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​America's Largest Reservoir Drains to Record Low As Western Drought Deepens

Lake Mead—America’s largest reservoir, Las Vegas’ main water source and an important indicator for water supplies in the Southwest—will fall this week to its lowest level since 1937 when the manmade lake was first being filled, according to forecasts from the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

Water ripples across a boat ramp at Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam. The lake will drop to a record low this week, the consequence of a 14-year drought endured without a reduction in water use. Photo credit: © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

The record-setting low water mark—a surface elevation of 1,081.8 feet above sea level—will not trigger any restrictions for the seven states in the Colorado River Basin. Restrictions will most likely come in 2016 when the lake is projected to drop below 1,075 feet, a threshold that forces cuts in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada, states at the head of the line for rationing.

But the steadily draining lake does signal an era of new risks and urgency for an iconic and ebbing watershed that provides up to 40 million people in the U.S. and Mexico with a portion of their drinking water. The rules governing the river are complex, but the risk equation is straightforward: less supply due to a changing climate, plus increasing demands from new development, leads to greater odds of shortages.

No area is more vulnerable than Las Vegas, which draws 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead. Today, in the midst of the basin’s driest 14-year period in the historical record, the gambler’s paradise is completing an expensive triage. The regional water authority is spending at least $US 829 million of ratepayer money to dig two tunnels—one at the lake bottom that will be completed next spring and the other an emergency connection between existing intakes—to ensure that the 2 million residents of southern Nevada can still drink from Mead as more of the big lake reverts to desert.

Yet despite a shrinking lake, diminishing supplies and ardent pleas from tour guides and environmental groups to preserve a canyon-cutting marvel, the four states in the basin upriver from Lake Mead intend to increase the amount of water they take out of the Colorado River. All of the states are updating or developing new state water strategies, most of which involve using more Colorado River water, not less.

“We have mapped out how the remainder of our allocation can be used,” Eric Millis, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, told Circle of Blue. “It’s going to happen sooner rather than later. We have a place for every drop.”

Utah—like fellow upper basin states Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming—is not using all the Colorado River water it was granted by a 1922 interstate compact. The four states have the legal authority to increase their Colorado River diversions.

However, the water they seek may not be available. The calculations of availability stem from wetter hydrological conditions and supply forecasts made nearly a century ago. Under the 1922 compact, the upper basin is entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet. A later agreement apportioned each state a percentage of the available supply. The upper basin’s average annual use between 2007 and 2011, the most recent figures, was 4.6 million acre-feet.

The legal entitlement, granted at a time when the river’s hydrology was poorly understood, is surely too high. All the states acknowledge that fact. “We’re not pegging our hopes or analysis on the full 7.5,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state water planning agency.

Still, the much dryer conditions that exist today means that supplies are tight enough to substantially raise the risk of water shortages with every additional water consumption project.

A River of Equations

By law and tradition, the Colorado River Basin is divided into two halves. The four upper basin states have different obligations, preoccupations and goals than Arizona, California and Nevada, the three lower basin states.

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While the lower basin keeps an eye on Lake Mead, the upper basin is more concerned about water levels in Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir on the Colorado, 180 miles upstream (290 kilometers) from Mead.

Hoover Dam holds back Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir. The mineral-stained canyon walls are a growth chart in reverse, showing where the lake surface has been. Photo credit: © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

The upper basin put forward a plan this spring to keep more water in Powell. The states would do this by paying farmers not to farm and by changing how smaller mountain reservoirs are managed. Three urban water utilities in the lower basin, along with Denver and the federal government, put up $US 11 million to develop a similar basin-wide program.

Powell helps the upper basin meet a legal requirement to send an average of 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the lower basin each year. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, or enough to flood an acre of land in one foot of water).

The two basins were brought closer together in 2007 when the seven states negotiated protocols for balancing water supplies in the two big reservoirs. Just 39 percent full today, Mead’s water level dropped quickly this year—by 7.6 meters (25 feet)—because Powell was low last year. As a result, more water is being impounded upstream this year. The reverse will happen if Mead drops below certain thresholds.

In effect, the amount of water in Powell influences the amount of water in Mead and vice versa. The amount of water in Powell will in turn be determined by precipitation and upstream demand. Two general principles apply: the basin is getting drier and demands will increase.

Though the lower basin is using its entire allocation, the four upper basin states are not. They desire more water from the Colorado, yet exactly how much water is available is uncertain.

The only concrete number to emerge so far is 5.8 million acre-feet of water available for the upper basin, or three-quarters of what was granted. That figure, called the hydrological determination, was developed by New Mexico and the Department of the Interior in 2007 as part of a water supply study.

New Mexico is the only state using 5.8 million acre-feet as a firm number. Millis said Utah is using 6.5 million acre-feet of upper basin supply for its planning, and Colorado and Wyoming are looking at a range of values.

Eklund told Circle of Blue there is “vigorous debate” both within and between states over what number should be used to assess water availability and what the acceptable levels of risk are as water use increases.

“There’s a sliding scale of risk,” Eklund said. “The more water you develop, the more risk you take on. But that doesn’t necessarily counsel against a project.”

Las Vegas and southern Nevada grew exponentially in the 20th century, growth that was made possible because of water from the Colorado River. Now the four states in the river’s upper basin want to increase their water consumption, for cities, farms and industries. Photo credit: © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

River flows over the last century averaged 15 million acre-feet annually. But future flows are expected to drop because of changes in precipitation due to global warming.

2012 Bureau of Reclamation study pegged the river’s average annual flow by 2060 to be 13.7 million acre-feet. Adding together the water consumed by the seven basin states and Mexico, plus the water that evaporates from reservoirs, the current total use is roughly 13.4 million acre-feet per year. Farming accounts for roughly 80 percent of the water consumption in the basin, and watering lawns take up more than half of municipal supplies.

Very clearly there is room for adjusting practices and conserving water. Without those steps the Colorado River basin may soon find itself in a state of perpetual shortage, and Lake Mead’s water level will sink further.

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Trump's Response to Climate-Related Disasters: Open America's 'Crown Jewels' to Oil Drilling

By Andy Rowell

You would have thought that after being battered by two devastating hurricanes in recent weeks, which experts believe were fueled by warmer seas caused by climate change, even the most die-hard climate denier would think again.

But you would be wrong.

You would have thought that as the cost of rebuilding after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey mounts, with an estimated bill of $150 billion so far, that politicians would press to move away from a fossil fuel economy.

But you would be wrong again. In fact the opposite is happening.

Instead of pushing for clean technology and to end our oil addiction, the Trump administration is quietly pushing to open up one of America's great last wilderness areas, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to oil drilling.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—or ANWR for short—has been described as "one of the largest intact ecosystems in the world," and "the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System and one of the most important protected areas on Earth."

Anyone who knows about contemporary American petro-politics will know that the fight over ANWR is not new. It is a 40 year "multi-generational" fight. The naturalist, Peter Matthiessen, once called the battle over ANWR the "longest running, most acrimonious environmental battle in American history."

The oil industry and its allies have long salivated over the prospect of drilling in the refuge's 19.6 million acres. They have long argued that the refuge, home to caribou, polar bears and many endangered species, also houses an estimated 10 billion of barrels of recoverable oil.

There could be more oil, there could be much less, there could be none—no one really knows for sure.

The industry has wanted to drill the refuge for decades, but have been stopped by a determined coalition of environmentalists, First Nations and conservationists.

But for how much longer? When Trump became president he said that opening up ANWR was a top priority. And it seems that despite the recent Hurricanes, Trump is pressing ahead to do this.

As the Washington Post reported at the end of last week: "The Trump administration is quietly moving to allow energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ... with a draft rule that would lay the groundwork for drilling."

Although the Trump administration is pushing for the move, the final say on whether drilling goes ahead lies with Congress.

But in the meantime, officials from the Interior Department—now stuffed full of pro-oil appointees—are quietly modifying a regulation from the 1980's that would allow the industry to undertake seismic surveys.

The Post acquired a leaked memo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acting director, James Kurth, to prepare an assessment and a proposed rule to update regulations which go back to the eighties.

Kurth wrote: "When finalized, the new regulation will allow for applicants to [submit] requests for approval of new exploration plans."

Once the rule is finalized, companies could bid to undertake seismic testing in the refuge.

Environmentalists are naturally outraged. Defenders of Wildlife president, Jamie Rappaport Clark, who led the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton, told the Post: "The administration is very stealthily trying to move forward with drilling on the Arctic's coastal plain ... This is a complete about-face from decades of practice."

"This is a really big deal," adds Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is a frontal attack in an ideological battle. The Arctic is the Holy Grail."

It looks like this battle will go to the courts. It could drag on for years. The stakes are huge. As Robert Mrazek, a former New York congressman and chair emeritus of the Alaska Wilderness League told a recent article in Fortune magazine: "ANWR is an American Serengeti. You can have the oil. Or you can have this pristine place. You can't have both. No compromise."

Sarah James, an ambassador for the Gwich'in First Nations, who lives close to the refuge and who opposes oil development, adds: "If you drill for oil here, you will be drilling into the heart of our people."

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New Agreement Offers Brighter Future for Pacific Bluefin Tuna

By Amanda Nickson

The Pacific bluefin tuna is among the most depleted species on the planet, having been fished down more than 97 percent from its historic, unfished size. For years, this prized fish has been in dire need of strong policies that would reverse that decline, but the two organizations responsible for its management—the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC)—failed in their recent efforts, allowing overfishing to continue and further risking the future of the species.

Last week, however, at a joint meeting of the WCPFC Northern Committee and IATTC, Pacific bluefin received a much-needed respite when its primary fishing nations—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico and the U.S.—reached agreement with other member states on a long-term plan that would rebuild the population from its current status of 2.6 percent of pre-fishing levels to 20 percent by 2034. This agreement, if properly implemented, would start the species—and the fishing industry that depends on it—on a path toward sustainability.

After decades of inaction, why did these two fisheries management bodies agree to take the needed steps toward rebuilding? Because ignoring the problem became impossible for managers. In the past two years, three nations exceeded their catch limits. Amid increasing calls from The Pew Charitable Trusts and others for a complete fishing moratorium, and in a worst-case scenario, an international trade ban, the government representatives to the WCPFC committee and IATTC finally stepped up to make a change.

Perhaps most significant was the course reversal by Japan. By far the largest fishing nation for, and consumer of, Pacific bluefin, Japan had long resisted proposed rebuilding plans. This year, though, thanks in part to strong international pressure and growing media attention within the country on the plight of the species, the Japanese delegates dropped that opposition and helped make progress that just a few years ago seemed far out of reach.

Despite this commitment, the work to help Pacific bluefin recover has only begun. In the fishing season that ended on June 30, Japanese fishermen exceeded their catch limits by 334 metric tons, and with many reports of illegal fishing in Japan's waters, the real amount could be higher. The U.S., South Korea and Mexico also exceeded limits over the past two years. Rebuilding the species under the new quotas and timeline will be nearly impossible if such overages continue. All countries that fish for Pacific bluefin must pledge to strengthen their domestic controls and monitoring programs to guarantee that the commitments to rebuilding made this year are not squandered in the future.

The decision on Pacific bluefin made at the joint meeting could signal a move toward a greater focus on conservation at regional fisheries management organizations like the WCPFC and IATTC. This action by major fishing nations indicates that concrete action is possible. Fishermen and fleets now hold the key to a sustained recovery, and all countries must work together to uphold the new rules. If they can do that, real change on the water may come sooner than many of us expected.

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Clustered disasters hold our attention in ways that singular events cannot—they open our minds to the possibility that these aren't just accidents or natural phenomena to be painfully endured. As such, they can provoke debates over the larger "disaster lessons" we should be learning. And I would argue the combination of Harvey and Irma has triggered such a moment.

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Zinke's report, submitted to Trump in late August and leaked Sunday night, didn't address more than a dozen other monuments that had been under official review.

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Naomi Klein Warns Europe May Water Down Paris Accord to Win Support from Trump

President Donald Trump on Tuesday is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly. Climate change is expected to be high on the agenda at this year's gathering.

As the world leaders meet, another major storm—Hurricane Maria—is gaining strength in the Caribbean and following a similar path as Hurricane Irma. The current forecast shows Maria could hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm as early as Wednesday. The U.S. Virgin Islands, which were devastated by Irma, also appear to be in line to be hit by Maria.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that the Trump administration is considering staying in the Paris climate agreement, just months after the president vowed to pull out of it. The White House denied the report. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday signaled Trump may back away from the Paris accord, but National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster gave a different message on Fox News Sunday.

We speak with best-selling author Naomi Klein, a senior correspondent for The Intercept. Her most recent book, "No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need," has been longlisted for a National Book Award.

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Beyond Harvey and Irma: Homeland Security in the Climate Change Era

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Deployed to the Houston area to assist in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, U.S. military forces hadn't even completed their assignments when they were hurriedly dispatched to Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to face Irma, the fiercest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who had sent members of the state National Guard to devastated Houston, anxiously recalled them while putting in place emergency measures for his own state. A small flotilla of naval vessels, originally sent to waters off Texas, was similarly redirected to the Caribbean, while specialized combat units drawn from as far afield as Colorado, Illinois and Rhode Island were rushed to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, members of the California National Guard were being mobilized to fight wildfires raging across that state (as across much of the West) during its hottest summer on record.

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