Public Works Director
City of Rawlins, Wyoming
Member, APWA Water Resources Management Committee
In 1958, the Kingston Trio released an album with a song that contained the admonition, â€œDo not muddy the water around us, we may have to drink it soon.â€ That simple caution from a 45-year-old song has had more meaning this past year than the Trio could have imagined. Many communities, municipal water supplies, water systems and even citizens on private wells can relate to the phrase. Much of the United States has experienced one of the worst droughts on record.
When one thinks of a drought, scenes from â€œThe Grapes of Wrathâ€ or some B-Western come to mind, but this last year was far too real for many people. The effect of such drought is far reaching. Industries scrambled to have enough process water. Many community water systems become very creative in conserving and using alternate sources of supply. Denver, which is known for its abundant and high-quality water supply, was hit with a double whammy. Severe water restrictions were put into place late in the summer, but to complicate matters, the drought dried out the forest in the mountains, which harbor most of Denverâ€™s water supplies. These dry forests burst into raging infernos and destroyed over 100,000 acres of forest. One such area that was devastated surrounds Denverâ€™s Cheesman Reservoir, which is one of the oldest and most pristine reservoirs in the Cityâ€™s vast water supply system. Trees and undergrowth were destroyed, and when the rains finally came, ash and mud were washed into the reservoir. Citizens complained that the water had a very disagreeable smoky taste. To try to help the situation, the City virtually drained Tarryall Reservoir, which lies upstream from Cheesman and was not subject to fires. The resulting draining, however, severely damaged one of the best high-country fisheries in the state.
The Washington Post, in an article published November 8, 2002, reported that the Commonwealth of Virginia had created a $1.5 million dollar program to help low-income residents whose wells have gone dry. The Virginia Dry Well Replacement Program is expected to distribute an additional $1 million from a Community Development Block Grant in 2003.
In an interview with Saeid Kasraei, Program Director for the Maryland Department of Environment Water Supply Program, the writer was shown graphs depicting the severity of the drought in that state. Both groundwater levels and precipitation were at an all-time low.
The tiny town of Baggs, Wyoming, which sets just north of the Colorado-Wyoming border, saw the Little Snake River drop so low that the townâ€™s river intake system was left high and dry. Only emergency action by state and local officials with help from a local rancher precluded a summer of hauled water for the community. The college town of Laramie, Wyoming saw a similar fate with its surface water system; without overdrawing backup groundwater wells, the town would have been in serious trouble.
In times of crisis such as this, people can become very inventive. In the west, water systems were known to buy hay for ranchers who held senior water rights in exchange for those ranchers not using water from the same basin for irrigation of hay crops. Other communities paid cash sums to ditch companies to curtail water use. Many communities looked into using wastewater for irrigation purposes. Others, faced with no choices, simply placed severe restrictions on water use.
Community water systems are not the only facilities that are affected by a drought. In most instances, agriculture gets most of the attention and aid when there is a drought; however, a prolonged drought is more pervasive. Areas that rely on hunting, fishing and tourism may see long-term damage to their economy. Sage grouse chicks need wet areas with numerous insects to thrive. If those wet areas are dried, the chicks may be underdeveloped or starve, and the entire population takes a hit for many years. Pronghorn antelope tend to live on high desert lands in the west; however, they too need water and forage. A drought reduces the amount of available forage and forces antelope to go farther than usual for water. This means they leave the fawns alone for longer periods of time, which increases the exposure to predation. Poor forage means lower milk production, which translates to slow growth rates in fawns, and they may not survive their first year. Many other large game animals as well as cattle and horses face similar problems.
Last year, many western ranchers, who depend on grazing their cattle on leased federal lands, were restricted in the amount of time (if any) that they could graze their herds on public lands. This means they had to either feed them or sell them at market before they were ready. In either case, this can be an enormous economic blow that some ranchers cannot weather.
Many experts caution that last yearâ€™s drought is not over and may continue for years. This means that communities that are affected by droughts need to make plans for that possibility. In many cases, if those plans are not already in place, it is probably too late for the subsequent year. Some actions that can be taken include:
Climatologists tell us that recovery from this drought will take years even if normal precipitation returns. There is a large â€œwater debtâ€ that nature demands. Soil moisture must be replaced before water can reach a water table. Similarly, on river systems, bank storage demands a huge amount of water before the flow in the stream is increased. It must be remembered that the water flowing in the stream is hydraulically connected to the water in the alluvial aquifer of that stream. To raise the water level in the stream, that alluvial aquifer must be charged also. Jan Curtis, Wyoming State Climatologist, predicts that winter snow pack would have to be 160 percent of normal to overcome the current deficit in the state. He further predicts that the chances of that happening are â€œeffectively zero.â€
No one really knows how long this drought will last and, even after it ends, there will be others in the future. Planning and action now may be a saving grace in the future.
Bruce Florquist is the Public Works Director in Rawlins, Wyoming, a member of APWAâ€™s Water Resources Management Committee, and a member of EPAâ€™s National Drinking Water Advisory Council. He can be reached at (307) 328-4599 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.