The Corner

Politics & Policy

Droughts are Devastating the West

Dry land visible at a section that is normally under water, on the banks of Lake Oroville, the second-largest reservoir in California and according to daily reports of the state’s Department of Water Resources is near 35% capacity, near Oroville, Calif., June 16, 2021. (Aude Guerrucci/Reuters)

As of today, there is virtually no county in the western United States that is not under drought conditions. Wildfires are increasing, water resources are drying up, and conservation efforts are not keeping pace. As Democrats offer unrealistic energy deals, conservatives should use this moment to take the lead on dearly needed conservation efforts.

Environmentalists often portray the problem of climate change as being off in the distant future. They tell the public that a two-degree increase in temperature over the next 50 years will negatively impact the entire planet. Or, at other times, the concern is that rising water levels will eventually threaten the coastlines. While those activists will implore the public that we need to act now, their message nonetheless implies the threat is years away. But the real problem is right on our doorstep. 

Last year, around 37 percent of the west had sufficient rainfall, but today that number has tumbled to 0.76 percent. However, the precipitation numbers don’t show the human impact of the current problem. When water is scarce, nearly every part of the food chain is affected. The New York Times reports that, 

in New Mexico, farmers along the Rio Grande were urged not to plant this year. Crop failures have been reported in Colorado and other farming areas. The level of Lake Mead, the huge reservoir on the Colorado River, is so low that Arizona, Nevada and other states will likely face cutbacks in supplies. In North Dakota, ranchers are trucking water and supplemental feed for their livestock because the rangelands are so dry and the vegetation is stunted.

Droughts also create conditions for wildfires, which have been spreading across the country at a record-breaking rate. So, what can we do about water shortages? For one, better education about how much water is wasted could help families conserve resources. To do that, though, we need to change the rhetoric around environmental policy to prioritize problems that voters can actually feel — such droughts, wildfires, and floods. People are more willing to adjust their behavior when the problem is more salient to them.

Everything doesn’t need a government solution, though. For instance, the Trump administration banned controlled burns in California because of concerns about COVID-19. In 2012, Colorado drastically reduced prescribed burns, too. However, just getting the government out of the way would significantly help firefighters.

Foresters agree that burning forests intentionally to prevent later fires is an important firefighting technique. As the Denver Post reports: 

“Prescribed fire is a critical tool, because it’s the most effective way to reduce fuels to make people and communities safe,” said Brett Wolk, assistant director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University. “It also is the only way to restore ecological processes in the forest,” he said, such as removing debris on the surface and creating opportunities for new plants and trees to grow.

Future temperature increases and slowing rising water levels are legitimate concerns, but it’s more important to address environmental problems that are affecting citizens now. Rather than trying to enact sweeping reform, Republicans should advocate targeted policies that help everyday voters. Increasing federal funding — or, better yet, state and local funding — for water infrastructure could be a good start. These kinds of minor adjustments can make a big difference, and we desperately need to take those first steps. 

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