Drought

Rural Tulare County, Calif., is now being called the epicenter of this drought.

That's because at least 1,300 residential wells have run dry, affecting at least 7,000 people. When your taps start spitting out air here, Paul Boyer and his team are who you call.

Under a punishing midafternoon sun, Boyer helps muscle down five of these hefty 400-pound water tanks from a semi-truck flatbed. He helps run a local nonprofit that's in charge of distributing these 2,500-gallon water tanks to drought victims.

In 1922, seven Western states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming and California — drew up an agreement on how to divide the waters of the Colorado River. But there was one big problem with the plan: They overestimated how much water the river could provide.

As a result, each state was promised more water than actually exists. This miscalculation — and the subsequent mismanagement of water resources in those states — has created a water crisis that now affects nearly 40 million Americans.

For some people, too much salt is bad for health. Too much salt is also bad for growing most crops.

Salty soil is a common problem for farmers in the arid West and it's gotten worse because of the ongoing drought. Water is necessary to flush salts out; without it, salt builds up over time.

In New Mexico, one crop that's suffering is the state's beloved chile pepper.

Rudy Mussi is not the California farmer you've been hearing about. He is not fallowing all his fields or ripping up his orchards due to a lack irrigation water.

For Mussi and most of his neighbors in the bucolic Sacramento Delta, the water is still flowing reliably from the pumps and into the canals lining the fields.

"If you had to pick a place where you would say, 'Okay, where should I stick my farm?' You'd come to the Delta," he says.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the 19th century, before Americans fully settled the West, some called it the Great American Desert. It wasn't considered fertile enough to develop.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The historic four-year drought in California has been grabbing the headlines lately, but there's a much bigger problem facing the West: the now 14-year drought gripping the Colorado River basin.

One of the most stunning places to see its impact is at the nation's largest reservoir, Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. At about 40 percent of capacity, it's the lowest it's been since it was built in the 1930s.

California is parched. Wells are running dry. Vegetable fields have been left fallow and lawns are dying. There must be some villain behind all this, right?

Of course there is. In fact, have your pick. As a public service, The Salt is bringing you several of the leading candidates. They have been nominated by widely respected national publications and interest groups.

There's just one problem: Not all of these shady characters live up to their nefarious job description. Let us explain.

1. Almonds

The water outlook in drought-racked California just got a lot worse: Snowpack levels across the entire Sierra Nevada are now the lowest in recorded history — just 6 percent of the long-term average. That shatters the previous low record on this date of 25 percent, set in 1977 and again last year.

The message from park rangers, amateur metal detectors and regular fisherman at California's Lake Perris is unanimous: The water is lower than they've ever seen it.

Just when we thought craft beer couldn't get any zanier, we learn that Oregonians want to make it with treated wastewater.

Clean Water Services of Hillsboro says it has an advanced treatment process that can turn sewage into drinking water. The company, which runs four wastewater treatment plants in the Portland metro area, wants to show off its "high-purity" system by turning recycled wastewater into beer.

Ask Northern California sheep rancher Dan Macon what this drought is doing to his pocketbook and he'll break it down for you real quick.

"It's like if you woke up one morning and lost 40 percent of the equity in your house," he says. "Our primary investment in our ranch is in these sheep and we just sold 40 percent of our stock."

The past few years have been California's driest on record. Forecasters predict that punishing droughts like the current one could become the new norm.

The state uses water rationing and a 90-year-old water distribution system to cope until the rains come. The system is a huge network of dams, canals and pipes that move water from the places it rains and snows to places it typically doesn't, like farms and cities.

Imagine flushing the toilet and watching sand come up. That's what happened to Pam Vieira, who lives south of Modesto, Calif. Her water well has slowed to a trickle, and you can see the sand in the tank of her toilet.

"Sometimes we have brown water," Vieira says. "Sometimes we have no water."

Vieira is one of as many as 2 million rural California residents who rely on private domestic wells for drinking water.

Some of those people are among the hardest hit by the state's severe drought, as wells across the state's Central Valley farm belt start to go dry.

California's historic drought is partly to blame for the recent rise in West Nile virus infections, public health officials say. There have been 311 cases reported so far, double the number of the same time last year, and the most of any state in the country.

West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes. They contract the virus when they feed on infected birds, then spread it to the birds they bite next. A shortage of water can accelerate this cycle.

Much of the American West is suffering from extreme drought this year. California is running out of water and wildfires have raged through Washington, Oregon and Idaho. But there is a bright spot out West — or, rather, a green spot. In New Mexico, unusually heavy late-summer rains have transformed the landscape.

It's a remarkable sight. The high desert is normally the color of baked pie crust; now, it's emerald.

Kirt Kempter, a geologist who lives in Santa Fe, says this transformation is far from ordinary.

The drought-stricken Colorado River Basin is drying up faster than was thought, according to a recent study. 

NASA and the University of California, Irvine used satellite data gathered over a nine year period to track changes in the mass of the Colorado River Basin that has been experiencing severe drought since 2000.    

The scientists looked at monthly measurements between December 2004 and November 2013. They found the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet of freshwater, that's nearly double the volume of Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, during that period. The study said about 41 million acre feet of that lost water was groundwater.  

The basin provides water to millions of people in seven Western states: Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. It also supplies water to roughly four million acres of farmland. 

Headlines

  • Head of Oil and Gas Commission Praises Industry's Response to Flooding
  • State Department of Agriculture Still Investigating Case of Stolen Monkey
  • Drought Prompts Study of Gold-Medal Fishery Near Basalt
  • Delta County Residents to Vote on Ending More Term Limits
  • US Rep. Cory Gardner Criticizes "Brobamacare" Ads
Marci Krivonen/Aspen Public Radio

This Fall, a local river conservation group is keeping a close eye on the Fryingpan River. This follows last year's drought that brought the levels on the river down. 

Connecting the Drops: "Buy and Dry"

Oct 18, 2013
Maeve Conran

Water has always been a source of conflict in the arid West, but in recent years the conflict between agriculture and growing cities has escalated as both entities compete for this limited resource.

Travis Bubenik/KVNF

For this week's iSeeChange report, we looked into the recent flurry of rain and some snow, and what, if anything, it might tell us about the coming winter.

Headlines:

  • “Significant” Marijuana Patch Discovered in White River National Forest
  • House Passes Tipton-Led Bill to Increase Logging Activity, Prevent Wildfires
  • Class-Action Suit says Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is Unconstitutional
  • Vice President Biden to Visit Colorado, View Flood Damage
  • Hickenlooper: State Will Help Pay for Flood Recovery
  • Western Slope Water Storage at Normal Levels, Despite Floods
  • NFL Says Von Miller Tried to Cheat Drug Test
Tee Poole via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

In late July, a massive dust storm in the Saharan Desert of Africa moved across the Atlantic, making for an interesting start to the hurricane season, or you could say a boring one.

Sadie Miller/KVNF

Last week the Almanac saw a lot of talk about mushrooms – Steve Smith said they seem to be popping up in larger numbers than usual – Marilyn Stone wondered what factors affect mushroom numbers – and Amber Kleinman asked whether it’s possible to grow puffballs in a yard. 

Patty Kaech-Feder

Though we’re barely a week into August, some signs of fall have started to appear in western Colorado.

Maeve Conran

In early July, Colorado designated 14 counties "primary natural disaster areas" due to agricultural losses caused by the recent and ongoing drought.  Several of those counties are in the San Luis Valley in south central Colorado.  Farmers there are now eligible for low interest emergency loans, but as KGNU’s Maeve Conran reports, that may not be enough for this agricultural hub, which is facing a long term water crisis that could permanently affect the entire valley.  

Headlines:

  • Climber Found Dead at Capitol Peak
  • Mountain Village May Soon Require Recycling at Construction Sites
  • Colorado State Troopers Begin Special Training This Week
  • Colorado Lottery Criticized for Awarding Contract to Overseas Company
  • Former Ouray Mayor Pam Larsen to Fill City Councilor Vacancy
  • Colorado’s Drought Fueling More Water Disputes

Headlines:

  • Rains Help Slow West Fork Fire; Holding at 110,000 Acres
  • Hay Prices and Horse Owners Affected by Severe Drought
  • New Laws Aimed at Protecting Pregnant Women Take Effect
  • Century Old Cemetery Uncovered at School Construction Site
  • North Fork Mosquito Abatement District Releases West Nile Update
  • Western Slope Skies – Summer Skies Mean a Bright Milky Way

Headlines:

  • Randy Udall Found in Wyoming, Deceased
  • Body Discovered Tuesday at Colorado National Monument Ruled a Homicide
  • 38 Drought-stricken Colorado Counties Declared Drought Disaster
  • Gov Appoints Panel to Help Implement State’s New Renewable Energy Law
  • State Recall Elections Good to Go
  • What’s Cherry Days Without a Carnival

Headlines:

  • The Worst Hot and Dry in Decades
  • West Fork Fire Complex Grows to Over 96,000 acres
  • iSeeChange: Do Warmer Temperatures Equal Earlier Sunflowers?
  • Annual Fairview School Reunion Meets over the weekend at Pleasure Park
  • New Colorado Gun Regulations Take Affect

Headlines:

  • DMEA annual meeting: Marston loses to Lund, Prendergast wins
  • Fracking plus drought equals no water for farmers across western states
  • Telluride restricts water usage
  • Wildfire Update
  • iSeeChange: The Colorado River Conservation District’s Dave Kanzer talks about the effects of climate change on the Colorado River

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