Aerial views of drought-affected Colorado farm lands 83 miles east of Denver on July 21, 2012. Green areas are irrigated, the yellow areas are dryland wheat crops. (Lance Cheung/USDA/Public Domain Mark 1.0)
Amid droughts in Colorado and across the West, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bipartisan letter to President Joe Biden, urging him to declare a Federal Emergency Management Agency drought disaster for states experiencing droughts. If declared, the FEMA drought disaster would provide additional federal resources to the states impacted.
Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho have reached historic drought conditions, according to an Aug. 16 press release from state officials. The press release states that 99% of the West is in a declared drought, compared to 63% last year.
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The letter, which was also signed by the governors of North Dakota, Washington, Utah, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico, states, “Without substantial assistance, rural economies in our states that rely heavily on agriculture and natural resources will take years to recover from the effects of this devastating drought.”
“We continue to do what is within our power, including working with our state legislatures and local governments to mitigate the immediate impacts of the drought, but the situation is now beyond our capacity as states or a region to manage without additional federal assistance,” the letter states.
About 20% of Colorado is experiencing extreme drought conditions, the fourth level of a five-level scale on the drought monitor, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System website. Twenty-eight percent of Colorado is at the third level, severe drought, as of Aug. 10. Possible impacts on areas experiencing extreme drought conditions are widespread water shortages and major crop or pasture losses, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Areas experiencing severe drought conditions may have water restrictions imposed, and crop or pasture losses become likely.
Drought conditions in the West have persisted for about two decades and are largely driven by human-caused climate change. A drying, warming climate has also contributed to increasingly intense wildfires in Colorado.
The letter comes at a time when the first-ever water shortage in the Colorado River basin has officially been declared, according to an Aug. 16 press release from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “Given ongoing historic drought and low runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin, downstream releases from Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam will be reduced in 2022 due to declining reservoir levels. In the Lower Basin the reductions represent the first ‘shortage’ declaration — demonstrating the severity of the drought and low reservoir conditions,” the press release states.
The declaration is a result of a 24-month study, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, that predicts that water levels in Lake Mead will decrease significantly. The lake is at the border of Nevada and Arizona. The Colorado River is the primary water source for more than 40 million people.
#NewsRelease: Based on projections in the Aug 24-Month Study released today, Lake Powell will operate in the Mid-Elevation Release Tier in water year 2022 and Lake Mead will operate in its first-ever Level 1 Shortage Condition in calendar year 2022: https://t.co/HGCQvvIw6d
— Bureau of Reclamation (@usbr) August 16, 2021
The water shortage declaration will mostly affect Arizona farmers for now, as starting next year, Arizona farmers will not have as much water access as they have had previously, according to a The New York Times report. However, it is possible that more people will feel the impact of this water shortage in coming years. “But larger cuts, affecting far more of the 40 million people in the West who rely on the river for at least part of their water supply, are likely in coming years as a warming climate continues to reduce how much water flows into the Colorado from rain and melting snow,” the Times reports.
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