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There are a lot of solutions to drought. Some may work better than others.

Lake Mead and Hoover DAM
Nicola Delfino via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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Lake Mead and Hoover DAM

Drought isn't a new thing in the West, but right now, much of the region is gripped in a historic drought. An unusually dry year coupled with record-breaking heat waves has strained water resources in the West this year. In fact, water levels are so low that the Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage on the Colorado River basin for the first time ever in mid-August. There are a lot of ideas for how to relieve the drought and ease its impacts—some more feasible than others. But when you think about water in the West, you have to think about scarcity too.

"You're really thinking about, well, why is it scarce? Is it too little supply? Or is it too much demand? And in the case of water, it's both, right?" said Jason Shogren, an economist at the University of Wyoming (UW). "You have a drought, and that is going to restrict the supply of water. And you have an increase in demand because people are moving more and more to the Rocky Mountain region, moving more and more to the west coast."

And as Shogren pointed out, a lot of people move to the West and expect to keep parts of their lifestyles from where they came from, like lawns of lush green grass. But those require a lot of water. And Shogren said we have to think about all the different demands.

"And since we have a lot of demand for water in Southern California, Phoenix, Las Vegas. We have a lot of demand for water in agriculture production, whether it's crops, or whether it's nuts, or whether it's wine," he said. "And on the supply side, the question is, 'Who gets what water? And why?'"

He added property rights over water are different by state and deciding how water rights are allocated and how they can be used gets tricky fast.

"It is a complicated melding of environmental impacts, financial impacts, legal impacts," Shogren said.

And with climate change intensifying extreme weather like droughts and flooding, there's one potential solution that would help solve both problems. Dr. Tom Minckley said it involves moving water.

"We could say, 'Oh, well, the western states are in drought. So we could take water from, say, the Mississippi or the Missouri River, and when it floods, we could capture that floodwater, and then basically return it to the head of the watershed,'" he said.

Dr. Minckley is a Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming. He studies water in the West and how it's managed. He said piping water from a flooded place to a place in drought is an idea that's becoming much more popular. State governments already transfer water between some states in the west.

"The advantage of the trans-basin water transfers, though, is that gravity does a lot of the work," explained Minckley.

But because of Wyoming's high elevation, moving water here from almost anywhere else would mean fighting gravity. It would require a lot of energy because water is actually quite heavy. Not to mention the logistics of where a pipeline would even go and how much it would cost - water is valued by the acre-foot.

"On average, it's about $2,000 per acre-foot. And some of the Colorado River water in the state of Colorado is running for $85,000 an acre-foot. So, like, there's these crazy, really big numbers out there," said Minckley. "And the question is if we start moving water from where it is to where we want it to be, how do we pay for it?"

The idea has been researched and despite its growing popularity, the Bureau of Reclamation found its implementation highly unlikely because of the cost and logistics.

Another idea that's been floated is cloud seeding.

"So the idea of seeding clouds to enhance precipitation, snowfall, in particular in Wyoming, that is an old idea, goes back to the late 1940s," said Dr. Bart Geerts, a professor in atmospheric sciences at UW. "It's done also in clouds that are warmer, that are above the freezing temperature. Summertime cumulus clouds are seeded in some places. In Wyoming, only the cold cloud seeding occurs."

Geerts said farming communities in the High Plains have financially supported seeding operations in thunderstorms for decades, but it can be really hard to prove that kind of seeding actually worked. But, he said it is a lot easier to demonstrate that it worked when they seed winter clouds. Which can be more useful in the High Plains anyway.

"We don't get a big thunderstorm so much in the summer as high plains do further east," he said. "But we do get a fair bit of winter snow over the mountains, and most of the water in various reservoirs in Wyoming comes from that snowpack."

Because there's natural variability between the years, you can't pinpoint exactly how much more snowfall there was due to seeding and they work with averages. Geerts said a common belief is that cloud seeding keeps moisture from falling in other places where it's needed.

"It's really not understood. There is that possibility but in general, these wintertime clouds are not very efficient," he said. "Essentially water vapor condenses, you extract it, make it into snow, and thereby you reduce the downstream amount of water vapor to some extent. But that amount is so, so small, so insignificant compared to the total water vapor content."

But Geerts added on the flip side of that, some of the seeding materials may float downwind and increase snowfall on the next mountain range.

"So it can work either way. We don't really have an answer," he said.

It seems like a lot of ideas and conversations about this topic end with that - "we don't really have an answer." But as droughts intensify, driven by climate change, those conversations continue to happen. And some may lead to more viable solutions.

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