Adapting to Drought in the U.S. West

Cities, ranchers, and ecologists embrace low-tech ways to conserve water

What’s at Stake

The western United States is entering its 22nd year of drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor classifies 60 percent of our western states under severe, extreme, or exceptional drought. Arizona, California, and Nevada, which rely on the Colorado River for drinking water and agriculture, will have to cut their water use by 40 percent over the next three decades because the river is drying up. How will cities and ranches adapt? 

Diverse Perennial Pastures

Ranchers across the U.S. West are working to restore grasslands to build water reserves. Strategies include avoiding bare soil by preventing overgrazing. The biodiversity of plants in pastures makes them more resilient, as do deep, well-established root systems. Some ranchers are restoring dry creek beds to slow and spread water into the ground. See this 2021 story by Greta Moran. 

Beavers as Hydraulic Engineers

Beavers were once plentiful in upland swamps and river basins across the American West. But trappers nearly wiped them out of existence in the 19th century. Beaver dams trapped water that flooded wetlands and soaked into underground aquifers, writes Jerd Smith in this story. When aquifers are full, the landscape is better able to handle natural disasters. Wet, vegetated places can slow flash floods and wildfires, for example. A multi-year study in Nevada found that stream banks near beaver dams were 88 percent greener than undammed areas. 

Several successful projects have imported beavers into arid places. One effort brought nine beavers to a stream in Idaho. Within three years, those beavers built 149 dams, “transforming the once-narrow strip of green along a stream into a wide, vibrant floodplain,” writes Brianna Randall in this story. It’s not all smooth sailing, though; beavers have their own agenda and sometimes flood agricultural fields. But in wilderness areas in need of moisture, they can work wonders. For more information about beavers, I recommend Ben Goldfarb’s excellent book Eager

Goats Preventing Wildfires

No beavers? Goats could clear dry grasses and brush near residential areas to create a firebreak. Fires were a terrible problem in California in 2020, and drought does not help. The Oakland, California Fire Department turned three thousand goats loose to eat dry grasses in a park. See the video here

Arizona: Water Banks and Xeriscaping

The Arizona Water Banking Authority (AWBA) is preparing for life without the Colorado River by storing water in underground aquifers. Water banking benefits Arizona as well as the other states that depend on the Colorado River. And Phoenix charges more for water in the summer, encouraging residents to switch from thirsty grass lawns to xeriscape landscapes featuring cacti and succulents. In 2000, about 80 percent of Phoenix had grass lawns; now, only 14 percent of the city does. See this 2019 story on Phoenix by Jim Robbins.

Texas: More Forage per Gallon

Texas is facing the driest conditions in 1,000 years, according to a study by Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin. Texas ranchers share generational knowledge with their peers on how to manage land more effectively to conserve water. These conservation practices include rotating pastures, brush control, and other measures. They’re also using precision irrigation and reusing water as much as possible. See this 2020 story by Meena Ventakaramanan.

Trees Fighting Drought

A counterintuitive way to fight drought is to plant trees. Trees drink a lot of water. But they also produce water vapor, increasing humidity, although it’s unclear if they release enough moisture to cause rain. Trees reduce air temperatures, which reduces water loss through evaporation. Trees also stabilize soil so that other plants can establish roots more easily, preventing a dustbowl effect. The more plants, the better the ground can hold moisture. 

Bonus Video: The Man Who Planted Trees

This half-hour short feature from 1987 is a masterpiece of animation. It’s like watching watercolors come to life. It tells the story of a man in France who transformed an abandoned, arid landscape into a lush, thriving community simply by planting trees during his daily walks. This film is not only a classic ecology tale but a parable of caring for the next generation. Watch it on YouTube: