an increasing role in local efforts to increase water supply diversification. In 2019, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to recycle 100% of the city’s wastewater by 2035. In Las Vegas, the Southern Nevada Water Authority captures and treats 99% of wastewater of indoor use, putting it in Lake Mead, which provides approximately 90% of the Authority’s water supply. The remaining 10% is covered by groundwater reserves. The city of Phoenix efficiently recycles 100% of its wastewaterdelivering it for uses in agriculture, power generation, urban irrigation, groundwater replenishment and maintenance of river ecosystems.

In San Diego, two plants recycle around 8% city ​​wastewater for non-potable uses such as irrigation and manufacturing. And in 2021, the city launched the Pure Water San Diego initiative which includes the construction of two new plants to treat wastewater to meet drinking water standards. The multi-year program aims to supply more than 40% of the city’s local water supply by 2035.

In response to persistent drought conditions in the southwest, cities have undertaken multi-pronged approaches to improve drought resilience. In some of the most arid regions, these efforts have been successful. From 2002 to 2020, water consumption per capita in the SNWA service area decreased by 47%while the region’s population increased by about 52%.

Within the complex structure of Western water policy, long-term collaborative initiatives that span the public and private sectors and various levels of governance have led to this achievement. However, although the short-term outlook is positive, important questions remain regarding long-term sustainability given the expected droughts and their short- and long-term effects on rural communities and the natural environment.


No conflicts of interest have been declared in relation to this article.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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Pierre Fray

Pierre Fray
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