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Water Bulletin: Summer 2021 – Spotlight on Drought in the Western United States


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Tough times in the West

Drought conditions have once again established themselves in the southwest of the United States, with many reporting extreme to exceptional conditions.

The moisture deficit has led to significantly diminished snowpacks resulting in availability concerns for dependent businesses and municipalities. The most affected states include California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, with parts of western Colorado and Texas (i.e., westernmost portion of the Permian Basin) also being impacted (Figure 1).

The risk of experiencing another wildfire season along the west coast, like 2020, is therefore high.  Projections made by the National Weather Service indicate a strong likelihood of above normal temperatures for the July-August-September period.

Water Bulletin - Summer 2021 – Spotlight on Drought in the Western United States

Figure 1.  Drought conditions across the contiguous United States (Source: https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/CurrentMap.aspx)

Although this is not an uncommon condition, the stress placed on existing water supplies will make management challenging through 2021 and into 2022 depending on how influencing climate modes manifest themselves over the coming months. One of the more influential climate phenomena in this region of the United States is the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). During El Niño conditions, these regions tend to receive more precipitation compared to La Niña phases (Figure 2).

At present, the ENSO is in a neutral phase, which is expected to last through the northern hemisphere summer and into the fall. Subsequent projections indicate a 45-50% chance of a possible shift to a La Niña phase.

Water Bulletin - Summer 2021 – Spotlight on Drought in the Western United States 2a

Figure 2.  Influence of ENSO phases on the moisture balance of the North America, (Source: https://climas.arizona.edu/content/how-does-enso-affect-sw-weather-patterns)

Of note is the water deficit in California (Figure 3).  Historically speaking, the current conditions are beginning to mirror those experienced during the 2017-2018 drought. More than 80% of the state is now experiencing severe to extreme drought. Historically low seasonal precipitation over the last couple of years have led to diminished stream flows and reservoir storages, increasing the continued water stress. Texas on the other hand is experiencing what would appear to be normal drought conditions with only a small fraction of the state (less than 30%) experiencing extreme drought.  The hardest hit counties include Jefferson Davis and Presidio located west of the Permian Basin.

Water Bulletin - Summer 2021 – Spotlight on Drought in the Western United States 3

Figure 3.  Historical drought intensity and areal coverage across California and Texas. (Source: https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/DmData/TimeSeries.aspx)

Climate Change Outlook

Many of the western states of the contiguous United States rely on the melt of seasonal snowpacks to add to river flows, and subsequently regional water supplies. Global warming is having a negative effect on the Northern hemisphere snowpack, with a sustained decline occurring since the mid-1900s. This is placing more reliance on seasonal rainfall, which can be hit-and miss, and the projection shows continued declines as the atmosphere continues to warm placing regional water supplies at risk.

Why Should You Care?

Regardless of the geographic differences, operations reliant on ready access to water, like unconventional oil and gas (UCOG) (e.g., fracking operations), should pay close attention to local water supply conditions. In a period defined by climate change and extreme weather events, lack of water security can lead to water shortages, operational disruption, growth constraints, and increased costs if third party solutions are required (i.e. purchasing and trucking of water). As drought conditions worsen, increased development of regulatory restrictions and suspensions on freshwater use is also highly likely. These types of regulatory barriers will increasingly make water risk a serious business risk for oil and gas operations.

Water Security: Building Resiliency into Your Business

As water supply constraints and basin pressures become more prevalent and threaten economic growth, the need to understand and address allocation, use, cost, and other key drivers that impact water use have never been more crucial. As is the case within the agricultural industry, UCOG producers may need to build resiliency into the sector and find ways to adapt before they are forced to.

Given the current trends, it is quite possible that later-season supplies will be stretched, and a scramble may ensue. “Planning for the worst and hoping for the best” may have some merit here, and consideration of supply and management strategies beyond the status quo (like recycling and re-tasking of existing supplies) may be worth exploring, particularly in the most hard-hit areas. Time will tell, but a well thought out plan is the best line of defense for water-reliant businesses.

Don’t leave your water security to chance. Avoid operational downtime with a free water management consultation. To set up a call, email [email protected] or call at 1-346-287-2422.

Being prepared for the climate of the future is the best way to ensure your water security. If your business success is tied to water availability and reliability, you need to know your water risk profile. Let us help you understand your business risk by identifying the water supply stresses in your areas of operation and developing a water security strategy to ensure your water-reliant activities can weather any storm.

Trevor Wall,  P.Geo.
VP, New Ventures and Corporate Innovation
Integrated Sustainability
1-346-287-2422
[email protected]
IntegratedSustainability.ca

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