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As West struggles with drought, complicated water politics loom

A bleached “bathtub ring” is visible on Lone rock at Lake Powell on Wednesday near Big Water, Utah. As severe drought grips parts of the West, a below-average flow of water is expected to flow through the Colorado River Basin into two of its biggest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Throughout the 19th century, Americans flooded to the western United States in search of resources: gold, timber, coal, oil. But the explosive growth of Western states in the 20th Century has taxed what has become the region’s most precious, and increasingly scarce, resource: Water.

Now, as a devastating drought parches California and other Western states, lawmakers are confronting a century of conflicting interests and political mismanagement that sets states, interest groups, cities and rural areas against each other. In the West, nothing sets politics aflame as quickly as water.

The drought is forcing states to take drastic steps. This week, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) took the unprecedented step of issuing mandatory restrictions on water use. Officials in Texas, Colorado and Oregon are reporting record-low water stores. Utilities in Washington state are concerned that low snowpack threatens reservoirs that generate much of the state’s power. And the Great Salt Lake in Utah is near its lowest recorded levels.

[Read: Agriculture is 80 percent of water use in California. Why aren’t farmers being forced to cut back?]

Nearly 60 percent of the West is experiencing moderate drought or worse, affecting 52 million people.

Scientists say the current water levels are a clear sign of a climate in flux. A warmer-than-average and drier-than-average winter left snowpacks in the Sierra Nevadas, the Cascades and the Rockies near all-time lows. What little precipitation did fall in California fell as rain, which absorbs into the ground faster than longer-lasting snow.

“Climate change is clearly influencing the severity of the drought, for the worse,” said Peter Gleick, a climate scientist at the Pacific Institute. “This is not only a ‘dry’ drought, it has been an unprecedentedly ‘hot’ drought, with global warming accelerating the loss of snow, and increasing evaporation and water demand.”

In the short term, that’s hurt ski resorts across the West. Even the Federal Reserve has noted the absence of snow in its monthly reports on the health of the economy.

In the long term, the lack of snowpack threatens to turn once-lush forests into tinderboxes that could ignite with a single errant spark, a single discarded cigarette or a single ill-placed lightening strike. Fire teams across the West are preparing for a disastrous season that could cause billions in damage.

[Related: Hot hands: Fingerprints of climate change all over California drought]

As the West grew over the last century, states spent years — and billions of dollars — on massive infrastructure projects aimed at saving as much water as possible. But states resisted taking other steps that could have mitigated the crisis now at hand.

The main water source for Western states, the Colorado River, has been heavily rationed since 1922, when seven states agreed on allocating the water among them. The United States signed a treaty with Mexico guaranteeing a certain amount of the river would cross the international border. And the water is so heavily used that, in the average year, none of it reaches the Gulf of California.

California and Colorado get the greatest apportionment of Colorado river water, while Utah and Arizona each get more than 11 percent. Mexico is guaranteed the final 9 percent, with the rest going to Nevada, Wyoming and New Mexico.

Western states have zealously guarded their right to govern water usage. While the federal government has some control over water, the regulation of groundwater, stored over the centuries in underground aquifers spread across the West, is left to the states themselves.

Some of those states, including California, have no groundwater management rules at all. As a consequence, farmers drawing on underground water supplies have pulled an estimated 65 cubic kilometers of water — the equivalent of two Lake Meads — out of the Colorado River Basin, according to a recent study. That’s made the ground itself change: Parts of California’s Central Valley have sunk more than an inch.

“We’re long overdue in California to treat groundwater as an integral part of our water supply system,” California Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D) said in a 2014 interview. “The old phrase ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ applies.”

The federal government has been complicit, as well. Scientists at U.C.-Irvine, the California Institute of Technology, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and NASA concluded that the Bureau of Reclamation, which has jurisdiction over surface water flowing through the Colorado River, has allocated 30 percent more water than was actually available in recent years, putting more pressure on underground supplies.

Brown has advocated building two massive water tunnels in the Bay Delta, which would move water from Northern California to the drier south, though that plan has drawn considerable opposition from environmentalists. Other states are also planning: Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) created a 38-member panel in 2013 tasked with plotting the state’s water future for the next 50 years.

But solving the problem will be a major political gamble. Case in point: Brown’s executive order this week did not seek reductions in water usage on farms, which use 80 percent of the state’s water.

Read more:

Calif. governor orders statewide mandatory water restrictions

California snowpack fades to shocking record low as water restrictions ordered

California’s water woes primed to get worse as groundwater is drained