World Water Day - Combatting Drought Across America

Michael Connor, Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior
A canoer glides along the mirror image of Mt. Hood reflected in the still waters of Trillium Lake.
Mt. Hood reflected in the still waters of Trillium Lake. Photo by USFS.

Water is the lifeblood of our existence, economies and ecosystems world-wide. Yesterday, in observance of World Water Day, the White House in conjunction with several federal agencies including the Department of the Interior hosted its first water summit to raise awareness and seek action to combat drought and other water resource challenges. 

Lower Lewis Falls, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington
Lower Lewis Falls, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington. Photo by USFS.

In connection with the summit, the White House released a Presidential Memorandum directing federal agencies to build national capabilities for long-term drought resilience and put forth a National Action Plan on the same subject. 

At the summit, we also released our SECURE Water Act Report to Congress explaining challenges and presenting options for harnessing federal and private resources to build capabilities that will protect this important natural resource for the future. To put a few things in perspective, this report also presented some staggering statistics about water sustainability and manageability, and how state, local and tribal communities are most impacted by drought.  

Aerial view of the Colorado River, on the southwestern rim of the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai Indian Reservation.
Colorado River, along Highway 58. Photo by BLM.

Climate projections indicate that the nation’s water supply will decline in much of the West –where temperatures are expected to rise 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.  Increasing temperatures, persistent drought and changes in snowpack, precipitation and runoff cycles all threaten water resources, energy supplies, infrastructure, ecosystems and other resources. In the Colorado River Basin, for example, warming and population growth are projected to increase water demand, reliance on imported water and the use of groundwater in the area.  These results will in turn, lead to the development of alternative water supplies, such as recycled water.  

Dam on the Colorado River
Colorado River, Lake Mead, 2001. Photo by USGS.

These challenges underscore why President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum on Drought and a related federal action plan earlier this week.  The memo provides policy guidance and the action plan sets forth a permanent platform for a partnership among seven federal agencies, including Interior, to help communities better prepare for droughts and reduce the impact of drought events on families, businesses, and the environment. In taking this historic initiative, the President has given the nation a sorely needed prescription for the most acute water challenges of the 21st century.    

Colorado River, Lake Mead 2015
Colorado River, Lake Mead 2015. Photo by USGS.

The federal action plan includes six goals that the Interior Department will implement, primarily through the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Geological Survey who will:  

  • Share data and information needed to strengthen decision making related to drought, water use, and water availability to support more adaptive responses to drought and drought risk. Interior’s USGS is a leader on data;
  • Communicate targeted information about drought risks, including specific risks to critical infrastructure like dams, and groundwater wells;  
  • Assist state, regional, tribal, and local officials in building local planning capacity for drought preparedness and resilience;
  • Take actions necessary to improve the coordination of drought-related activities to enhance the collective benefits of federal programs. Through its WaterSMART program, Interior works with water users and other agencies and organizations to foster public-private partnerships;
  • Support the promulgation of innovative investment models and market-based approaches to increase resilience, flexibility, and efficiency of water use and water supply systems.  Interior’s new Natural Resources Investment Center will be a key player in facilitating this kind of support; and  
  • Conserve and make efficient use of water by carrying out relevant research, innovation, and international engagements.  

Water is a scarce resource, and its supply is particularly imperiled in the West. But the President understands what we’re up against, which is why we’re all working together to shine the spotlight on these challenges and find the best solutions.

Canoe on a bank of the St. Louis River, Wisconsin
The serene St. Louis River in Wisconsin, part of the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve. Photo by NOAA.