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In a water-scarce West of the future, who will be hit hardest?

In a hotter, drier West, who, besides fish, will be most harmed? James Marvin Phelps/flickr, CC BY-NC

In a water-scarce West of the future, who will be hit hardest?

This article is part of The Conversation’s series on drought. You can read the rest of the series here.

Despite recent flooding in Colorado and Texas, the multi-year California drought has brought water scarcity to the forefront of conversation throughout the West.

There has been lots of debate in the media and in scientific circles about whether this drought is a preview of a “new normal” for western water. Regardless of the impact from climate change on water availability in the arid western US, population growth will compound the effects of any future drought. That means policymakers, scientists and citizens need to think critically and preemptively about the potential impacts of drought.

At a conference held at the University of California (UC) Davis earlier this year, experts from the fields of water policy, climate science, history and hydrology convened to consider the prospect of a drier future in the West. Aside from the science and policy, one of the main questions asked was: who will be affected first when taps dry up? And if water authorities need to turn off the tap, how will they decide where and when?

No simple answers

Ironically, it was raining on the day of the conference. Speakers included Pat Mulroy, former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority; John Laird, California Secretary for Natural Resources; and Frances Malamud-Roam, coauthor of The West Without Water.

We asked experts a question that’s immediately relevant to the lives of citizens west of the 100th meridian, namely: which sectors or groups will be affected most if our future is characterized by less water?

The responses were surprisingly diverse, hinting at how complex the sociopolitical implications of a serious drought in the West are. While the impact on people was the main focus of the discussion, several experts reminded us that there are other, more vulnerable populations to consider:

It’s the native fish and the fisherman who will be among the most affected because the development of water in California has already created essentially a perpetual drought for native fish. – Peter Moyle, distinguished professor of wildlife, fish & conservation biology at UC Davis

Similarly, Malamud-Roam, associate environmental planner & biologist at state transportation authority CalTrans, focused on marine life when asked which group will be affected most. “First will be many of the species… fish obviously, and then any other ecosystems that depend on freshwater supplies,” she said.

Cattle and sheep ranchers are more susceptible to prolonged drought since they don’t draw on groundwater as many farmers are doing. US Department of Agriculture, CC BY

Many speakers acknowledged that socioeconomic status will play the largest role in determining who ends up with less water:

It would break down economically. When water is cheap everybody gets it and nobody has to pay, but as soon as water becomes scarce and more expensive, then all of a sudden we have no mechanisms to provide for those who can’t [pay]. – Reed Maxwell, director of the Integrated Groundwater Modeling Center and professor of hydrology at the Colorado School of Mines

The need to prepare financial support mechanisms for susceptible groups is one of the biggest reasons this conversation needs to begin sooner rather than later. Several economists and geographers zeroed in on this issue. Surprisingly, there was little agreement among them on which of these groups are the most vulnerable, indicating that it is still uncertain where any available money for support should be allocated.

David Sunding, professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley, said farm workers, in particular, should receive funds, while Richard Howitt, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis, named poor urban residents.

Others focused on which industries will be hurt the most:

Communities that don’t have stored water… anybody who’s relying on the water that falls to the land [and] is not pumping groundwater… so cattle and sheep ranchers. – Ken Tate, Russell L Rustici endowed chair in rangeland watershed sciences at UC Davis

The key groups are those sitting on the worst land… it’s not the people who lose out, it’s the housing developers. - Richard Walker, professor emeritus of geography, UC Berkeley

Tough decisions

These answers highlight disparities in the way experts see the problem of water scarcity playing out. Despite these differences, some consensus emerged as well. Almost half of the interviewees agreed this was not a small problem relevant to a specific sector, but a regional issue for all water users in the western United States. “There are no winners, so everybody loses,” said Louis Warren, professor of western US history at UC Davis.

Others noted that all sectors of the economy and populace will be affected in some way. “I think everybody would have significant changes… it’s hard to weigh what’s more important about a different sector because every sector will have to take some kind of cut [in water consumption] over time,” said Laird, the California secretary for natural resources.

Patchy snow: even in January, the snowpack that serves California, like elsewhere in the West, was historically low. Max Whittaker/Reuters

Daniel Swain, a doctoral candidate at Stanford University credited with coining the term Ridiculously Resilient Ridge for the persistent weather pattern that’s dominated the West’s weather this year, noted that everyone’s water will be affected by climate change. That’s particularly true in the West because snow provides an important water reservoir for many users.

If you’re in a big coastal city, your water is probably coming from Sierra Nevada snowmelt or from the Colorado River, which is mostly snowmelt from somewhere else in the American West. If you’re a farmer or a big corporation, that water is coming pretty much from snowmelt directly. No matter who you are, the water is coming from somewhere that is highly sensitive to what’s going on in the climate system.

Looking ahead

It is important for every discipline – whether it be climate science, hydrology, economics or water policy – to consider the social implications of its work. Finding consensus about the impacts of water scarcity provides a framework to inform policy on tough decisions about turning off the tap. Understanding and anticipating affected communities is pivotal to preparing robust solutions for future droughts.

The climate change impacts on water availability are still being debated. As scientists attempt to understand what the future holds, some attention should be focused on anticipating vulnerabilities in our environment and communities.

It is not enough to try to predict when and where a drought may come. Every field needs to be prepared to contribute its knowledge toward providing solutions to communities in the West. To use the words of Mulroy, former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and now senior fellow at the Brookings Institution:

If you have any kind of reliance on water, everybody is going to have to become a part of the solution and it’s not going to spare anybody.