When one speaks with Mr. Tom Birmingham, two things are very clear. The first is you are talking with a highly intelligent individual who has the rare ability to speak like a gifted writer writes. The second is the nearly unbelievable challenges faced by his farmers. The creativity, resilience, and sheer toughness they have shown to survive near zero and zero water allocations is remarkable. Drought, caused by nature or regulation, is a cruel thing, and the economic domino effect is far reaching.
The thing about drought from nature is that we know it will happen and that it can be prepared for. Drought from regulation is harder to understand, especially when results such as 40 percent unemployment are so visible.
During my time with the Bureau of Reclamation, I often heard Commissioner Bob Johnson explain the stark difference in storage on the Colorado River versus California. “The Colorado River has a watershed of roughly 15 million acre-feet, and storage behind Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam, and the other dams on the river combined provide 60 million acre-feet of storage, or up to four times the annual flow of the river,” he would say. “The state of California has watershed that is comparable in size to the Colorado River. However, there is only about 8 million acre feet of storage, or about half of the annual watershed in California.” Commissioner Johnson said this many times to make the point that it is very difficult to survive extended drought without adequate water storage.
Some say conservation and reuse are the answers to the water woes of California. While conservation and reuse can be a big part of the answer in solving water supply problems anywhere, it is difficult to conserve and reuse something that has not be been collected and stored.
Another quote I often heard Commissioner Johnson say about water supply was that it was more important to “grow the pie than to fight over it.” In other words, stored water can solve a lot of problems caused by nature’s droughts and lessen other problems, such as drought caused by regulation.
Kris Polly is editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader magazine and president of Water Strategies LLC, a government relations firm he began in February 2009 for the purpose of representing and guiding water, power, and agricultural entities in their dealings with Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal government agencies. He may be contacted at Kris.Polly@waterstrategies.com.