Irrigation Districts Are Key to Covering Coming Drought

June 16, 2021
U.S. water management agencies are a way for journalists to think about problems of drought. Above, the Central Arizona Project aqueduct, which diverts water into central and southern Arizona. Photo: Water Alternatives Photos/Skaidra Smith-Heisters. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Irrigation Districts Are Key to Covering Coming Drought

By Joseph A. Davis

It’s going to be a long, hot summer — and a dry one. Environmental journalists will have a lot to write about when it comes to drought, agriculture and irrigation.

One portal to these stories is your local, state and regional water management agency. It might simply be an irrigation district, but they are almost ubiquitous, coming in many shapes and sizes.

And there are still parts of the United States where water management organization is the most important form of local government.

In remote parts of arid New Mexico, for example, Spanish-speaking populations whose ancestors arrived back in 1598 still operate acequias, small, community-operated irrigation canals. Indigenous people had irrigated land for hundreds of years before that.


Why it matters

Keep in mind that irrigation had a lot to do with the rise of agriculture and what we call civilization, even before ancient Egypt.

By the same token, drought had a lot to do with the seeming “disappearance” of the ancestral Puebloan civilization (whose descendants exist today in parts of the Southwest).


Think Dust Bowl, which taught us

how land and water conservation

are connected. But try to get past

the withered cornstalk tropes.


In more recent times of drought, people lose their land and jobs — think Dust Bowl, which taught us how land and water conservation are connected.

But try to get past the withered cornstalk tropes. Drought of freshwater in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, for instance, may end up making the Bay more saline — helping some oysters and hurting some crabs. Another example: Low flow on the Salmon River’s branches is tough on the whitewater recreation industry.


The backstory

Many U.S. states have legal frameworks for local communities to organize irrigation districts. These may sometimes manage more than delivery of water to farmers and other users — electric power being one commodity that often comes along with water.

Some irrigation districts are small and remote, but others are mighty. An example is California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which serves some 150,000 electric customers and supplies water to some 500,000 acres from the Colorado River. The Imperial Valley is a major producer of iceberg lettuce and many other vegetables. It is also a political behemoth in the state.

In fact, California, a partly arid state dependent on water moved in from far away, has lots of irrigation districts. The state organizes and oversees them via agencies like the State Water Resources Control Board. There are similar entities in many states.

The legal landscape, or waterscape, differs widely from state to state, depending on many factors. Water is comparatively abundant east of the Mississippi, but much land west of the Mississippi is desert, arid or semi-arid. This geographic fact is reflected, organizationally, by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates dams in the 17 Western states.

Much U.S. water law is old and based on precedent — and water rights in the West are based on a hierarchy of historically prior claims. Water rights in the East tend to be based on riparian (shoreline) access and proximity.

It gets a lot more complicated. But journalists looking for drought news are well advised to start by looking at water management agencies.


Water agencies vary widely in scale

It’s important to realize how large and complex the institutional web of water agencies is. And how those agencies operate at scales all the way from the hyperlocal (e.g., soil and water conservation districts) to the national and the international.

There are also a lot of agencies at mid-scale (neither local nor national) that may be key players in a drought. Think, for example, of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the regional Power Marketing Administrations or the International Boundary and Water Commission.

Think also of regional players that may have been created by federal water funding, like the Salt River Project, the Central Arizona Project or California’s Central Valley Project.

In some cases, there are deeply connected water systems that have no institutional or administrative center — for example, the Apalachicola Basin waterways that have been a legal battlefield involving Florida, Georgia and Alabama, in conflicts specifically about drought conditions.

By the way, the SEJournal has already published a lot about drought (and how to cover it). See, for instance, our TipSheet on “For Coming Drought Season, Flood of Info” and our Toolbox on “No Drought of Data, As Climate Dries U.S.,”as well as a Backgrounder on “Finding Native People at Heart of Environment Beat” that addresses how drought and water rights affect Native tribes.

And we hardly need to remind journalists that climate change is a foundational part of this story (for example, see our TipSheet, “Farms and Ranches, Possible Cause, Cure of Climate Change”). Climate change is how we know drought is going to get more severe and make even more news.


Drainage basins and groundwater mining

Water itself is organized — beyond the institutional realm — in drainage basins and branching river systems. Each basin has its own story. And each basin has its own institutional ecosystem, too.

Right now, the one likeliest to make big headlines is the Colorado River system, which starts in the Rockies and ends in the Pacific Southwest. The seven states in the Colorado Basin have organized themselves into the Colorado River Compact (see SEJournal's Backgrounder, “Can States Divvy Up the Shrinking Colorado River Water Supply?”).

The compact is a kind of treaty trying to divvy up the water; the problem is that there is not enough water. As the river gets lower and lower in the current megadrought, allocation will get more difficult.

It is a different story for the Columbia-Snake-Salmon system, which also takes in seven states (and one Canadian province). Dams along the system provide economic benefits (storage, irrigation, power) but also block the migration of salmon, which are essential to the region’s culture and economy (more on the Pacific Northwest and drought in our special report, “Covering Your Climate: An A-to-Z Guide to Emerald Corridor Climate Impacts”).


As a journalist, part of your job

is to know where you are amidst

this system of systems. Each will

respond to drought differently.


As a journalist, part of your job is to know where you are amidst this system of systems: the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence, the Chesapeake and so on. Each will respond to drought differently. Each has its own set of institutions.

Each has its own politics and 900-pound-gorilla industries. Each has its own set of ecosystems. This is where you will find your story. (For more on that, see our feature, “Why Reporters Should Catch the Watershed By the Tale.”)

And don’t forget that an important component of the water system is groundwater, water found at various depths underground in geologic formations. It may be salt or fresh, deep or shallow.

In many places it is an important source of supply not only for irrigation, but for residential and municipal drinking wells.

Groundwater, to risk simplifying things, is organized into aquifers — flowing and connected formations. Sometimes rain and snowmelt recharge these aquifers. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the amount withdrawn for human activities like irrigation vastly outpaces the rate of recharge.

Case in point: The immense regional Ogallala Aquifer underlies parts of eight states. And irrigation is pumping it dry. Because such water will not be replaced in our lifetimes, this is often called “mining.” Drought and groundwater mining make each other worse.


Story ideas and questions to ask

  • Is your hydrologic neighborhood experiencing drought?
  • What ecological features are being affected by drought (or even excess water)?
  • What human activities are affected by drought in your area? Which human activities are worsening it?
  • Do farmers and ranchers irrigate in your area? Do they need to? How is the drought affecting irrigation supply?
  • How often do farmers in your area use high-efficiency methods like drip irrigation? Do they have a motive to overuse water in order to avoid losing water rights?
  • What has happened during previous droughts in your area? How far back can you track its hydrological history?
  • Where does irrigation water in your area go after it is applied to fields?


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 24. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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