EUGENE — Water managers in the West need to take a more proactive approach to drought because it’s not going away anytime soon, experts said at a water seminar Friday.
“It’s going to be more frequent and more severe. We are going to have longer droughts in new locations. This is all definitely part of the new normal because drought is part of the package of climate change,” said Jan Neuman, a water law specialist and senior counsel for Portland-based Tonkon Torp law offices.
Neuman and more than two dozen Western water experts led a series of panel discussions about water and its future in the West at the daylong seminar titled, Drought in the American West: a Symposium on Law, Policy and Science.
The event was held at the at the University of Oregon School of Law in Eugene.
Climate change connection
According to Jason Eisdrofer, Oregon Public Utility Commission’s utility program director, drought is not an indicator of climate change, but the changing climate is expected to prolong and intensify dry periods.
“Climate variability month to month, even year to year, is not going to go away as a result of climate change. What is going to happen is, you’re going to overlay that variability over a new baseline,” he said. “Heatwaves will be more frequent. They will last longer and the peak temperatures will be higher.”
Lincoln Davies, co-author of “Energy Law and Policy,” said past climate models have predicted consistent West-wide drought as early as 2025, but according to recent U.S. Drought Monitor maps, regional drought has already arrived.
“Going forward, water in the West is already a scarce resource. We’re going to need more water for a lot of different reasons, including population growth,” Davies said.
An Oregon strategy
According to Alyssa Mucken, program coordinator for the Integrated Water Resources Strategy at Oregon Water Resources Department, roughly 86,000 water rights exist in Oregon.
She said Oregon’s first formal water strategy — the Integrated Water Resources Strategy — is due out in 2017.
“There is a fear out there that with any type of water management planning, it’s going to take away someone’s existing right to use water. The strategy was never meant to do that,” Mucken said. “It was really to find the tools and solutions moving forward, that could help foster better relationships across Oregon.”
“We have to expect drought and plan accordingly,” Neuman said. “What we are trying to plan for is the risk involved, how we calculate that risk, and then how we allocate that risk.”
Mucken said in 2009 the Oregon Legislature directed the OWRD to work with other state agencies to develop a long-term plan incorporating instream and out-of-stream water needs into the plan.
“When I say instream and out-of-stream, I’m talking also about water quantity, water quality and ecosystem needs,” Mucken said.
According to Mucken, the state’s strategy for drought resiliency will reflect interests of agriculture, environmental and urban water use.
“If we view drought as a common enemy — and a familiar common enemy — then we can unite water users and make our response to drought much stronger and much less divisive,” Neuman said.
Water settlements’ role
Amy Cordalis, a member of the Yurok Tribe and tribal attorney, said settlement negotiations are another promising model for resolving drought conflict and finding long-term equitable solutions to water management issues.
“Of course on the Klamath (River) our drought-related issues are related to water wars and the cause of water wars,” Cordalis said, referring to water conflict and the resulting massive fish-kill of the early 2000s.
“We can cause major, major environmental catastrophes if we don’t manage these water resource appropriately,” she added.
She said she believes settlements play a key role in facilitating workable solutions for competing water interests, such as consumptive uses and instream flows.
Neuman said the most important part of preparation is accepting that drought is the new normal.
“Our perception of drought as abnormal is part of the problem. Drought is not only normal, but it’s recurrent. What varies is the frequency, the severity,” she said. “We have to remember that dry and wet are happening all the time. Our system is built to take advantage of what we can get when we get it, but that doesn’t mean drought is abnormal.”
Part of drought’s challenges comes from the West’s dependence on water uses that have been developed over several recent decades, according to Neuman.
“We’re increasingly vulnerable to drought,” Neuman said. “The population has shifted greatly into the most arid areas of the country: where we live, how we do our agriculture, and how we support our economy has made us more vulnerable,” she said.
“What we do right now is treat them as natural disasters, and we treat them as natural disasters requiring some kind of emergency response. It’s very reactive,” Neuman said, noting that emergency relief is often about money, such as subsidies and bailouts.
“The current way we manage drought divides us. It makes winners and losers,” she added.
Sandra Zellmer, a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law, called existing legal tools for drought management “Band-aids.”
“We really should be anticipating things like these. They’ve been inevitable throughout the decades and the centuries,” Zellmer said.