As snow disappears, experts say the Bureau of Reclamation — created in 1902 — must completely rebuild a 20th-century infrastructure so that it can efficiently conserve and distribute water in a 21st-century warming world.
FOLSOM, Calif. — Drew Lessard stood on top of Folsom Dam and gazed at the Sierra Nevada, which in late spring usually gush enough melting snow into the reservoir to provide water for a million people. But the mountains were bare, and the snowpack to date remains the lowest on measured record.
“If there’s no snowpack, there’s no water,” said Lessard, a regional manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that built and operates a vast network of 476 dams, 348 reservoirs and 8,116 miles of aqueducts across the western United States.
For nearly a century, that network has captured water as it flows down from the region’s snowcapped mountains and moves to the farms, cities and suburbs that were built in the desert. But as the snow disappears, experts say the Bureau of Reclamation — created in 1902 by President Theodore Roosevelt to wrest control of water in the arid West — must completely rebuild a 20th-century infrastructure so that it can efficiently conserve and distribute water in a 21st-century warming world.
“The bureau is headed into a frightening new world, an uncertain new world,” said Jeffrey Mount, an expert on water-resource management with the Public Policy Institute of California.
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For most of the 1900s, the bureau’s system — which grew into the largest wholesale water utility in the country — worked. But the West of the 21st century is not the West of Roosevelt. There are now millions more people who want water, but there is far less of it. The science of climate change shows that in the future, there will be less still.
“We have to think differently,” said Michael Connor, the deputy secretary of the Interior Department, which includes the Bureau of Reclamation. “It’s not enough just to conserve water. We need to rethink these projects. We have a lot of infrastructure, but a lot of it doesn’t work very well anymore. We need to undertake what amounts to a giant re-plumbing project across the West.”
Connor said that in the future, the nation’s water agency would have to put climate change at the center of its mission.
President Obama has already started to grapple with that change. Under orders from the White House, the Bureau of Reclamation has begun studies on the impact of global warming on 22 Western water basins and is drawing up multidecade plans to begin rebuilding its Western water-management systems.
But a new water infrastructure across half of the United States could cost taxpayers billions of dollars — at a moment when Republicans are still focused on cutting taxes and lowering government spending. In Congress, the Republican majority has targeted climate-change research as well as federal policies intended to stop climate change.
The bureau is in the meantime coming under fire from lawmakers of both parties for failing to meet the challenges of today’s searing drought. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader and a Republican from California’s parched inland, has criticized the bureau’s efforts in his state. Lawmakers like McCarthy are particularly furious that the bureau and the state of California continue to direct scarce water into rivers to support fish habitat, even as farms wither and families struggle to make do with less water.
Last month, McCarthy and other Republican lawmakers introduced a bill aimed at easing the burden of California’s drought by forcing the bureau to release less water into rivers and more to farmers, and to start building new dams and reservoirs.
“I’m from the Central Valley, and we know that we cannot conserve or ration our way out of this drought,” McCarthy said. “Sacramento and Washington have chosen to put the well-being of fish above people.”
Daniel Beard, a bureau commissioner during the Clinton administration, said the bureau should be abolished, with the authority for water management returned to the states.
“Here we are in the worst drought, climate change is providing a significant impact, and the Obama administration is just studying the problem,” he said. “They should transition to become an environmental agency, and they should just assist local and state agencies to solve water problems in the West.”
At Folsom Dam, workers are already planning for a summer without snowmelt. If the water level in the reservoir falls too low for water to flow through the dam, the bureau’s engineers plan to install pumps, at a cost of $2 million to $3 million for the summer, to push the water through. But that is just a short-term fix. In the long term, bureau employees and outside experts said, the agency will need to invest in new infrastructure that can efficiently capture, conserve and store water without relying on the springtime melting of Sierra Nevada snow.
Although Western farmers are among the most politically conservative groups in the country, many of them acknowledge the changing climate and said they want the bureau to make the changes necessary to support them. The National Climate Assessment, a 2014 scientific report by 13 federal agencies, says that over the coming century, the impact of human-caused global warming will diminish the once-thick snowpack across the Sierra Nevada and other Western ranges.
“We have enough guys noticing that things are changing, and most of these models suggest we’re going to have more intense weather,” said Dan Keppen, the executive director of the Family Farm Alliance in Klamath Falls, Ore. “The snowpack is going to run off quicker and heavier in the spring, and there will be drier growing seasons.”
“So it’s going to be critical to change the water infrastructure,” he said. “We’re going to need to have as much storage and ability to move things around as possible.”
Water policy experts point to dozens of changes that could be made, starting by using climate-change models to plan new water-collection reservoirs. While climate- change models show that there will be less snowfall in the mountains, there may still be rainfall in other regions. The bureau, they said, could build reservoirs designed to capture and store that rain.
It could also change its methods of irrigation. Today, the bureau sends water to farms in the cheapest way possible, by opening floodgates and soaking agricultural fields. But in the future, the bureau could invest in precision watering technology — computer-operated equipment that measures and moves smaller amounts of water to exactly where it needs to be to help crops grow. Such techniques could be used to continue to irrigate crops while saving lots of water. But they cost substantially more money.
Experts also point to the need for an update and overhaul of the bureau’s system of aqueducts, earthenware channels that absorb water and easily crack and leak. Connor said they could be rebuilt with more resilient cement, and covered in waterproof, nonabsorbent coating.
The Bureau of Reclamation is also considering the construction of desalination plants — at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per plant — which could convert brackish groundwater to water for drinking and irrigation.
At Folsom Dam, Lessard looked away from the snowless mountains and drying reservoir, and across the highway at the low-slung buildings of Folsom Prison, where Johnny Cash performed for a crowd of convicts in 1968. Lessard is worried about how his workers will get water to the city and the inmates this summer, but he is even more worried about the years ahead.
“The droughts of the future are going to be worse than the droughts of the past,” he said. “We need state-of-the-art climate science to plan for that. We don’t want to see this reservoir empty.”