Are drought conditions here to stay for some regions of the country?
By Ed Butts, PE, CPI
Drought. That dreaded seven-letter word has recently had a significant impact on many areas throughout the United States, especially in the West.
A drought is defined by Webster as “a long period of low rainfall.” Using that definition, almost any summer in a western state could be defined as a drought. But for all practical purposes, a drought to us in the water well business is several months or years of less than normal precipitation that results in surface water and groundwater shortages and dry or low-producing wells.
So, to us a drought is really defined as “a period of time that leads to increased work without necessarily more money resulting in more hours away from home.”
The western region of the United States has historically experienced the most frequent and severe droughts, but much of the eastern seaboard and many southern states have also recently participated in the drought cycle. With that, I am updating a column I originally wrote 19 years ago about droughts and their causes and possible solutions.
Given the current situation with climate change and the droughts they sprout, revisiting and updating the column seems appropriate. During my 47-year career, I have seen and worked through six official regional droughts as well as numerous water shortages in my home state of Oregon.
This year, an event not endured in more than 100 years occurred when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that farmers in the Klamath Basin of southern Oregon and northern California will not be receiving any water for irrigation, and water needed for fish spawning will not be released either.
It seems like many states and countries are now experiencing the effects of prolonged droughts to the point we need to begin to ask ourselves if widespread drought will become the new normal? The purpose of updating the 19-year-old column this month is to suggest ways to outline the current situation and find ways to deal with—and survive—not just droughts, but water shortages in general.
While many of the following tips and suggestions will obviously be more applicable and valid for the western states, I sincerely hope readers who work and reside in other regions and countries can benefit also.
Drought and Groundwater
As previously indicated, a drought can mean different things to different people. To those of us in the water well industry, it usually means dry or low-producing wells and failing pumps, while most hydrologists and water scientists view it as low stream flows and decreased surface water supply.
Both parties are obviously correct since a prolonged drought will generally affect both groundwater and surface water supplies to some degree.
The fortunate advantage for groundwater in many areas of the United States is that generally an aquifer can retain at least a marginal volume of stored water, which can provide a continual water supply to most homes during a prolonged shortage, albeit often at decreased yields.
Typically, a surface water supply is totally dependent on local runoff, snowpack melt, and available storage to sustain water supply. And once those are gone or compromised, the water supply to homes and agriculture is usually not far behind.
Therefore, the key to an efficient groundwater supply is to strike a reasonable balance between adequate well depth and construction method, cost, and storage.
Servicing Customers Affected by Drought
A water well contractor drawing upon his or her many years of experience must be cognizant and knowledgeable of the local areas with historically low-producing or dry wells when conversing with new or repeat customers.
They must be ready to risk entirely losing a job by recommending additional well depth or a well screen to ensure the best chance of sustaining water supply to that customer during a prolonged water shortage.
The ultimate service to a customer is performed when a well of acceptable quantity (and fixable quality) is drilled in an area known to produce marginal wells and continues to serve the customer even while neighboring wells are going dry. Providing services such as this to all your customers will pay dividends long after the mast has been lowered and the pump is installed.
Another way to service a customer through droughts is using advanced water locating and surveying techniques. While many drillers have a natural aversion against using any scientific processes, many of the newer technologies such as aerial surveying and seismological locating are known to be helpful in locating hidden groundwater supplies, especially when used by knowledgeable and experienced personnel.
Even though these surveys can be expensive and long-term results can’t be guaranteed, the technology is adequately proven to be of use in areas with questionable or uncertain groundwater resources, especially when planning new commercial, municipal, or industrial wells.
Drought and Climate Change
Climate change is a fairly recent occurrence that increases the odds of worsening drought in many parts of the United States and the world in the decades ahead. Specific regions such as the southwest United States are at particular risk.
There are several ways climate change may contribute to drought. Warmer temperatures can enhance and accelerate evaporation from soil, making periods with low precipitation drier than they would be in cooler conditions.
Droughts can persist through positive feedback, where dry soils and diminished plant cover can further suppress rainfall in an already dry area. A changing climate can also alter the flow of so-called atmospheric rivers, which can especially disrupt normal precipitation patterns in the western United States. A combination of shifting atmospheric rivers and warmer temperatures can also affect snowpack and the resulting melt and runoff, potentially decimating the downriver water supply.
Estimates of future changes in seasonal or annual precipitation in a particular location are less certain than estimates of future warming. However, at the global scale, scientists are confident that relatively wet places such as the tropics and higher latitudes will get wetter, while relatively dry places in the subtropics will likely become drier.
Recent U.S. droughts have been the most expansive in decades. In 2011, Texas experienced its driest 12 months ever. At the peak of the 2012 drought, an astounding 81% of the contiguous United States was under at least abnormally dry conditions. California experienced a particularly long drought extending from December 2011 to March 2019. The recent wildfires experienced in the western states of California, Oregon, and Washington are proof that climate-related changes are impacting our normal precipitation patterns.
Additional Threats Posed by Drought
The United States is historically susceptible to drought. Studies show major droughts in the distant past, while some in later periods such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s or the drought of the 1950s are memories for some people. These historic examples serve as guideposts to highlight our vulnerabilities to drought as we move into a warmer, and in some places, drier future.
Besides declining water supply, severe drought can also affect:
- Agriculture: Droughts affect livestock and crops that include established commodities such as corn, soybeans, and wheat. At the height of the 2012 drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared a natural disaster in more than 2245 counties, equal to 71% of the United States. Such results not only impact food production in the United States but compromise the available products for exports to countries in dire need.
- Fish and Wildlife: Drought can severely affect water sources for fish and wildlife and plant communities. Wildlife must compete for the available sustenance from plants and grasslands compromised from inadequate precipitation.
Extreme drought causes the rivers to be too warm and low for new salmon to survive. To promote spawning, river levels for Coho and Chinook salmon must be maintained to a depth of at least 2 feet. In California, they are now trucking about 670,000 young salmon called smolt from their hatchery around the Sacramento River and releasing them into the sea from the San Francisco Bay.
- Transportation: Droughts can affect water levels on rivers of commerce like the Mississippi. Transport barges need at least 9 feet of water, and to maintain this level, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to conduct significant dredging and blasting on a key stretch of the Mississippi River in 2013.
Also, drought and sustained heat can buckle and distort asphalt roads. As an example, a 2011 drought in Texas caused $26 million alone in pavement distress.
- Wildfires: Drought conditions and record heat have fueled damaging and sometimes deadly wildfires in the western United States. Millions of forested acres have been lost over the past decade due to fires propagating and thriving in dry forests in addition to the thousands of homes lost due to the proximity of communities to fire-prone forests. For example, many of the homes located in the Santiam Canyon of Oregon were burned to the ground during the wildfires in September 2020.
- Energy: Droughts can raise concerns about the reliability of electricity production from generating plants that need cooling water to maintain safe operations. Hydroelectric-generated power may also become unavailable during droughts due to inadequate flow through turbines from low pool levels. When severe heat waves coincide with droughts, electricity demands can grow from the increased use of air conditioning, compounding stress on the grid.
Although droughts can affect all regions of the United States, there is no single region more presently impacted than the western United States. California Governor Gavin Newsom issued on May 10 an expanded “drought emergency proclamation” for 41 of the state’s 58 counties, citing above-average temperatures and dry conditions during April and May. The declaration gives the state flexibility in regulatory requirements to mitigate drought impacts, which Newsom attributed in part to global climate change.
The U.S. Drought Monitor for the week of May 11, 2021, shown in Figure 1 saw deterioration in drought-related conditions on the map across areas of the West including California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Montana. Moving into the dry season, California was expecting drought impacts to intensify during the summer months as snowpack runoff was forecasted to be below normal and reservoir storage levels at the state’s two largest reservoirs (Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville) were at 48% and 41% of average, respectively.
In response to the deteriorating conditions, Newsom expanded the coverage of his recent drought emergency declaration to include an additional 39 counties statewide. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, Lake Powell is currently 35% full and Lake Mead is 38% full, with the total Lower Colorado system at 43% full as of May 10, 2021. This is compared to 52% full at the same time last year.
In New Mexico, the state’s largest reservoir along the Rio Grande is currently just 12% full. In Arizona, the Salt River Project is reporting the Salt River system reservoirs at 79% full, the Verde River system at 32% full, and the total reservoir system at 73% full (compared to 98% a year ago).
In the High Plains, portions of eastern Colorado and Wyoming saw improvement in drought conditions in response to recent rainfall events and improvement in soil moisture levels. In the Midwest and Northeast, beneficial rainfall during the period between May 1-11 helped reduce areas of drought on the map. In the South and Southeast, heavy rainfall impacted portions of the region during March and April, leading to reductions in areas of drought in response to improved soil moisture and streamflow levels.
The projected effect on water supplies through the year 2050 due to climate change is dire and is seen in Figure 2. The map on the left indicates the projected impact without climate change while the map on the right projects the changes in water supply from the effects of climate changes.
Drought Mitigation Methods
When reducing demand is not enough, communities can consider additional sources of water. Those of us in the water well industry can assist in this effort by leading the way and encouraging newer technologies such as aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) and water reuse.
By diversifying water supply and identifying alternative water sources for emergencies, communities can improve their resilience to drought. This can include other approaches like building pipelines to existing water supplies, enlarging or adding reservoirs to increase storage, drilling or acquiring groundwater wells, and establishing emergency interconnections with nearby water or power utilities.
ASR can be used to store surface water supplies in aquifers for later use during drought or low-water storage periods and is an effective way to help balance water resources. Water reuse and desalination have been included in drought or water management plans for some cities for the coming decades and are already being implemented in select cities. Possible strategies for drought mitigation along with the potential benefits are shown in Figure 3.
The key to all situations we encounter in our business is to recognize them as a potential source of new customers and business rather than something to avoid or ignore. Good design, making sure your customers know the limitations of their water system, and proper consideration and planning for all conceivable situations will not only produce a satisfied customer but will likely lead to further business as your happy customer shares their drought success story with friends and neighbors.
Until next month, work safe and smart.
Ed Butts, PE, CPI, is the chief engineer at 4B Engineering & Consulting, Salem, Oregon. He has more than 40 years of experience in the water well business, specializing in engineering and business management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.