Busting the Hydro-illogical Cycle: Local Leaders Paving the Way, Federal Leaders Must Follow

By Ann Mills, Senior Fellow, GW Food Institute

Headlines in the West are announcing “phenomenal” snow pack in the California Sierras, a “brimming” Lake Tahoe in Nevada, and record precipitation erasing drought.

Look beneath the headlines however and experts insist that a single good year can’t erase a multi-year drought. In Oregon, many western reservoirs remain below average for this time of year.  During its historic drought, California depleted its groundwater reserves — freshwater   “savings accounts.” It will take as much as 10 years of plentiful rain to restore them. Meanwhile, land is sinking in some parts of the Central Valley as much as 1 foot per year, and seawater is encroaching into coastal aquifers.

History suggests – and this consistently relevant 1990 cartoon illustrates – it’s all too easy to take our eye off the ball when drought eases.  Re-designing how we manage water resources to meet the needs of agriculture, municipalities, power producers, businesses and ecosystems in the face of population growth and climate change is grinding, contentious work. There are important but distinct roles for local and federal leaders.  It takes vision and grit for all parties, especially through the wet years, to stick with drought planning.

© National Drought Mitigation Center

There is a region in south central Washington State where local leaders have gotten it right.  I got to know these leaders during my tenure at the US Department of Agriculture and saw firsthand how they built a coalition and path forward.

Their home is the agriculturally rich Yakima Valley, which lies 150 miles east of Seattle, just over the Cascade Range. They share the valley with 360,000 others and enjoy a population growth ranging from 7.9% to 22.7% in largely rural counties.  Their agricultural, forestry and outdoor recreation-based economy is highly dependent on water that flows from mountain snowpack.  Dry but fertile soils support a $2 billion agricultural sector that produces apples, peaches, cherries, pears, and wine grapes; dairy; and almost 80% of the hops grown in the United States. Tourism and recreation on waterways and public lands is growing.  The Yakima River, a tributary of the Columbia River, supports salmon and steelhead fisheries critical to the economy and heritage of the Yakama Nation, whose people have lived in the valley for thousands of years.  You can understand the draw for residents and visitors alike – its forested landscape, clean rivers and open spaces revitalize the soul.

Photo by USDA NRCS

Drought has hit this valley hard over the years, most recently in 2001, 2005, 2010, and more dramatically in 2015, when even the famously rainy coastal region received less precipitation than Arizona. Tensions among water users were real.

Several decades ago community leaders recognized a need to find common ground, and began a dialogue. More recently, state and federal drought planning dollars accelerated the conversation, convening government officials, tribal leaders, irrigators, and environmental groups to develop a vision and strategy for managing water to meet the long-term needs of all users and support a vibrant economy in the face of a changing climate.  This Yakima partnership put in long hours, endured contentious meetings, and often went home dispirited. But they stuck it out.

They produced the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan – an impossibly long name, but a remarkable product.  It outlines measurable goals and a 30-year plan of action that has already borne fruit. During the depths of the 2015 drought, water managers, including a local irrigation district – for the first time ever – agreed to deliver water to creeks to help endangered fish – while also meeting the irrigation needs of farmers, who were shifting to more sustainable water management practices. That decision, along with many other elements of their plan, was built on trust this partnership developed over years.

Photo by Jim Boyd

Earlier this week I called several of them, curious to know their response to this unexpected surge of water that had “erased” the drought in their valley. Would it temper their drive to implement their plan?  The answer back was an unequivocal “No”.  “People don’t forget” the pain that comes from drought. They are clear eyed about the likelihood for future droughts, whose effects on the local economy will be felt immediately.  Farmers’ yields will decline, there will be less product for truckers to deliver to the port of Seattle, less work for longshoremen who load products for export. Even with this wet year, fisheries will take years to rebound.

The Yakima partnership is one example of effective, locally-led drought planning processes emerging across the country.  These are tough, can-do folk.  They know their work is far from done and that they cannot do it alone. Their vision and drive must be matched at the federal level by the new Administration and Congress.  This starts with maintaining a national commitment to building long-term drought resilience, especially now when the temptation is to shift attention elsewhere.

The Administration has proposed large-scale investment in the nation’s infrastructure. This is the perfect vehicle for supporting water projects that meet the long term needs of multiple users – irrigators, cities and towns, power generators, businesses and ecosystems. Also to be considered, projects that revitalize our nation’s green infrastructure, including healthy forests, which are the headwaters for 60 percent of the nation’s drinking water.

As Congress takes up the next Farm Bill, it can create greater flexibility for conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to engage multiple farmers and other partners within entire watersheds to achieve agricultural conservation goals, rather than stitch together conservation outcomes farm-by-farm, contract by contract. Members should continue to fund the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which in its first three years has been astonishingly successful in leveraging $1.8 billion in matching dollars across 2,200 conservation partners, and is reshaping how we invest in conservation at a landscape scale.  It has provided critical support to the Yakima Partnership and scores of other well designed locally led water initiatives across the country.

The Farm Bill and other authorizing legislation can direct federal agencies to better align complementary program investments in targeted watersheds to deliver greater results.  A good example is linking the US Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART grants to EQIP funding to boost agricultural water use efficiency within irrigation districts.

Federal agencies must continue to provide the expertise and financial support for basin and watershed-level drought planning.

Finally, Congress and the Administration must continue to support funding for water-related research and data. These tools are essential to guiding decisions that underpin our economy. Farmers, water managers, industry and emergency management personnel are asking for regionally specific information to run their businesses, cities and emergency response programs.  This means improving our capacity to measure real-time soil moisture, reservoir levels, snowpack and groundwater reserves.  And we must invest in the science to enhance weather modeling and forecasting.

Now is not the time for federal leaders to pull back.  Just the opposite.  Partner with these state and local leaders in building more secure food systems and more resilient economies for the next generation.