2018: A Year of Deadly Climate Disasters and an 'Ear Splitting Wake-Up Call'
2018 is set to rank as the fourth warmest year on record—and the fourth year in a row reflecting a full degree Celsius (1.8° Fahrenheit) temperature rise from the late 1800s, climate scientists say.
This was the year that introduced us to fire tornadoes, bomb cyclones and in Death Valley, a five-day streak of 125°F temperatures, part of the hottest month ever documented at a U.S. weather station.
2018 also brought the world's highest-ever low temperature, as nighttime temperatures fell to a sizzling 109°F in Quiryat, Oman, on June 28, smashing a 2011 record-high low.
A startling 95 percent of the oldest and thickest Arctic sea ice is now gone—and we're losing Arctic ice at a rate of 14,000 tons per second, according to recent research, three times as fast as roughly three decades ago.
It was a year notable both for its overwhelming, climate-fueled impacts as well as its gut-wrenching predictions for what climate change still has in store for us if we fail to act. So much happened, frankly, that it's been hard to keep it all straight.
Actively eroding coastal permafrost bluff on Barter Island, located on the northern coast of Alaska, July 3, 2018 Shawn Harrison, U.S. Geological Survey
The year delivered increasingly powerful warnings from scientists and international agencies about the need to shift away from fossil fuels and slash greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., 2018 saw a presidential administration and Republican-controlled Congress packed with politicians and administrators who refuse to recognize the scientific consensus that the climate is changing because of fossil fuel pollution and other human activities.
(How strong is that consensus? We've known for years that the probability that greenhouse gas pollution is causing climate change is more than 95 percent—and that's according to a panel of 1,300 scientific experts from all over the world who were brought together by the United Nations.)
In fact, in 2018, the Trump administration's own U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a 1,656 page National Climate Assessment, which warns of hundreds of billions of dollars in damage on the horizon from climate change.
The Trump administration sought to bury that report—but it couldn't bury a UN report, published in October, which warned that we have 12 years to slash greenhouse gas emissions worldwide if we're to stave off the worst impacts of a changing climate.
"This report by the world's leading climate scientists is an ear-splitting wake-up call to the world," UN Secretary-General António Guterres wrote in a statement. "It confirms that climate change is running faster than we are—and we are running out of time."
The new @IPCC_ch report is a wake-up call to the world: it confirms that climate change is running faster than we a… https://t.co/FRjtlAsCmv— António Guterres (@António Guterres)1539041730.0
Greenhouse gas emissions had climbed to a record high in 2017, after a three-year period where carbon emissions held relatively steady. Levels of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, also broke records in 2017, following a relatively steady period of recorded global levels from 1999 to 2006.
"We are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes," added Panmao Zhai, who helped prepare the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report for the UN.
Indeed, 2018 brought some of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history—many of them linked to climate change, scientists have said.
In November, Paradise, California suffered a horrific wildfire that killed at least 85, destroyed 14,000 homes and seared images of traffic jams on roads surrounded by walls of fire into the minds of millions, as those fleeing posted terrifying videos of their escapes online.
Escaping the 'Camp Fire' in Butte County youtu.be
In southern California, the Woolsey Fire near Malibu killed three and burned 1,600 buildings, including homes belonging to Neil Young, Miley Cyrus and other celebrities, and leaving a dark scar visible from outer space in NASA images.
"California is vulnerable—not because of poor forest management as DT (our so-called president) would have us think," Neil Young wrote in a statement calling for action on climate change after his home was destroyed. "We are vulnerable because of Climate Change; the extreme weather events and our extended drought is part of it."
The Camp Fire was the most deadly wildfire in the U.S. in a century, spurred by a long-running drought and the spread of tree-killing bark beetles into newly warming regions—which together left 129 million dead trees in the parched state.
Dead trees along a mountain road in the Sequoia National Forest in November 2016U.S. Forest Service
But while some in Paradise plan to rebuild, to literally raise their town from ashes, a less-noticed piece of the U.S. was more permanently wiped off the map. An 11-acre Hawaiian island virtually disappeared below the waves, the victim of sea level rise and Hurricane Walaka.
California was hardly the only place to experience extraordinary wildfires in 2018. The Mallard Fire in Texas in May grew so hot that it formed its own pyrocumulous clouds, or fire clouds, which caused a supercell thunderstorm and one-inch hail north of Wheeler, Texas.
And in July, wildfires burned inside the Arctic Circle following an unprecedented drought, with locals in Sweden comparing the glow from the blaze to the Northern Lights. Horrific wildfires also burned across Greece in July, killing 100 people and forcing hundreds more to flee into the sea to escape the fire.
A #firenado came dangerously close to these emergency vehicles as they battle the Carr fire near Redding, Californi… https://t.co/Ldkky1Sh3a— CNN Weather Center (@CNN Weather Center)1532695429.0
The year began with the Montecito mudslides on Jan. 9, which killed 27 Californians and destroyed 130 homes, after a 200-year rainstorm dumped a half inch of rain in just five minutes onto steep slopes which were stripped barren of vegetation by the Thomas wildfire, which in early January became—at the time—the largest wildfire in California's history. That one-two punch bore the fingerprints of a changing climate.
"It wasn't just the drought; it wasn't just the fire; it wasn't just the rain. It was the compound effect," Leah Stokes, a climate policy researcher at UC Santa Barbara, told The Independent in January, discussing the Montecito disaster. "Climate change causes all kinds of abnormal events—you can really think of it as 'climate disruption' or 'global weirding.'"
Flooding and Hurricanes
2018 saw an unusually high number of violent storms, particularly in the Pacific, which saw "the most intense hurricane season ever recorded," according to Popular Science, including 10 storms that reached Category 4 or 5.
Climate scientists proposed the creation of a "Category 6" for hurricanes more powerful than any yet seen. "Scientifically, [six] would be a better description of the strength of 200 mph (320km/h) storms, and it would also better communicate the well-established finding now that climate change is making the strongest storms even stronger," climatologist Michael Mann told CBS News.
The Atlantic coast was hit by two of the most devastating storms to hit the continental U.S., following a 2017 in whic three Category Four storms, Harvey, Irma and Maria, smashed all records for hurricane damage and did over $300 billion in damage.
A year after Maria, Puerto Rico was still recovering, and the official death toll was recognized this year as 3,057 people—after Governor Ricardo Rossello accepted a report raising the number of recognized deaths from 64.
This year's worst Atlantic hurricanes, Michael and Florence, left much of the southern U.S. underwater at points.
Michael, America's strongest-ever October hurricane, carried sustained winds of 155 miles an hour and struck the Florida panhandle, flattening towns like Mexico Beach.
HURRICANE MICHAEL'S WRATH: Stunning drone footage shows the cleanup in Mexico Beach, Florida, after the storm ravag… https://t.co/uoPGUCly1d— CBS News (@CBS News)1539551429.0
Florence, meanwhile, spurred officials to call for the evacuation of more than 1 million people, then left parts of the Carolinas flooded for weeks, after it slowed to a crawl and deluged more than 8 trillion gallons of water into the region.
"When people say the wildfires, hurricanes and heatwaves they're experiencing are unlike anything they've seen before," Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement in November, "there's a reason for that and it's called climate change."
Even before Florence hit, one study found that the storm would be 50 miles wider, and dump 50 percent more rain, because of the impacts of burning fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas pollution.
Heatwaves and Noreasters
The year started with a prolonged run of winter storms in the Northeastern U.S., including winter storms dubbed Riley, Quinn, Skylar and Toby, which some researchers warned may have been tied to climate change—showing just how inapt the term "global warming" can be. When the jet stream began to wobble, it allowed cold air that would normally be trapped over the Arctic to make its way down to the continental U.S.—making the weather warmer up north and colder farther south.
The cold spell was so pronounced in New York and southern Canada that Niagara Falls froze on New Year's Day.
That freezing weather was followed by a summer heatwave that prompted heat warnings for 100 million Americans in the summer, and caused 93 deaths in Montreal.
More than 30,000 people were hospitalized in Japan for heatstroke as summer temps soared there as well.
And while droughts hit hard in Germany, drying up the Rhine river, Baltimore, Maryland has seen nearly 70 inches of rain. A flash flood in Ellicott City, Maryland, swept away cars as roadways abruptly became rivers.
Flash flooding hits Ellicott City, Maryland youtu.be
"The evidence, if we needed any more, continues to stack up. The record-high heatwaves, record-low Arctic sea ice, above average tropical cyclones and deadly wildfires are an alarm bell impossible to ignore," Jens Mattias Clausen, who represented Greenpeace at the UN COP24 climate talks in Poland, told The Guardian this month. "It's no longer our future that is in peril; our today is at risk."
9 #Renewable Energy Highlights of 2018 https://t.co/roGl0U14Jq https://t.co/RfjHi9UkmK— Clean Coalition (@Clean Coalition)1545966304.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
Super-emitters are individual sources such as leaking pipelines, landfills or dairy farms that produce a disproportionate amount of planet-warming emissions, especially methane and carbon dioxide. Carbon Mapper, the non-profit leading the effort, hopes to provide a more targeted guide to reducing emissions by launching special satellites that hunt for sources of climate pollution.
"What we've learned is that decision support systems that focus just at the level of nation states, or countries, are necessary but not sufficient. We really need to get down to the scale of individual facilities, and even individual pieces of equipment, if we're going to have an impact across civil society," Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper CEO and University of Arizona researcher, told BBC News. "Super-emitters are often intermittent but they are also disproportionately responsible for the total emissions. That suggests low-hanging fruit, because if you can identify and fix them you can get a big bang for your buck."
The new project, announced Thursday, is a partnership between multiple entities, including Carbon Mapper, the state of California, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Planet, a company that designs, builds and launches satellites, according to a press release. The project is being implemented in three stages.
The initial stage, which is already complete, involved the initial engineering development. NASA and Planet will work together in the second stage to build two satellites for a 2023 launch. The third phase will launch an entire constellation of satellites starting in 2025.
The satellites will include an imaging spectrometer built by NASA's JPL, NASA explained in a press release. This is a device that can break down visible light into hundreds of colors, providing a unique signature for chemicals such as methane and carbon dioxide. Most imaging spectrometers currently in orbit have larger pixel sizes, making it difficult to locate emission sources that are not always visible from the ground. However, Carbon Mapper spectrometers will have pixels of around 98 square feet, facilitating more detailed pin-pointing.
"This technology enables researchers to identify, study and quantify the strong gas emission sources," JPL Scientist Charles Miller said in the press release.
Once the data is collected, Carbon Mapper will make it available to industry and government actors via an open data portal to help repair leaks.
"These home-grown satellites are a game-changer," California Governor Gavin Newsom said of the project. "They provide California with a powerful, state-of-the-art tool to help us slash emissions of the super-pollutant methane — within our own borders and around the world. That's exactly the kind of dynamic, forward-thinking solution we need now to address the existential crisis of climate change."
By Jenna McGuire
Commonly used herbicides across the U.S. contain highly toxic undisclosed "inert" ingredients that are lethal to bumblebees, according to a new study published Friday in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
The study reviewed several herbicide products and found that most contained glyphosate, an ingredient best recognized from Roundup products and the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. and worldwide.
While the devastating impacts of glyphosate on bee populations are more broadly recognized, the toxicity levels of inert ingredients are less understood because they are not subjected to the same mandatory testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
"Pesticides are manufactured and sold as formulations that contain a mixture of compounds, including one or more active ingredients and, potentially, many inert ingredients," explained the Center for Food Safety in a statement. "The inert ingredients are added to pesticides to aid in mixing and to enhance the products' ability to stick to plant leaves, among other purposes."
The study found that these inert substances can be highly toxic and even block bees' breathing capacity, essentially causing them to drown. While researchers found that some of the combinations of inert ingredients had no negative impacts on the bees, one of the herbicide formulations killed 96% of the bees within 24 hours.
According to the abstract of the study:
Bees exhibited 94% mortality with Roundup® Ready‐To‐Use® and 30% mortality with Roundup® ProActive®, over 24 hr. Weedol® did not cause significant mortality, demonstrating that the active ingredient, glyphosate, is not the cause of the mortality. The 96% mortality caused by Roundup® No Glyphosate supports this conclusion.
"This important new study exposes a fatal flaw in how pesticide products are regulated here in the U.S.," said Jess Tyler, a staff scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Now the question is, will the Biden administration fix this problem, or will it allow the EPA to continue its past practice of ignoring the real-world harms of pesticides?"
According to the Center for Food Safety, there are currently 1,102 registered formulations that contain the active ingredient glyphosate, each with a proprietary mixture of inert ingredients. In 2017, the group filed a legal petition calling for the EPA to force companies to provide safety data on pesticide formulations that include inert ingredients.
"The EPA must begin requiring tests of every pesticide formulation for bee toxicity, divulge the identity of 'secret' formulation additives so scientists can study them, and prohibit application of Roundup herbicides to flowering plants when bees might be present and killed," said Bill Freese, science director at the Center for Food Safety. "Our legal petition gave the EPA a blueprint for acting on this issue of whole formulations. Now they need to take that blueprint and turn it into action, before it's too late for pollinators."
ATTN @EPA: Undisclosed "inert" ingredients in #pesticide products warrant further scrutiny! ➡️ A new study compared… https://t.co/bdFwXCVHsD— Center 4 Food Safety (@Center 4 Food Safety)1618592343.0
Roundup — also linked to cancer in humans — was originally produced by agrochemical giant Monsanto, which was acquired by the German pharmaceutical and biotech company Bayer in 2018.
The merger of the two companies was condemned by environmentalists and food safety groups who warned it would cultivate the greatest purveyor of genetically modified seeds and toxic pesticides in the world.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
By Ayesha Tandon
New research shows that lake "stratification periods" – a seasonal separation of water into layers – will last longer in a warmer climate.
These longer periods of stratification could have "far-reaching implications" for lake ecosystems, the paper says, and can drive toxic algal blooms, fish die-offs and increased methane emissions.
The study, published in Nature Communications, finds that the average seasonal lake stratification period in the northern hemisphere could last almost two weeks longer by the end of the century, even under a low emission scenario. It finds that stratification could last over a month longer if emissions are extremely high.
If stratification periods continue to lengthen, "we can expect catastrophic changes to some lake ecosystems, which may have irreversible impacts on ecological communities," the lead author of the study tells Carbon Brief.
The study also finds that larger lakes will see more notable changes. For example, the North American Great Lakes, which house "irreplaceable biodiversity" and represent some of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems, are already experiencing "rapid changes" in their stratification periods, according to the study.
As temperatures rise in the spring, many lakes begin the process of "stratification." Warm air heats the surface of the lake, heating the top layer of water, which separates out from the cooler layers of water beneath.
The stratified layers do not mix easily and the greater the temperature difference between the layers, the less mixing there is. Lakes generally stratify between spring and autumn, when hot weather maintains the temperature gradient between warm surface water and colder water deeper down.
Dr Richard Woolway from the European Space Agency is the lead author of the paper, which finds that climate change is driving stratification to begin earlier and end later. He tells Carbon Brief that the impacts of stratification are "widespread and extensive," and that longer periods of stratification could have "irreversible impacts" on ecosystems.
For example, Dr Dominic Vachon – a postdoctoral fellow from the Climate Impacts Research Centre at Umea University, who was not involved in the study – explains that stratification can create a "physical barrier" that makes it harder for dissolved gases and particles to move between the layers of water.
This can prevent the oxygen from the surface of the water from sinking deeper into the lake and can lead to "deoxygenation" in the depths of the water, where oxygen levels are lower and respiration becomes more difficult.
Oxygen depletion can have "fatal consequences for living organisms," according to Dr Bertram Boehrer, a researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, who was not involved in the study.
Lead author Woolway tells Carbon Brief that the decrease in oxygen levels at deeper depths traps fish in the warmer surface waters:
"Fish often migrate to deeper waters during the summer to escape warmer conditions at the surface – for example during a lake heatwave. A decrease in oxygen at depth will mean that fish will have no thermal refuge, as they often can't survive when oxygen concentrations are too low."
This can be very harmful for lake life and can even increase "fish die-off events" the study notes.
However, the impacts of stratification are not limited to fish. The study notes that a shift to earlier stratification in spring can also encourage communities of phytoplankton – a type of algae – to grow sooner, and can put them out of sync with the species that rely on them for food. This is called a "trophic mismatch."
Prof Catherine O'Reilly, a professor of geography, geology and the environment at Illinois State University, who was not involved in the study, adds that longer stratified periods could also "increase the likelihood of harmful algae blooms."
The impact of climate change on lakes also extends beyond ecosystems. Low oxygen levels in lakes can enhance the production of methane, which is "produced in and emitted from lakes at globally significant rates," according to the study.
Woolway explains that higher levels of warming could therefore create a positive climate feedback in lakes, where rising temperatures mean larger planet-warming emissions:
"Low oxygen levels at depth also promotes methane production in lake sediments, which can then be released to the surface either via bubbles or by diffusion, resulting in a positive feedback to climate change."
Onset and Breakup
In the study, the authors determine historical changes in lake stratification periods using long-term observational data from some of the "best-monitored lakes in the world" and daily simulations from a collection of lake models.
They also run simulations of future changes in lake stratification period under three different emission scenarios, to determine how the process could change in the future. The study focuses on lakes in the northern hemisphere.
The figure below shows the average change in lake stratification days between 1900 and 2099, compared to the 1970-1999 average. The plot shows historical measurements (black), and the low emission RCP2.6 (blue), mid emissions RCP6.0 (yellow) and extremely high emissions RCP8.5 (red) scenarios.
Change in lake stratification duration compared to the 1970-1999 average, for historical measurements (black), the low emission RCP2.6 (blue) moderate emissions RCP6.0 (yellow) and extremely high emissions RCP8.5 (red). Credit: Woolway et al (2021).
The plot shows that the average lake stratification period has already lengthened. However, the study adds that some lakes are seeing more significant impacts than others.
For example, Blelham Tarn – the most well-monitored lake in the English Lake District – is now stratifying 24 days earlier and maintaining its stratification for an extra 18 days compared to its 1963-1972 averages, the study finds. Woolway tells Carbon Brief that as a result, the lake is already showing signs of oxygen depletion.
Climate change is increasing average stratification duration in lakes, the findings show, by moving the onset of stratification earlier and pushing the stratification "breakup" later. The table below shows projected changes in the onset, breakup and overall length of lake stratification under different emission scenarios, compared to a 1970-1999 baseline.
The table shows that even under the low emission scenario, the lake stratification period is expected to be 13 days longer by the end of the century. However, in the extremely high emissions scenario, it could be 33 days longer.
The table also shows that stratification onset has changed more significantly than stratification breakup. The reasons why are revealed by looking at the drivers of stratification more closely.
Warmer Weather and Weaker Winds
The timing of stratification onset and breakup in lakes is driven by two main factors – temperature and wind speed.
The impact of temperature on lake stratification is based on the fact that warm water is less dense than cool water, Woolway tells Carbon Brief:
"Warming of the water's surface by increasing air temperature causes the density of water to decrease and likewise results in distinct thermal layers within a lake to form – cooler, denser water settles to the bottom of the lake, while warmer, lighter water forms a layer on top."
This means that, as climate change causes temperatures to rise, lakes will begin to stratify earlier and remain stratified for longer. Lakes in higher altitudes are also likely to see greater changes in stratification, Woolway tells Carbon Brief, because "the prolonging of summer is very apparent in high latitude regions."
The figure below shows the expected increase in stratification duration from lakes in the northern hemisphere under the low (left), mid (center), and high (right) emission scenarios. Deeper colors indicate a larger increase in stratification period.
Expected increase in stratification duration in lakes in the northern hemisphere under the low (left), mid (centre) and high (right) emissions scenarios. Credit: Woolway et al (2021).
The figure shows that the expected impact of climate change on stratification duration becomes more pronounced at more northerly high latitudes.
The second factor is wind speed, Woolway explains:
"Wind speed also affects the timing of stratification onset and breakdown, with stronger winds acting to mix the water column, thus acting against the stratifying effect of increasing air temperature."
According to the study, wind speed is expected to decrease slightly as the planet warms. The authors note that the expected changes in near-surface wind speed are "relatively minor" compared to the likely temperature increase, but they add that it may still cause "substantial" changes in stratification.
The study finds that air temperature is the most important factor behind when a lake will begin to stratify. However, when looking at stratification breakup, it finds that wind speed is a more important driver.
Meanwhile, Vachon says that wind speeds also have implications for methane emissions from lakes. He notes that stratification prevents the methane produced on the bottom of the lake from rising and that, when the stratification period ends, methane is allowed to rise to the surface. However, according to Vachon, the speed of stratification breakup will affect how much methane is released into the atmosphere:
"My work has suggested that the amount of accumulated methane in bottom waters that will be finally emitted is related to how quickly the stratification break-up occurs. For example, a slow and progressive stratification break-up will most likely allow water oxygenation and allow the bacteria to oxidise methane into carbon dioxide. However, a stratification break-up that occurs rapidly – for example after storm events with high wind speed – will allow the accumulated methane to be emitted to the atmosphere more efficiently."
Finally, the study finds that large lakes take longer to stratify in spring and typically remain stratified for longer in the autumn – due to their higher volume of water. For example, the authors highlight the North American Great Lakes, which house "irreplaceable biodiversity" and represent some of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems.
These lakes have been stratifying 3.5 days earlier every decade since 1980, the authors find, and their stratification onset can vary by up to 48 days between some extreme years.
O'Reilly tells Carbon Brief that "it's clear that these changes will be moving lakes into uncharted territory" and adds that the paper "provides a framework for thinking about how much lakes will change under future climate scenarios."
Reposted with permission from Carbon Brief.
By Robert Glennon
Interstate water disputes are as American as apple pie. States often think a neighboring state is using more than its fair share from a river, lake or aquifer that crosses borders.
Currently the U.S. Supreme Court has on its docket a case between Texas, New Mexico and Colorado and another one between Mississippi and Tennessee. The court has already ruled this term on cases pitting Texas against New Mexico and Florida against Georgia.
Climate stresses are raising the stakes. Rising temperatures require farmers to use more water to grow the same amount of crops. Prolonged and severe droughts decrease available supplies. Wildfires are burning hotter and lasting longer. Fires bake the soil, reducing forests' ability to hold water, increasing evaporation from barren land and compromising water supplies.
As a longtime observer of interstate water negotiations, I see a basic problem: In some cases, more water rights exist on paper than as wet water – even before factoring in shortages caused by climate change and other stresses. In my view, states should put at least as much effort into reducing water use as they do into litigation, because there are no guaranteed winners in water lawsuits.
Alabama, pay attention to Supreme Court ruling against Florida in water war #Water #SDG6 https://t.co/wIjdoY6Ccr— Noah J. Sabich (@Noah J. Sabich)1617800452.0
Dry Times in the West
The situation is most urgent in California and the Southwest, which currently face "extreme or exceptional" drought conditions. California's reservoirs are half-empty at the end of the rainy season. The Sierra snowpack sits at 60% of normal. In March 2021, federal and state agencies that oversee California's Central Valley Project and State Water Project – regional water systems that each cover hundreds of miles – issued "remarkably bleak warnings" about cutbacks to farmers' water allocations.
The Colorado River Basin is mired in a drought that began in 2000. Experts disagree as to how long it could last. What's certain is that the "Law of the River" – the body of rules, regulations and laws governing the Colorado River – has allocated more water to the states than the river reliably provides.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet (one acre-foot is roughly 325,000 gallons) to California, Nevada and Arizona, and another 7.5 million acre-feet to Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. A treaty with Mexico secured that country 1.5 million acre-feet, for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. However, estimates based on tree ring analysis have determined that the actual yearly flow of the river over the last 1,200 years is roughly 14.6 million acre-feet.
The inevitable train wreck has not yet happened, for two reasons. First, Lakes Mead and Powell – the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado – can hold a combined 56 million acre-feet, roughly four times the river's annual flow.
But diversions and increased evaporation due to drought are reducing water levels in the reservoirs. As of Dec. 16, 2020, both lakes were less than half full.
Second, the Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – have never used their full allotment. Now, however, they want to use more water. Wyoming has several new dams on the drawing board. So does Colorado, which is also planning a new diversion from the headwaters of the Colorado River to Denver and other cities on the Rocky Mountains' east slope.
Utah Stakes a Claim
The most controversial proposal comes from one of the nation's fastest-growing areas: St. George, Utah, home to approximately 90,000 residents and lots of golf courses. St. George has very high water consumption rates and very low water prices. The city is proposing to augment its water supply with a 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell, which would carry 86,000 acre-feet per year.
Truth be told, that's not a lot of water, and it would not exceed Utah's unused allocation from the Colorado River. But the six other Colorado River Basin states have protested as though St. George were asking for their firstborn child.
In a joint letter dated Sept. 8, 2020, the other states implored the Interior Department to refrain from issuing a final environmental review of the pipeline until all seven states could "reach consensus regarding legal and operational concerns." The letter explicitly threatened a high "probability of multi-year litigation."
Utah blinked. Having earlier insisted on an expedited pipeline review, the state asked federal officials on Sept. 24, 2020 to delay a decision. But Utah has not given up: In March 2021, Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill creating a Colorado River Authority of Utah, armed with a $9 million legal defense fund, to protect Utah's share of Colorado River water. One observer predicted "huge, huge litigation."
How huge could it be? In 1930, Arizona sued California in an epic battle that did not end until 2006. Arizona prevailed by finally securing a fixed allocation from the water apportioned to California, Nevada and Arizona.
Litigation or Conservation
Before Utah takes the precipitous step of appealing to the Supreme Court under the court's original jurisdiction over disputes between states, it might explore other solutions. Water conservation and reuse make obvious sense in St. George, where per-person water consumption is among the nation's highest.
St. George could emulate its neighbor, Las Vegas, which has paid residents up to $3 per square foot to rip out lawns and replace them with native desert landscaping. In April 2021 Las Vegas went further, asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw ornamental grass.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that the Las Vegas metropolitan area has eight square miles of "nonfunctional turf" – grass that no one ever walks on except the person who cuts it. Removing it would reduce the region's water consumption by 15%.
Water rights litigation is fraught with uncertainty. Just ask Florida, which thought it had a strong case that Georgia's water diversions from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin were harming its oyster fishery downstream.
That case extended over 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended the final chapter in April 2021. The court used a procedural rule that places the burden on plaintiffs to provide "clear and convincing evidence." Florida failed to convince the court, and walked away with nothing.
Robert Glennon is a Regents Professor and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law & Public Policy, University of Arizona.
Disclosure statement: Robert Glennon received funding from the National Science Foundation in the 1990s and 2000s.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
Plugging and capping abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells in Central Appalachia could generate thousands of jobs for the workers and region who stand to lose the most from the industry's inexorable decline.
According to a new report from the Ohio River Valley Institute, just four states (Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky) account for at least 538,000 unplugged abandoned oil and gas wells, though that number is almost certainly low.
The first oil well in the U.S. was drilled in Pennsylvania before the Civil War and the timeline of the region's oil and gas production contributes to its disproportionate number of orphaned wells.
Among other toxic pollution released from orphaned wells, Central Appalachian wells dumped 71,000 metric tons of methane — an extremely potent heat trapping gas — into the atmosphere every year.
The report comes as the Biden administration works to allay worries in a region still tied to the fossil fuel industry.
President Biden's infrastructure plan includes $16 billion for plugging and remediating orphaned oil and gas wells and abandoned mines.
For a deeper dive: