Megadrought. Aridification. We are officially in serious trouble.
(Esquire) “Not long ago, we mentioned that Lake Mead, the water source for 40 million people (1 in 10 Americans) and for massive tracts of American farmland, and a big part of the existence of the states of California, Nevada, and Arizona, was reaching record lows...the problem is getting worse, and quickly, too.
But after years of an unrelenting drought that has quickly accelerated amid record temperatures and lower snowpack melt, the lake is set to mark another, more dire turning point. Next month, the federal government expects to declare its first-ever shortage on the lake, triggering cuts to water delivered to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico on Jan. 1. If the lake, currently at 1,068 feet, drops 28 more feet by next year, the spigot of water to California will start to tighten in 2023.
The crisis, said Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Conservation District, can no longer be ignored. “According to Merriam-Webster, a drought is a temporary condition,” he said. What is happening, he suggested, is something more permanent and troubling. “This is aridification.”
Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA-32) has introduced HR 4099, – “Large-Scale Water Recycling Project Investment Act” It creates a program to fund $750 million worth of water recycling projects in the 17 western “Reclamation” states through the year 2027. “The Title XVI grant program’s successes have shown us how water recycling projects not only create jobs and boost our local economies, they can be brought online in as little as two years in contrast to dams which take 10 to 15 years to build and cost $2 billion now. As we combat extreme drought and prepare for future water shortages in the arid west, Congress must provide additional funding opportunities now to help get large-scale recycling projects off the ground, and that’s precisely what our critical legislation aims to do.” The bill, which was introduced at the end of June, is currently before the House Committee on Natural Resources.
If your representative is on this huge committee (check here – Brownley’s a member) be sure you tell them to push this bill through.“The universal truism is that by the time you react to a drought it’s too late to react to a drought,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute. “The majority of things you have to do to mitigate impacts have to be done before the drought.”
Action: Call your legislators. Let’s push this through fast!
Minimal script for representatives: I’m calling from [zip code] to urge Rep. [____] to cosponsor HR 4099 – “Large-Scale Water Recycling Project Investment Act” and to actively support it through the House.
Minimal script for senators: I’m calling from [zip code] to tell Sen. [____] that I want [him/her] to cosponsor and support a Senate version of HR 4099 – “Large-Scale Water Recycling Project Investment Act”
Additional script for both: Due to climate warming, megadrought and aridification are becoming our new normal. This is devastating to our environment and our economy. Lake Mead, which supplies water to 40 million people, in seven states and in Mexico, is at such a low point, the government may declare its first-ever mandatory delivery cuts. This bill’s water recycling projects need to start immediately, to save crops and jobs and to recharge our groundwater supplies.
Rep.-check here. Neither Brownley or Carbajal are cosigners yet.
We’ve had droughts before…why is our current condition so different?
Terms of climate-change destruction: “megadrought”, “hot drought” and “aridification.”
(Watch slides here comparing wet vs. dry times at our water sources)
MEGADROUGHT: Megadrought: a period of extreme dryness that lasts for decades. Within that period there may be occasional better, wet, years, but the respite is brief. The dryness soon returns and drought maintains its long-term grip. These megadroughts have lasted for decades. One in the 2nd century lasted for 50 years. Others, in the 9th, 12th, 13th and 16th centuries, lasted between 30 and 40.
“The amount of water now available across the US west is well below that of any time in modern civilization,” said Park Williams, a hydroclimatologist at Columbia University. Research by Williams and colleagues last year analyzed tree rings to discover the current dry period is rivaled only by a spell in the late 1500s in a history of drought that reaches back to around 800, with the climate crisis doubling the severity of the modern-day drought.
“But scientists have made clear the current conditions would be virtually impossible without human-caused climate change, pointing to a longer-term “aridification” of the region. All of the water conservation efforts that have kept shortages at bay until now risk being surpassed by the rising heat.
“As the globe warms up, the west will dry out,” said Williams. “The past two years have been shocking to me, I never thought I would see downtown LA reach 111F as it’s so close to the ocean, but we have some of the driest conditions in 1,200 years so the dice are loaded for more heatwaves and fires. This could be the tip of the iceberg, we may well see much longer, tougher droughts.”
Disturbing fact: Archaeological evidence has linked previous decades-long megadroughts to several historical societal collapses, including the Mayan civilization and Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty in China.
HOT DROUGHT: A 2017 study published in Water Resources Research found that the Colorado River flows between 2000 and 2014 were 19% below normal. Reduced rainfall was partially responsible, but on average, about one-third of the runoff decline was attributed to warming temperatures from human-caused climate change. This “hot drought” causes more evaporation from water bodies and soil, more evapotranspiration from plants and more sublimation from snow. For the West, this will have far-reaching economic and ecological consequences.
ARIDIFICATION: In a 2018 paper, the Colorado River Research Group, added the new term “aridification” to more accurately describe our condition of warming temperatures, and lower rainfall. Aridification, “describes a period of transition to an increasingly water scarce environment — an evolving new baseline around which future extreme events (droughts and floods) will occur.”
“Or more simply: Drought is temporary. Aridification is permanent.“
This reinforces the fact that climate change isn’t a distant phenomenon, but one that’s already underway and causing life-altering changes. Depending on where you live, it’s causing more severe floods, destructive hurricanes, prolonged droughts or lengthened fire seasons.“
This isn’t a problem contained to just the Colorado River basin or the Southwest, either.
Warmer summer temperatures are likely to reduce flows in other key western rivers, including the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, and rivers across California’s Sierra Nevada, other research has shown. And warming temperatures are driving similar changes further east, too.“
Drought vs. national security concerns
Hoover Dam, the nation’s largest reservoir and source of hydroelectric power for more than 8 million people, has had five of its 17 turbines replaced in recent years with new fittings better suited to operating with Lake Mead’s historically low water levels. The human-made lake is now at approximately 36% of its capacity.
“Even with these adaptions, however, the decline of Lake Mead has caused the amount of hydro power generated by the dam to drop by around 25%. The drought is expected to cause the hydro facility at Lake Oroville, California (see below), to completely shut down, prompting a warning from the United States Energy Association that a “megadrought-induced electricity shortage could be catastrophic, affecting everything from food production to industrial manufacturing”. The association added that such a scenario could even force people to move east, in what it called a “reverse Dust Bowl exodus”.
Michael Bernardo, river operations manager at the US Bureau of Reclamation, said a similar shutdown of the Hoover dam would require more than 100ft in further water level retreat, which is not anticipated, although he finds himself constantly hoping for the rains that would ease the tightening shortages.
Glen Canyon Dam: The Bureau of Reclamation began emergency water releases from reservoirs upstream in the Colorado River this week in an effort to keep Lake Powell, the country’s second-largest reservoir, full enough to continue to generate hydroelectric power from the Glen Canyon Dam, a 1,320-megawatt hydroelectric power plant that produces electricity distributed to customers in seven different states. The Bureau of Reclamation said the releases from Flaming Gorge, which will start this month, will increase the water level 50 cubic feet (1.4 cubic meters) per second every day, and will last until July 23.
Edward Hyatt Power Plant: Water from Lake Oroville, the California’s second-largest reservoir, generates enough electricity to power up to 800,000 homes when operating at full capacity, the outlet reports. In recent days, the reservoir’s water level has been hovering at around 700 feet (213 meters) above sea level, or about 35% capacity. If it continues to fall at its currently projected rate to 640 feet (195 meters), there will not be enough water to continue operating the Hyatt plant in two to three months. Officials say they may have to shut off the hydropower plant for the first time.
Power lines/transmission: Another drought/energy issue is our near-constant fires of dry vegetation. As Oregon’s Bootleg fire compromised three transmission lines that bring electricity from the Pacific Northwest to California, our state made up that difference with gas powered plants in Long Beach, Oxnard, and Redondo Beach, drought-hampered hydropower dams, nuclear power from Diablo and lithium-ion batteries. Power companies were still preparing for rolling blackouts.
General: “Jonathan Webb, the CEO of AppHarvest, says water scarcity is a growing national security concern as a heatwave continues to wreak havoc on the West Coast.
“We are at a very, very stark moment in the US, and it’s not going to get any better,” Webb told Insider in an exclusive interview.
Over the weekend, temperatures in Death Valley, California, reached 130 degrees, one of the highest temperatures ever recorded on earth. The US also just recorded the hottest June on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Webb says the US has taken water “for granted.” And as drought conditions get more extreme, policymakers will have to figure out a solution for the dwindling water supply, or else the government will be “toppled,” he added. Policymakers are looking at AppHarvest, an indoor-farming company that uses recycled-rainwater technology, as a solution to grow more food with less water.
Because of his expertise and connections in Washington, DC, Webb has been called upon in recent weeks to meet with US senators like Joe Manchin and Mitch McConnell and former military generals to discuss national security around food security and water scarcity.“
Webb’s company, AppHarvest is both a farm and a water company, purifying recyled water for use in an indoor farm, allowing it to use 90% less water and get 30 times more yield per acre than open-field agriculture in areas like California,
Wheat: The U.S. wheat crop is in trouble, and not because Americans took up home baking during the worst of the pandemic. Wheat is not an irrigated crop, depending completely on rainfall and 98% of the country’s wheat crop is in areas experiencing drought. The Department of Agriculture said Monday that farmers in the Northern Plains were projected to harvest their smallest crop of spring wheat—crops planted in the spring and harvested in the autumn—in 33 years. “Producers in the driest areas continue to make choices on abandoning or haying their wheat crop depending on yield potential,” the North Dakota Wheat Commission notes. “Temperatures for this week will turn hot again, causing concerns for wheat that is in the grain filling stages.”
The varieties of wheat hardest hit by the drought and heat in Northwest states are what is known as “soft white,” the only place in the U.S. that grows this kind of wheat. Soft white wheat is good for pastries and the like because of its low protein content, which makes it less stretchy than traditional flour.
Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, an associate professor of applied economics at Cornel coauthored a study published in Nature Climate Change earlier this year that found that climate change has already made global farming productivity 21% lower than it could have been—the equivalent of making no improvements in productivity for seven years. He states “It’s already happening but we don’t see it because this is a bad year compared to the previous one. We’re comparing today versus yesterday because we’re not thinking about what could have been.”
Almonds: “Eight in ten of the world’s almonds come from California and each nut requires 12 litres of water to grow, according to a recent study. Overall, the state’s almond production uses an estimated two trillion litres of water a year. With reservoirs and ground wells — needed for agriculture, urban areas and fish — rapidly emptying, that looks less and less tenable…69,000 farms and ranches supply a third of America’s vegetables and two thirds of its fruit, growers view water scarcity as an existential threat. Many expect food prices to rise.”
Some farmers, such as Joe Del Bosque, a 72-year-old farmer with 2000 acres in the Central Valley are responding by tearing down their almond orchards.
Meanwhile, there’s strong disagreement as to who’s taking all the water. “If we continue planting almonds the way that we have in California, we’re going to end up with some very serious rationing in the cities in order to keep those crops alive,” said Tom Stokely, of the California Water Impact Network, a vocal critic of almond farming who is also concerned about declining salmon populations. “It just isn’t right.”
Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, said that the scapegoating of almonds was unfair. “One thing you notice about droughts in California is that waste is always water used by somebody else,” he said. Almonds, he said, had been a vital driver of economic growth in rural areas, lifting some out of poverty, thanks in part to persistent demand from “latte-sipping San Franciscans”.
For Joe Del Bosque, who also grows melons, corn and cherries, almonds are a high value, low-labour intensity crop. Now, he said, farmers were reassessing which crops they will have the water to produce. “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt such uncertainty.”
Beef: After two years of consecutive severe drought, ranchers are having to decide to buy more expensive feed to supplement stunted grazing crops, or sell their herds. Many are selling off parts of their herds, either to feedlots, where cattle gain weight before slaughter, or to other ranches as far east as Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, where drought hasn’t dried up pastures. The industry doesn’t anticipate meat shortages yet, but that could change.
Sample responses to drought
Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a drought emergency in 41 counties. Much of Northern California and the Central Valley are experiencing “acute water supply shortfalls, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack, a critical water source for Californians up and down the state during the dry season, is all but gone already—just 6% of normal for this time of year. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern CA has stated that they’re prepared for this current drought due to investments made in storage, conservation and finding diverse supplies, but we need to do more if, through global warming, drought cycles overwhelm wet ones.
Newsom has proposed a $5.1 billion package of immediate drought response and long-term water resilience investments to address immediate, emergency needs, and to build regional capacity to endure drought and safeguard water supplies for communities, the economy and the environment. Although we already have 11 desalination plants, with 10 more proposed, experts say we have more tools at our disposal. These include encouraging residents to adopt water-saving appliances and drought-tolerant plants, fixing inefficiencies in the water delivery system from leaks and old infrastructure, recyling wasterwater, and capturing more of winter rain runoff.
Previously, California’s worst drought on record was from 2012-2016, causing Governor Brown to issue an Executive Order in 2014, declaring a state of emergency and requesting a voluntary reduction in urban potable water use. In May 2016, he signed Executive Order B-37-16 which required the DWR and SWRCB to work together to develop a water conservation framework. This Executive Order aimed to “make water conservation a way of life” in California, with the goals of using water more wisely, eliminating water waste, strengthening local drought resilience, and improving agricultural water use efficiency and drought planning.
In 2016, Californians were using an average of 85 gallons per person. In 2018, Gov. Brown signed Assembly Bill 1668 and Senate Bill 606 enacted a target of 55-gallon per person for indoor use as a goal that water utilities must meet by averaging across all their customers.
While California has received the most attention as the poster child for drought in the West this year, Utah is actually the state suffering the most. “Last month, Utah’s Gov. Spencer Cox declared a “Weekend of Prayer,” encouraging all Utahns to pray for rain “to relieve our state from this drought.” Shockingly, it doesn’t look like God listened: At the end of June, 100% of the state was in drought, with more than 98% in extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst categories included in the Drought Monitor. That means there’s a lack of water not just for the lake, but just about everything in the state.”
This Republican governor has also instituted some water restrictions, just in case, and has admitted that climate change is one of the biggest threats facing his state. He’s called for actions to address emissions, including expanding electric vehicle charging, though he has also argued the more coal Utah exports abroad, “the healthier the environment will be across the globe.”
One very visible effect of the drought is the historic low levels of the Great Salt Lake, the biggest salt lake in the western hemisphere, due to both the megadrought and overuse of freshwater steams and rivers that feed it. Having the lake get this low isn’t just a worrisome sign of how dry Utah is right now. The lake generates around $1.3 billion per year from various industries. Roughly $1.1 billion of that comes from minerals extraction, but recreation and brine shrimp farming also play key economic roles for the region.
Falling lake levels also mean that the animals living in and around the lake are facing challenges. New stretches of land allow for predators like foxes and coyotes to be able to prey on pelican eggs. The shrinking lake has also raised the risks of wildlife-human interaction for even before the latest dip in lake levels…
…The dry lakebed, the AP reported, has now grown to around 750 square miles (1,942 square kilometers). All that dirt could be bad news for the lungs of those living in the region; the lakebed soil is naturally laced with arsenic, and experts are worried that winds could circulate dangerous dust into the air.
The Salt Lake is hemmed in by mountains, which trap a lot of air pollution. Salt Lake City already has some of the worst air quality in the U.S. Much of that is caused by fossil fuel pollution, but Utahns may be able to add “arsenic lake dust” to that load. In a vicious twist, some scientists also say the dust kicked up from the dry lake could even speed the melting of snow in the winter.
“A lot [of] us have been talking about the lake as flatlining,” Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, told the AP.
Experts say that saving the Salt Lake could mean cutting the use of freshwater tributaries that flow into the lake by nearly a third. For an exceptionally thirsty state—Utah’s public supply customers use the most water of any state in the U.S., with each person consuming between 150 and 200 gallons per day (close to double that of Californians in 2016)—that could be an enormous challenge. But Utah may be up for it: In May, the town of Oakley took the bold step to finalize a pause on construction projects that would tap into the local water supply, over concern about drought conditions and water availability.
(Huffpost) “Montana’s Republican governor has made it clear his state won’t be bothered to help in the fight against climate change. But he still wants federal assistance to deal with the climate impacts at Montana’s door.
Last week, Gov. Greg Gianforte withdrew Montana from a bipartisan coalition of more than two dozen states committed to upholding the goals of the Paris climate agreement, which include net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Brooke Stroyke, a spokesperson for Gianforte, told Montana Public Radio that the governor believes innovation, not government regulation, is the solution to climate change.
Two days later, Gianforte called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare a drought emergency across his state, which would make emergency funds available to farmers who have suffered losses.
“Data from the U.S. Drought Monitor now shows all counties in Montana experiencing abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions, and the situation continues to get worse,” Gianforte wrote on Twitter.”
Not only has he removed his state from a group working to uphold the Paris Climate Accords, he’s now sending his constituents climate-change denier nonsense.
“Gianforte also shared a tweet from the state’s fire protection program about dangerous fire conditions across western Montana. “Let’s work together to reduce the burden on our first responders and use extreme caution when working and recreating outdoors,” Gianforte wrote. “
One way to lessen the burden on wildland firefighters would be to take the climate threat seriously. Wildfires are forecast to become increasingly severe as climate change drives up temperatures and fuels drought.
Instead, Gianforte has blamed wildfires on “frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremists” and dismissed the scientific consensus that humans are the primary drivers of global climate change. In letters to at least two constituents while a member of Congress, he wrote that “the climate has been changing for millennia” and that “while the climate is changing, we still do not know how much of that change is due to human activities…
“This drought didn’t come out of nowhere, and if the current drought and the last decade of extreme weather across the country don’t convince you we’re in a crisis right now and that we bold action to avert disaster today and for the future, then you’re cementing the risk for the communities in your state,” Michael Kelly, director of communications at Clean Water Action, said via email.”
(Mother Jones) “We live in the desert. We are the driest city in the United States, in the driest state in the United States,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy manager of resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “We have to act like it.”
Pellegrino said the recent escalation of the drought has been “very scary” for some Vegas residents, although she insists the water authority has planned for this moment. Lake Mead’s level dropped under 1,075ft in June, barely a third full, triggering what will be the first ever cutbacks under a seven-state agreement on sharing the water from the Colorado River, which is harnessed by the Hoover dam to create the reservoir.
Different states get different water allocations and Nevada is a victim of its depopulated history, getting just 300,000 acre-feet of water a year (by comparison California gets 4.4m acre-feet) under an agreement struck before the Hoover dam was completed in the 1930s. “The joke is that Nevada’s representative was drunk,” said Pellegrino, who was born in 1983, when the state’s population was barely 900,000. It’s now more than 3 million and receives tens of millions of tourists a year.
This small water allocation will shrink by 21,000 acre-feet with the new cuts, although Nevada has made impressive strides in keeping below its low cap, slashing its water use despite the population nearly doubling since the early 2000s. Pellegrino is confident that further savings can be made and scrutiny is being placed upon the water used in Vegas casinos’ ubiquitous cooling systems.“
But global heating’s impact upon the west’s snowpack and rivers is unrelenting and the city’s water savings will only go so far. Las Vegas only has a supporting role in its own fate. Three-quarters of allocated Colorado River water is used to irrigate thirsty agriculture, and the overall water supply is more dependent upon the amount of snow melting hundreds of miles away in the Rocky Mountains than some extra marginal savings made in the suburbs.
“Vegas has done great things such as ripping out the grass, but we’ve lost 20% of the flow of the Colorado River since 2000 and another 10% loss by 2050 is completely possible,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University whose research has focused on the stresses facing the river.
“I worry it could be even more than that, and that should frighten everyone.”
Tribal access to water.
Fire is one of the most immediate effects of drought on tribal land.
The cuts expected when the federal government declares a water shortage will particularly impact farmers. But they are likely to hit indigenous communities particularly hard, as they have struggled to get their legal share of Colorado River water for years—even when those waters have been abundant…
(Newsweek)”…American Indians are 19 times more likely to not have access to running water, according to the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit US Water Alliance. The Navajo Nation, located in the Colorado River Basin, is the largest reservation in the United States. It is comprised of more than 17 million acres in northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico, and is roughly the size of West Virginia.
In 2020 about a third of the more than 330,000 people in the Navajo Nation didn’t have running water. That made the impact of COVID-19 particularly intense, as the Nation had the highest per-capita rate of COVID-19 in the U.S. in May 2020.
But drought is not the only barrier to water access for the Navajo Nation or other tribes in the Colorade River Basin.
All tribes have legal reserved rights to water, however these rights are not quantified. In order to gain a quantified right, tribes need to get the state they are in to adjudicate the right. The Navajo Nation crosses three state lines: Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, so they need settlements in all three. Currently, the Navajo Nation has a reached a settlement with New Mexico, and gained one in Utah at the end of 2020. They have been trying unsuccessfully for more than a decade to adjudicate their water rights in Arizona.
Even when tribes have gained a settlement they often still can‘t access their water.
There are 30 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin that collectively have rights to 3.2 million acre-feet (MAF), or about 25 percent of the River’s water. Yet much of this water gets left behind.
“Tribes in the Colorado River Basin don’t fully utilize their right, because they don’t have the resources to maximize that benefit,” Aaron Payment, vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, told Newsweek, “and that is a failure of the treaty and trust responsibility of the federal government.”
Building water infrastructure is quite expensive, and the federal government has rarely provided assistance to the tribes for those projects.
“The Navajo Nation has been consistently asking the federal government to live up to the promise of building out the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project (NIIP),” Jason John, director of water resources for the Navajo Nation said. “The 110,000 acres of it is probably about 75 to 85 percent there. It’s just a lack of funding from the federal government to complete that project.”
NIIP construction began in 1964 and has yet to be completed, leaving the Navajo Nation unable to use it to gain access to their full settlement.
“The more tribal water that doesn’t get developed, it just means that there’s more water in the system for everybody else,” John said. “And when other non-tribal entities start using the water, it’s very hard to take it away...”
In 2019, the seven basin states along with Mexico agreed on The Drought Contingency Plan. Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico all took voluntary cuts. As to Native American representation, only the Gila River Indian Tribe and Colorado River Indian tribe participated in the drafting of the plan, and only because they fought to be at the table.
“…There has not been any meaningful inclusion and consultation related to the operation and management of the Colorado River,” the UIT Business Committee wrote to Newsweek. “In as far as serious consultations and participation with the federal government and the states, the management and operations of the River has continued to be a red line where Indian Tribes are not allowed….”