It’s your drought—what are you going to do with it?

Bruce Florquist
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, “Do not muddy the water around us, we may have to drink it soon.” 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 “The Grapes of Wrath” 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 Denver’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 Denver’s Cheesman Reservoir, which is one of the oldest and most pristine reservoirs in the City’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 town’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 year’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:

  • Know your legal rights. Whether you fall under the doctrine of prior appropriation, a riparian water system, or use groundwater, it is critical to understand your rights and understand what you can do to protect or increase your water supply. Talk to your state control agency. If you have signed water compacts or agreements, review them and understand all conditions.

  • Understand your system. Talk to your operators. Go over every detail of supply, storage, daily use, and peak use and then prepare a plan to use your supply prudently.

  • Explore cooperative or consolidation efforts with other water users. Don’t ignore the possibility of working with industry or agriculture as well as other water systems.

  • Consider conservation techniques. Review irrigation schedules. If you do not have a turf grass specialist and/or arborist on board, contract with one to review your system and grass species to determine what their drought tolerance levels are.

  • Consider alternative water sources. Can your wastewater be used to irrigate sports fields, golf courses and parks?

  • Understand the water chemistry of your system. What will work for you? Are there any conflicts between different water sources?

  • Review the Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) for your water supply. Compliance may be difficult with low quality water.

  • Set an example. A municipality cannot expect its citizens to accept restrictions if the municipality is pouring millions of gallons of water on parks and public green areas.

  • Public education is critical. Most people will gladly help if they understand the problem.

  • Consider additional storage. Look at every possibility from underground water banking to new raw water reservoirs. Consider the possibility of buying storage rights in existing reservoirs.

  • Consider buying or leasing additional water rights or allocations. There may be some in your area that are not fully utilized.

  • Consider a program to install low-flow fixtures throughout your community.
Very few dams and reservoirs have been built in the last 30 years because of environmental concerns. There is evidence that that trend may be reversing. Many states, as well as communities, are looking into building additional reservoirs where the water can be stored during low demand periods and used later in the summer or even years later. Development of these kinds of projects can take years and will not likely help anyone this coming summer. They are long-term solutions to long-term problems.

Climatologists tell us that recovery from this drought will take years even if normal precipitation returns. There is a large “water debt” 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 “effectively zero.”

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 APWA’s Water Resources Management Committee, and a member of EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council. He can be reached at (307) 328-4599 or at pbworks@rawlins-wyoming.com.