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Drought vs. legislatures: Drought is winning

Lake Mendocino, one of two major water storage lakes on the Russian River, is nearly empty on January 24, 2014, near Ukiah, California.
George Rose | Getty Images
Lake Mendocino, one of two major water storage lakes on the Russian River, is nearly empty on January 24, 2014, near Ukiah, California.

Scattered thunderstorms in the Rockies and parts of the Southwest are doing little to ease the hardships caused by the severe drought, now going on almost three years in some states.

Human efforts have turned to laws and regulations to out-maneuver the drought—but trying to overrule nature's boiling point may be a case of too little, too late.

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"For plans and laws to work, they have to be in place before the drought happens," said Craig Cox, senior vice president at consumer-focused research firm Environmental Working Group (EWG).

"You are just scrambling to catch up," Cox argued. "The worst time to worry about this is when you are in a drought and the best time to work on it is before a drought."

Diminished returns on cutbacks

Towns and cities in New Mexico, Texas, Oregon, Nevada, Oklahoma and California have taken strong measures to restrict local water use over the past months—and the number doing so has increased.

However, there's a chance of diminishing returns when people cut back watering their lawns or flush the toilet less often, said Colin Polsky, a professor of geography at Clark University in Massachusetts.

"At some point, you've squeezed out all the non-essential use for water, and you have no place to go. And if the drought is the new normal, you have fewer tools to work with to deter the impact," he said.

On a bigger scale, there are proposals such as the one from Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (both D-Calif.), called the Emergency Drought Relief Act.

The bill passed the U.S. Senate last month and is now in negotiations in the House of Representatives. Several GOP representatives have their own similar drought relief measures.

The bill targets California, where drought conditions have put the whole state into emergency status—but it could be used as a guide for other states, according to Feinstein's website.

Among other provisions, the bill would ease restrictions on water exports to agricultural areas of the state. It also calls for rescheduling water supplies in wet years to prepare for future droughts, while also easing some environmental restrictions.

'Policy exacerbates California drought'

That last part doesn't go far enough for some who want to stop a law already in place.

"The biggest policy that exacerbates the California drought is the Endangered Species Act," said Rob Vandenheuvel, president of the California Milk Producers Council.

Vandenheuvel said that around 800,000 acre-feet of fresh water in California was flushed into the Pacific Ocean last year—water he said could have been pumped into storage facilities. But because it was feared that an endangered fish, the Delta Smelt, would be killed swimming near the pumps, the water was dumped in the ocean.

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However, EWG's Cox said the Endangered Species Act is too frequently a target when there's a water crisis.

"The issue over water use goes beyond the law," Cox argued. "There are ecosystems that need to be protected that are important for fishing and other parts of the economy."

Water rights fight

Besides the battle over protecting wildlife, the drought has brought up legal issues over paid water rights.

In what is often a complex maze of rules, rights vary from state to state. In California, it's basically allowable for towns and farms to withdraw water from the surface, ground or rivers for a reasonable and beneficial use—sometimes without restrictions.

That has led to lawsuits over who has full control of the rights and legal attempts to reduce water usage as well as divert water sources.

Florida doesn't have that problem. In the 1970s, laws were changed so that no one owns the water, not even farmers, said Chip Merriam, vice president of legislative and regulatory compliance at the Orlando Utilities Commission, in Orlando, Florida. That has led to a somewhat less complicated system of water allocation in drought conditions, Merriam said.

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"We've taken the idea that there's no value in overusing water, or we won't have it in the future," he said.

Despite an average rainfall of nearly 60 inches a year, the Sunshine State has seen its share of droughts. That's caused water use restrictions at times and arguments over allocation, Merriam said.

But the idea behind non-ownership of water rights has led to less in-fighting among the various users and better use of the resource.

Merriam added that other state officials have talked to him about what Florida's doing but so far, they "have not jumped on our model."

"It's hard to give up something like water rights once you own them," he said.

Cost to economy

Residents in drought-ridden states have seen water sources such as rivers and reservoirs dry up. That's led to higher water prices and even the use of treated waste water for drinking in places like Texas.

Ranchers and farmers are still losing livestock and crops. According to a recent study by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, California's drought will deal a severe blow to Central Valley's irrigated agriculture and farm communities this year, and could cost the industry $1.7 billion and cause more than 14,500 workers to lose their jobs.

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The drought is hitting consumers nationwide. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food prices are expected to continue their rise of up to 3.5 percent for the rest of the year because of the drought.

The lack of rain is also affecting marijuana growers in California, which could lead to higher prices for cannabis users. And firefighters in California face shortages for helicopter water drops as the summer's wildfire season there enters crucial months.

Even allergy suffering has increased from the drought— with more dust in the air from lack of rain.

Drought to get worse

There's little hope ahead for nature to come to the rescue. According to the United States Drought Monitor, the drought will likely expand and worsen this summer.

That's led to some discouragement on how to legislate dwindling water supplies.

"There are short-term things you can do to minimize the impact," said EWG's Cox. "But it's really the long term that we have to look at. If the drought ends, and it's business as usual with water, then I'm not optimistic about the future."

By CNBC's Mark Koba

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