Rain stops in the West, pours in the center of the country

Posted: Monday, April 29, 2013

As drought eases over the United States overall, indications of dryness are increasing in the West as the region exits the rainy season.

Extreme drought, the second-highest classification for drought, has swept across New Mexico into Arizona, while severe drought has intensified across California, Nevada and Utah. Some areas received less than a third of their normal precipitation levels for this time of the year, said Eric Luebehusen, a meteorologist with the Agriculture Department’s Office of the Chief Scientist and author of this week’s U.S. Drought Monitor. What started off as a good rainy season for the West has ended abruptly.

“Precipitation was good, then just pretty much started to shut down,” he said.

Meanwhile, flooding has become a concern in the Midwest, where the Mississippi River has hit one of its highest levels on record from Moline, Ill., to St. Louis. Flooding has overwhelmed many rivers in the Midwest and continues to threaten communities from North Dakota to Mississippi, according to the National Weather Service.

“Improbably, flooding has now replaced drought as the Midwest’s greatest imminent concern,” said Brad Rippey, another meteorologist with USDA and one of the rotating authors of the Drought Monitor.

Despite the increased dryness in California, the reservoir levels are near normal, thanks to proper management by water districts, but also due to the heavy snow and rainfall earlier this year, said Janine Jones, drought manager with the California Water Resources Board.

Luebehusen agreed that different management practices have shielded California from some of the potential impacts others in the region may face. “It’s kind of a different beast out there,” he said.

Lingering drought damage

A new analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that much of Southern California could drop its reliance on water from the Sacramento Bay Delta and the Colorado River by 2035. This could be achieved if the five water management districts keep their ambitious commitments to invest in water conservation, recycling, rainwater harvesting and better groundwater management, as laid out in their 2010 water management plans.

Earlier this month, runoff from the Colorado River — the lifeline of water for much of the Southwest — was around 38 percent of normal.

But neighbors in the region may not be so fortunate. Colorado, for example, is still threatened by the patch of exceptional drought on the Eastern Slope of the Rockies. While the snowstorm over the last couple of weeks helped build snowpack levels over the northern portion of state, the snow has yet to melt and create runoff for the reservoirs. If the soil is too dry, that water may skim the top of the ground, rather than be absorbed as groundwater.

“After two years of drought, the soil moisture is so low that it’s unclear how much is going to make it into the reservoirs,” said Taryn Finnessey, the drought and climate change technical specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Although reservoirs stand at 71 percent full compared to normal, that number varies across the state, said Finnessey. Most of the major municipalities have announced water restrictions this summer.

The release of the Drought Monitor coincided with a hearing on drought impacts on power generation in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where panelists agreed that the lack of coordination among federal and state agencies is leaving the power grid vulnerable to blackouts during droughts.

Concern about blackouts

Hydroelectric dams are greatly affected by water availability, as are fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, which use it for cooling. Hydraulic fracturing, the technology that has allowed the United States to access vast natural gas reserves, is also reliant on water.

In Texas, the drought of 2011 led to record low water levels for the cooling of 11,000 megawatts of Texas power plants. More than a quarter of those were at risk of shutting down, said Roger Pulwarty, director of the National Integrated Drought Information System under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), a federal entity that distributes hydropower to much of the West, has imposed a surcharge until 2017 to pay for losses due to low reservoirs resulting from drought, to make up for years in which WAPA had to to buy power from other utilities at a higher cost.

The manager of the Aspen petroleum pipeline in south Texas even made several requests to NOAA to obtain temperature forecasts in order to help him make decisions on energy production, said Pulwarty.

In 2007, a severe drought in the Southeast forced Duke Energy Corp. to cut water use for two of its coal-fired power plants, triggering blackouts from Atlanta to Raleigh, N.C.

“The single most important thing Congress can do is force interagency cooperation,” said Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, to the panel. “To talk about having one agency in change, in all honesty, it would take so much politics, it would be so difficult to do, and quite honestly, we don’t have the time for it.”

Agencies should also focus on basinwide plans for managing hydropower capacity, said Michael Connor, commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation.