Drought in the West
When Nature Doesn’t Have Enough Water, Neither Do We
Water is life. But as our climate continues to warm, our states may be facing a future without water. The region’s water future is still in our hands, but not for long.
Drought By the Numbers
The past two decades have been the driest or the second driest in the last 1,200 years in the West.
Nearly 98% of land across 11 Western states is abnormally dry—the worst levels in the U.S. Drought Monitor’s 21-year history.
Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, hit its lowest water level since 1937.
Last year drought cost the U.S. $4.5 billion and the dry conditions exacerbated a record wildfire season that cost an additional $16.5 billion.
Where does your water come from? You might be surprised to learn how far water travels to get to your tap. In many cases, that distance is increasing in the face of drought. Even with winter rains, drought persists in our region, so the Nature Conservancy’s Western chapters are working together to build a more sustainable water future for our home. Keep reading to learn about the water solutions we’re developing across the West.
In the West, we are all connected by water. It grows our food, creates our electricity, and keeps us alive. But if nature doesn’t get the water it needs, it’s only a matter of time until we don’t either. The Nature Conservancy is working across the West to save water for people and nature, and protect the ecosystems we all rely on.
Drought in the West
These are the states most affected by the drought, and the solutions we are developing to address the water crisis across the West.
In Arizona, growth projections show that an additional 2.4 million acres of land could be converted to development over the next 40 years. The combination of climate change and growth are putting increased pressure on our water supplies. We are now looking at the Colorado, Verde and San Pedro rivers as whole systems that need to support both people and wildlife. Our team is engaging people in monitoring and taking action all along the rivers.
San Pedro River Flow
The San Pedro River's cottonwood-shaded corridor provides critical stopover habitat for millions of migrating birds each year. It is one of only two major rivers that flow north out of Mexico into the United States and it is one of the last, large undammed rivers in the Southwest. We’ve been working on innovative approaches to meet the needs of this desert river, as well as local communities.
Farmers and Collaboration on the Verde River
Protecting and enhancing streamflow is the Conservancy’s primary focus within the Verde River watershed. TNC has worked with producers to improve water delivery from the river and on farms, from new approaches to irrigation to an innovative approach – an economic development tool – for crop switching.
Today, nearly 1 million Californians don’t have safe drinking water flowing through their pipes. Our aquifers are running dry, and our snowpack is critically depleted. This isn’t just a “people problem.” If we stay on this track, in our children’s lifetimes, over half of our freshwater species will face extinction due to drought and man-made water shortages. With water in short supply, it might seem like people and nature need to be in competition for water. But TNC knows there’s a better way.
Rewilding in the San Joaquin Valley
As the Earth’s population grows, so does the demand for food, putting unprecedented pressure on agricultural lands. California’s San Joaquin Valley has become a critical agricultural region, but like many desert drylands regions, drought is causing local wells to dry up and the land above them is sinking. So TNC is working with partners to "rewild" agricultural lands to save water and help endangered species at the same time.
Water for Fish in North Coast Rivers
Once tremendously abundant, California wild salmon are now on the brink of extinction. On the North Coast, species are threatened primarily due to lack of water in summer months, resulting from thousands of small water diversions. So TNC and its partners are working in watersheds all along the North Coast to coordinate landowner diversions on a watershed scale so there is enough water left in streams for fish, which at the same time improves water security for these communities.
Even in a year with plenty of rain and snow, our water in Colorado is scarce. As our population grows, the demand for water is increasing and straining our rivers and reservoirs. Meanwhile, climate change is making droughts more frequent and severe. The future of our water is uncertain at best.
Yampa River Fund
Water funds are one of our big ideas to address water issues, and the launch of the Yampa River Fund was a huge accomplishment for our water. On top of that, we are pursuing many other tangible solutions to keep our rivers flowing and our cities and communities thriving.
With over 100,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than 2,000 lakes, Idaho appears to be a water rich state. Yet the pressures facing Idaho’s freshwater systems and aquifers are daunting. The impacts of climate change, such as declining levels of snowpack and rising spring temperatures, are making our water supplies increasingly less reliable. Investing in more sustainable water use and natural climate solutions, like regenerative agriculture, can help ensure water security even in a changing climate.
Healthy Soils Need Less Water
Approximately 85% of Idaho’s water supply is used to support agriculture. That’s why efficiency is a key component of TNC’s Healthy Soil, Resilient Waters initiative, a program that helps Idaho farmers build soil health and reduce water demand through regenerative farming practices. Healthy soil is better able to absorb and retain water, reducing the amount of water needed for growing crops, while also reducing sediment runoff and pollution in our watersheds. This improves the quantity and quality of water in Idaho’s rivers, lakes and aquifers.
Building Resilient Water Supplies
TNC is working to create a resilient water supply in which Idaho's tributaries and aquifers have enough water at the right times and places to support healthy populations of wild fish and other wildlife, our agricultural economy, and communities. Through the use of creative solutions, such as innovative water agreements and improved water management policies, our freshwater ecosystems can be sufficient to support both human and ecological communities.
Every year, Montana sets records for high summer temperatures. Smoky skies, and seasonal fishing closures are increasingly common. What were once extreme conditions are becoming normal and these changes are hurting our environment, quality of life, and economy. Whether you get your water from municipal suppliers, a well, or pump it from a river or creek, we are all in the same boat. Warmer spring temperatures are melting snowpack, which supplies most of our water, too early to sustain us into the summer.
Letting the Ruby Run
On the idyllic Ruby River, we are undoing the engineering of an earlier era. The straightened channels hemmed in the river, causing deep erosion and cutting off vital side channels and wetlands. The water no longer spread out into its floodplain, feeding vegetation, maintaining fisheries, and replenishing groundwater. By fixing the channel, restoring natural meanders, and replanting vegetation, the river is acting like a river again. That means more water for both people and wildlife, even in the face of climate change.
Building Like Beavers
Before they were trapped to near extinction, beavers played a vital role in water conservation. Their elaborate dams slowed rushing waters, allowing them to pool and create nurseries for fish, and wetlands that fed vegetation and replenished groundwater. Now, TNC is building structures to mimic those elaborate beaver dams – restoring those vital functions. While not a silver bullet for degraded streams, they are making a difference. In some places, they’ve even lured beavers to return and do the work themselves!
The entire state of Nevada has been experiencing moderate to exceptional drought during one of the driest years on record. As the driest state in the nation, we are fortunate to have groundwater aquifers that provide a buffer for droughts and climate change. But in arid regions like Nevada, competition for limited water supplies is placing increased pressure on groundwater resources, especially as surface waters become less reliable and changes in climate stress water supplies.
Conserving Nevada’s Critical Hidden Waters
With an average of less than 10 inches of precipitation in the form of rain and snow each year, Nevada is the nation’s driest state. Fortunately, underground water supplements surface water to enable incredible biodiversity in Nevada: the state has the 11th highest biodiversity in the United States, with more than 300 species found only in Nevada. Many of Nevada’s native species live in groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDEs), which are natural communities that rely on groundwater for all or part of their water needs.
Protecting Native Fish in the Virgin River
Desert rivers are tough places for fish to live. Fish in the Virgin River in Utah and Nevada have adapted to arduous conditions, but there is only so much they can take; five native fish species are declining in part due to low water flows, high temperatures and reduced habitat quality and quantity. In 2018, we helped the Bureau of Land Management commission a US Geological Survey study to determine flows needed in the Virgin River to sustain native fish.
New Mexico’s Rio Grande and its tributaries supply water for wildlife and one million people. The health of these waterways is key to the health of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Native American Pueblos and other communities—half of New Mexico's population—and an essential ingredient for our state’s economic growth.
The Rio Grande Water Fund protects forests and boosts local economies by creating jobs and wood for products. The project is also generating a sustainable source of funding for a 20-year program to restore 600,000 acres of forests in northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado.
In 16 of the 20 basins in Oregon, we simply don’t know if we are managing water sustainably for both people and nature. In the other four, we know that water use is unsustainable and will be skewed even further out of balance under future projected climate conditions. TNC is working towards a secure water future where all basins and aquifers have sufficient information for responsible management, water is protected for ecosystems, and modern water management tools help overallocated communities transition to sustainable water use.
TNC and more than 50 conservation partners have supported 146 freshwater habitat restoration projects in Oregon, reintroducing healthy ecological processes to over 360 miles of rivers and streams and 475 acres of riparian or floodplain habitat.
Utahns are worried about water, and with good reason. One of the fastest growing states, and one of the driest, Utah is now experiencing dangerous climate change impacts such as prolonged heat and drought. Statewide, rivers, streams and groundwater face tremendous pressures as communities, agriculture and industries demand more from limited water resources. Today many places in Utah face water shortages, and every year, more people and native species are impacted. For water managers, business as usual is no longer an option.
Solving Problems for Farmers and Fish
The Price River in southeast Utah, part of the Colorado River Basin, faces increasing threats from climate change and diversions. In an innovative agreement, TNC and its partners are working with Carbon Canal Company (CCC), which irrigates 11,000 acres, to secure CCC’s undelivered carry water and store it in an off-river reservoir. TNC and its partners can then release this water from the reservoir back into the lower Price River during seasons when flow levels drop, benefitting threatened fish and meeting farmers’ needs.
Improving Flows on the Virgin River
The Virgin River is one of the most remarkable, and most threatened, rivers in the Southwest. Carving through Zion National Park, the Virgin supports stunning scenery, booming communities and a wealth of biodiversity, including rare and vulnerable birds, fish and plants. Yet climate change and explosive growth in Utah’s Washington County region are threatening the Virgin’s water supply and quality. TNC and a team of partners are protecting at-risk river habitat, studying native fish health and helping towns modernize water delivery systems.
A historically dry spring and summer in 2021, followed by record-breaking heat, affected water supplies across Washington state, prompting the Washington Department of Ecology to issue a Drought Emergency. Washington saw signs of stressed fish, farmers and ranchers had to cut back on irrigation and wildfires burned quickly through dry vegetation. This fall, most of Washington returned to average temperatures and above-average rainfall but we can expect more challenges in future years as climate change worsens drought conditions.
Wyoming holds the headwaters of the Colorado, Missouri and Columbia Rivers, as well as the Great Salt Lake. In the face of a changing climate the demands for water for recreation, agriculture, wildlife and drinking water could outpace supply. Since what happens in Wyoming is felt for thousands of miles downstream, we must be part of finding solutions that meet all those demands.
Meeting the Needs
Meeting demands will require new ways of using and managing water. In the Colorado River Basin, we are working with partners and using science to develop innovative ways to conserve water while honoring water rights and Wyoming’s bedrock industries. For example, we are supporting the state in its evaluation of demand management – an approach that would compensate agricultural users for reducing water consumption through irrigation. Long term solutions will require give and take by everyone who depends on this hard-working river.
The Colorado River Basin
Most people know the Colorado River for its iconic landscapes and as the river that runs through the Grand Canyon, but the Colorado is a lifeline for much of the West. The river and all its tributaries provide drinking water for more than 40 million people in the U.S. and Mexico.
The Colorado supports 30 Tribal Nations, irrigates over five million acres of agricultural land, and generates roughly nine billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power each year—enough for over seven million people. But while critical for people, the rivers and streams of the Colorado River Basin are also essential for wildlife. TNC works hard to make sure that nature has a seat at the table in policy and water management forums.
Water issues are complex and require partnership and collaboration. TNC has worked in the Colorado River Basin for 20 years and appreciates the critical importance of partnerships in charting a sustainable and resilient future.
Today, the Colorado River is at a crossroads. For the last two decades, a mega-drought has lowered the basin’s major reservoirs to a fraction of their original size, while demand for water increasingly surpasses supply. This is the story of climate change written in water. Droughts are part of the West’s normal cycle, but climate change has intensified the impacts. After decades of intensifying drought, we must help nature and people prepare for a new “normal.”
Nature is first to bear the brunt of water losses in the Colorado River Basin. Low water levels kill fish and accelerate the spread of invasive species, while habitat for endemic species shrinks. Water managers have tried to stabilize the system through agreements between the seven-basin states and Mexico, but these efforts are not enough. TNC is expanding and accelerating our work across sectors and borders to build a sustainable future driven by collaboration and not conflict.
From the Experts
The drought affects us all. Our approach to water management must include the species and natural systems that make our water, our air, our food, and our existence possible.
We’re seeing the impacts of climate change across the state and we anticipate that Idaho’s water supplies will continue to fluctuate in future years. We all need to be part of the solutions for better use and management of water.
Our approach is to sit down at the table with water users, roll up our sleeves and say how can we meet your needs while also sustaining healthy river flows?
We may not control how much water nature provides, but there is plenty we can do to steward it well. Success will require give and take on everyone’s part. The waters we love and need are worth it.
The story of climate change will be written in water, which is now a defining issue for all Utahns. Everyone is now working together—the risks to people and nature are too great to do otherwise.
Drought damages our most biodiverse ecosystems, reduces access to safe drinking water, and hurts the economy. We need to deal with water shortages now so we can prepare for a climate future that has less supply and more demand.
Climate change is robbing our Colorado rivers of healthy flows. We need creative collaboration across all water users to sustain people and nature.
We are studying the stressors and threats to our groundwater-dependent ecosystems to understand how best to ensure their long-term sustainability for people and for nature.
Here’s What You Can do to Help
- More than 50 percent of a family’s water use is for landscaping. Consider low water use options, including less turf grass.
- Low flow plumbing fixtures can reduce water use by 30 percent in a household.
- Know where your water comes from – it might be your favorite trout fishing stream or place to hike or the groundwater beneath your feet!
- Support organizations like TNC that are working to protect water sources for nature and people.