Western Drought

Contact: Reclamation Public Affairs

The impacts of drought are far reaching and can exacerbate tensions over already scarce water resources, increase the risk of devastating fires, and further challenge the resources of States, Tribes, and local governments, with potentially devastating effects on small communities across the West.

Prolonged drought has affected major U.S. river basins in many western states including the Colorado River Basin. The period 2000 through 2017 was the driest 18-year period in more than 100 years of record-keeping in the Colorado River Basin. The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people, including at least 22 Federally recognized tribes, for municipal use and irrigation in seven states and Mexico.

Rain and snow events in 2016-17 were tremendously helpful in areas ravaged by drought, particularly in California. While several reservoirs filled last year, snowpack in the Sierra and Rockies is substantially below normal for this time of year. A few wet years alone will not alleviate the impacts from the multi-year drought. Groundwater must be replenished and the hydrologic system as a whole will need time to recover. As one of the Nation's primary suppliers and protectors of water, Reclamation needs to continue to plan and prepare for the next, perhaps more intense drought and its successors, even as we are guardedly optimistic about this water year due to improved reservoir levels entering the water year -- with the Colorado River system being an exception.

Recognizing the severity of the situation in the West, the Department of the Interior, working with partners, has taken a number of steps to address the issue.

In California, the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce are continuing their work with the State to accelerate water transfers and exchanges, provide operational flexibility to store and convey water, expedite environmental review and compliance actions, and pursue new or fast-track existing projects that might help stretch California's water supplies. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is providing California managers and residents with timely and meaningful data to help decision making and planning for the State's water resources as the drought affects streamflow across the State, which leads to reduced reservoir replenishment as well as groundwater depletion.

Aquatic ecosystems have also been impacted by the drought. The prolonged drought in the California's Central Valley has impacted various aquatic species to include the Federally listed Winter-run Chinook Salmon, Spring- run Chinook Salmon and the Delta Smelt. Drought conditions have affected the amount of habitat available for these species, water temperatures, flow patterns, and even promoted the increase in harmful algae blooms and invasive species. During the drought Reclamation, in close coordination with National Marine Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State and other organizations, significantly increased the amount and frequency of the various monitoring programs to help track the status of the species during the drought and to better inform management decisions to minimize the drought effects on the species while providing needed water to the communities in the Central Valley.

The Open Water Data Initiative is an example of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Reclamation efforts to open up government data to fuel entrepreneurship, drive innovation, and foster scientific discovery by making Reclamation and USGS water and related data better managed, more comparable across locations, and more accessible. Through this initiative, Reclamation has begun the process to make its data available under the open data format through the Reclamation Water Information System and other open data projects initially focusing efforts on California and the Colorado River Basin. Reclamation's goal is to extend this program by continuing to partner with USGS and other agencies to aggregate disparate Federal, State, Local, and tribal government water data throughout the western U.S. into one, centrally located, publicly accessible, web-based portal. Reclamation will also apply already-developed decision support tools that graphically display these data to help individuals understand the effect of drought on rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs. All data will be open, public, and machine-readable, and all software and tools will be open-source, and available for re-use.

In the Colorado River Basin, Reclamation is working with the seven Basin States, water agencies, tribes, and Mexico to craft new strategies to ensure critical infrastructure, such as Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams, continue to operate as intended and assist power customers and agricultural and municipal users to address current and future water challenges. A key goal of these multi-party discussions is to identify voluntary actions to protect critical reservoir elevations in Lakes Powell and Mead should drought conditions continue and worsen. These voluntary drought response activities, as described below, are in addition to actions and shortage volumes that would be taken under the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. These activities include a basin-wide pilot program for system conservation of Colorado River water in Lake Powell and Lake Mead; a Lower Basin Memorandum of Understanding for Pilot Drought Response Actions, dated December 10, 2014; Minute No. 323, a successor minute to Minute No. 319 to the 1944 U.S. - Mexico Water Treaty; and ongoing engagement with Colorado River Basin water users and stakeholders to develop long-term Drought Contingency Plans in the Upper and Lower Basins.

These drought response activities emphasize the significance of proactively working with non-Federal partners in exploring approaches to lessen the impacts of the current drought in the Colorado River Basin by putting in place a suite of proactive, voluntary measures that will reduce the risk of reaching critical reservoir levels. The Pilot System Conservation Program has provided a new tool to help boost, in the short-term, the declining reservoir levels at Lakes Powell and Mead, helping to protect the health of the entire river system. Longer-term agreements, such as the Upper and Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plans, Minute 323, and other complementary efforts such as the Lower Basin Drought MOU, are designed to proactively address hydrologic challenges, reduce the risk and severity of shortage conditions impacting a wide-spectrum of water users, maintain and improve environmental conditions in the basin, and maintain significant hydropower production and associated financial support for critical environmental programs over the next 9 years.

Reclamation has reformulated its existing Drought Program to improve our ability to assist States, Tribes, and local governments to prepare for and address drought in advance of a crisis. Reclamation began implementation of the new Drought Response Program in FY 2015 and will continue this effort in FY 2019. Through the Drought Response Program, Reclamation partners with States, Tribes and local governments, on a competitive basis, to: (1) develop and update drought contingency plans that include collaboration by stakeholders from different sectors; (2) implement projects that will build long-term resiliency to drought; and (3) implement emergency response actions. These comprehensive drought plans and implementation actions will help Reclamation and our stakeholders avoid drought-related crises in the short term, while laying a foundation for drought resiliency in the long term.

Updated: Feb. 13, 2018