By Jeff Berardelli
This story was originally published on CBS News on September 9, 2020. All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication.
Right on the heels of arguably the West Coast's most intense heat wave in modern history comes the most ferocious flare-up of catastrophic wildfires in recent memory. Meanwhile, just a few hundred miles east, a 60-degree temperature drop over just 18 hours in Wyoming and Colorado was accompanied by an extremely rare late-summer dumping of up to 2 feet of snow.
It's not coincidence, it's climate change.
These kinds of dystopian weather events, happening often at the same time, are exactly what scientists have been warning about for decades. While extreme weather is a part of the natural cycle, the recent uptick in the ferocity and frequency of these extremes, scientists say, is evidence of an acceleration of climate impacts, some of which were underestimated by climate computer models.
"This is yet another example of where uncertainty is not our friend," says Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State. "As we learn more, we are finding that many climate change impacts, including these sorts of extreme weather events, are playing out faster and with greater magnitude than our models predicted."
On Wednesday NOAA released its latest State of the Climate Report, which finds that just during the month of August the U.S. was hit by four different billion-dollar disasters: two hurricanes, huge wildfires and an extraordinary Midwest derecho.
Just one such extreme event can strain emergency resources — a situation West Coast firefighters find themselves in now. However, in two dramatic cases this summer, the nation was hit simultaneously with concurrent catastrophes, some of which had no precedent in modern history. It's a concept scientists call compound events, and it is necessary to factor these confluences into future projections to properly estimate risk, response and resources.
In mid-August the West suffered through an extended heat wave which saw Death Valley surge to 130 degrees, the hottest temperature ever reliably measured on Earth. The tinderbox conditions caused by the heat, along with a rare lightning outbreak, sparked the first round of major wildfires in California this season, escalating into three of the four largest fires in state history. At about the same time a powerful derecho caused billions of dollars in damage in Iowa and Illinois, and Hurricane Laura plowed into the Gulf Coast of Louisiana as a Category 4 with 150 mph winds and 16 feet of storm surge.
Just three weeks later, and here we are again. This past weekend California experienced an even more intense heat wave, with the southern part of the state hitting 121 degrees west of the mountains for the first time in record-keeping history. Predictably, fires flared back up due to the severe heating and drying, and then went into overdrive as a wicked early-season cold front — which is also bringing heavy snow to the Rockies — brought a wind event through the mountains and valleys of the intermountain west.
In Washington state, an estimated 330,000 acres burned across the state on Monday, more than the total in each of the last 12 fire seasons. California has seen a record 2.3 million acres burn so far this year — more than 3 times the normal for an entire season (typically July through November), and 7 times the normal year to date.
If it were just this fire season, one could chalk the extremity up to mere coincidence. But scientists say this is part of an ongoing upward trend, made clear by the data and well understood by science.
"There is little doubt that we're witnessing an acceleration of fire activity in the West - be it in terms of burned area, number of large fires, fire growth, and of course direct and indirect impacts to people," explains Dr. John Abatzoglou, climate professor at the University of California Merced.
The acceleration has been dramatic. Fire season is now two to three months longer than it was just a few decades ago across much of the West. Since the 1970s, California has experienced a five-fold increase in annual burned area and an eight-fold increase in summer forest fire extent. At least 17 of California's top 20 largest wildfires have burned since 2000.
Increase in California areas burned by wildfires, 1975 to 2015. WILLIAMS, ABATZOGLOU ET AL., EARTH'S FUTURE
Abatzoglou makes clear that there are many factors — not just climate change — that contribute to the escalation of fire activity. These include the increased settlement of people in fire-prone lands and a legacy of fire suppression in many lower-elevation forests, which led to years of heavy growth of trees and brush.
"We can focus on the bad fortune of the lightning siege around the San Francisco Bay Area, or the multitude of stupid human tricks that materialized in large wildfires, but the confluence of long-term and short-term environmental factors set the table for the 2020 fire season," he said.
In other words, though climate change does not cause the heat waves or fires, it sets the stage so that when conditions are ripe, like the summer and fall of 2020, heat waves are more intense and fires burn more fiercely.
This summer has been extremely hot and dry in the West. According to NOAA, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah each had their warmest August on record. Research has found that heat waves are now larger, getting more intense and lasting longer than decades ago. Specifically in California, extreme heat waves — like the ones of recent weeks — are now 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer due to climate change. By 2080, that same study finds such heat waves will intensify by another 3 to 5 degrees.
This week's NOAA report also finds that the same general area in the West also experienced one of its driest Augusts on record. This short-term dry and hot pattern is mainly due to natural cycles in weather, and from season to season has the biggest impact on the amount of area burned because it determines how dry the forests and brush are.
"Across the Western U.S. forests, we find that climatic measures of fuel dryness explain about ¾ of the year-to-year variability in the burned area — highlighting that climate very strongly enables big fire seasons in warm-dry summers and inhibits widespread fire activity in cool-wet summers," explains Abatzoglou.
But over the long term, human-caused climate change has been gradually drying out the atmosphere and the fuel. "The observed changes in fuel dryness [plus the] number of days of high fire danger have been particularly stark in the American West over the past half-century," says Abatzoglou.
Since the 1970s the warm season in the West has heated up by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. This extra heat has increased the evaporation of moisture from the surface. While atmospheric moisture has also increased some, it has not increased nearly as fast as the temperature. That has caused a long-term "moisture deficit" and has accelerated the rate of foliage drying. This is part of the reason why, according to research, the West has entered into one of the worst megadroughts in the past 1,200 years.
A recent study, co-authored by Abatzoglou, found a direct link with nearly all of the increase in summer forest-fire area during the period from 1972–2018 driven by the increased moisture deficit. To illustrate just how impactful the moisture deficit is, right now, as unprecedented wildfires burn out of control, the deficit is at record low levels in the majority of the Western U.S.
Absurd atmospheric aridity (+ other factors) is enabling the ongoing fire outbreak – synchronized downslope winds… https://t.co/ohibdi2X5x— John Abatzoglou (@John Abatzoglou)1599605014.0
Another recent study from this spring found that the frequency of autumn days with extreme fire weather conditions has more than doubled since the 1980s, fueled by a combination of less rainfall and warmer temperatures.
But many scientists believe that there is more at play contributing to this extreme weather than simply the direct effects of warming and drying. One of those mechanisms is the indirect impacts of global warming on the most influential weather-maker on day-to-day conditions: the jet stream.
The speed and orientation of the jet stream — a river of fast-moving air currents in the atmosphere — determines the track, intensity and forward speed of most storm systems and also how cold or hot the weather is. The attributes of the jet stream at any given moment are determined largely by the placement of hot and cold air masses and the strength of the gradient between them. Because the Arctic has been warming at three times the rate of the rest of the globe, climate scientists know human-caused climate change is throwing the jet stream off-kilter. But how and to what extent is not totally understood.
A number of climate scientists believe that a warmer Arctic is slowing down the jet stream during certain times of year, resulting in a more wavy jet stream. As shown below, a wavy jet stream can catapult warm air northward into the Arctic and drive cold air far southward. This is exactly what happened during the catastrophic Midwest floods in 2019 and is also the kind of pattern we have right now, which is causing record low temperatures and extremely early season snow in the Rockies and Plains. A wavy jet stream is a normal part of nature, but climate change may be making it more amplified, resulting in more extremes.
"I think it's a triple whammy — heat and drought, which are favored by climate change, and the extra added ingredient is the slower, wavier jet stream," explains Mann. But he says the wavier jet stream isn't well resolved by current models, thus they underestimate the extremity of weather events enhanced by climate change.
As a result, when scientists dig into the causes of an extreme event, Mann says the studies underestimate the influence of human-caused climate change. "So if anything, climate attribution studies are likely to under-attribute the role that climate change is playing with these persistent extreme weather events," he said.
As for future fire seasons, Abatzoglou says we should expect extreme fires seasons like 2020's to become the rule rather than the exception.
"While the extent of the ongoing fire siege is beyond what most have seen in the West, the alignment of ingredients for such fire seasons is becoming more favorable as a result of climate change and land-use practices," he said. "We should expect, adapt, and prepare for similar years moving forward."
This story originally appeared in CBS News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
- 14 Extreme Weather Events Linked to Climate Change - EcoWatch ›
- What's in Wildfire Smoke, and How Bad Is It for Your Lungs ... ›
- A Gender-Reveal Party Started a Wildfire That Burned Nearly ... ›
- The Top 10 Extreme Weather and Climate Events of 2020 ›
- Wildfires Burn Across Midwest ›
The U.S., like much of the world, has the compounding problem of a growing population and an increased likelihood of drought due to the climate crisis. In fact, the Southwest is already in the throes of its worst drought in 1,200 years while Colorado and California are seeing how drought has turned their forests into tinder boxes. Now, a new study has identified ways to revamp how water is utilized to thrive in a time of water scarcity.
The study, titled "Reducing water scarcity by improving water productivity in the United States" was published Tuesday in Environmental Research Letters. The authors say that some of the most water-stressed areas in the West and Southwest have the greatest potential for water savings. The paper attributes nearly half the potential to simply improving how water is used in agriculture, specifically in growing the commodity crops, corn, cotton and alfalfa.
The researchers, led by a team from Virginia Tech, looked at realistic water usage benchmarks for more than 400 products and industries. The team of scientists pinpointed unrealized water savings in various river basins across the country.
"Nearly one-sixth of U.S. river basins cannot consistently meet society's water demands while also providing sufficient water for the environment," said Landon Marston, a Civil & Environmental Engineering professor at Virginia Tech University, in a statement. "Water scarcity is expected to intensify and spread as populations increase, new water demands emerge, and climate changes.
"However, improving water productivity by meeting realistic benchmarks for all water users could enable U.S. communities to expand economic activity and improve environmental flows. We asked ourselves the questions: if water productivity is improved across the U.S. economy, how much water can be saved and in which industries and locations?' Our study is the first attempt to answer this question on a nationwide scale, and develop benchmarks to inform future action."
The process of setting benchmarks provides various industries with a basket of options to make their water use more efficient. That makes the findings of the study less prescriptive and more amenable to how industry and populations can realistically adapt to decreased water availability, according to the researchers.
In fact, the range of options has the potential to improve water productivity so much that it could decrease the loss of water flowing through rivers in the West by six to 23 percent on average, according to the study.
"The agriculture and manufacturing sectors have the largest indirect water footprint, due to their reliance on water-intensive inputs, but these sectors also show the greatest capacity to reduce water consumption throughout their supply chains," said Marson, in a statement.
The demand for innovative ways to conserve water without sacrificing economic growth is peaking. In just 50 years, nearly half of the country's 204 water basins may fall short of meeting monthly demand, according to Harvard University. Since irrigation of crops accounts for nearly three-fourths of water use, a simple 2 percent reduction in consumption could prevent water shortages in several basins.
For that reason, activist organizations like The Nature Conservancy are teaming up with farmers to figure out how to improve infrastructure to reduce water consumption on all levels of the agricultural supply chain.
While the demand for water continues to grow despite its depletion, innovative solutions are possible, according to The Nature Conservancy.
The new study reaffirms that assessment.
"The agriculture and manufacturing sectors have the largest indirect water footprint due to their reliance on water-intensive inputs but these sectors also show the greatest capacity to reduce water consumption throughout their supply chains," the study authors wrote in their paper.
- Can Countries in a Water Crisis Resist Coronavirus? - EcoWatch ›
- Are Vertical Farms the Solution to Saving Water in the Desert ... ›
- 4 Climate Crisis Solutions No One Is Talking About - EcoWatch ›
- The Global Water Crisis May Have a Surprising Solution - EcoWatch ›
Throughout Texas, there are a number of solar power companies that can install solar panels on your roof to take advantage of the abundant sunlight. But which solar power provider should you choose? In this article, we'll provide a list of the best solar companies in the Lone Star State.
Our Picks for the Best Texas Solar Companies
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
- Sunpro Solar
- Longhorn Solar, Inc.
- Solartime USA
- Kosmos Solar
- Sunshine Renewable Solutions
- Alba Energy
- Circle L Solar
- South Texas Solar Systems
- Good Faith Energy
How We Chose the Best Solar Energy Companies in Texas
There are a number of factors to keep in mind when comparing and contrasting different solar providers. These are some of the considerations we used to evaluate Texas solar energy companies.
Different solar companies may provide varying services. Always take the time to understand the full range of what's being offered in terms of solar panel consultation, design, installation, etc. Also consider add-ons, like EV charging stations, whenever applicable.
When meeting with a representative from one of Texas' solar power companies, we would always encourage you to ask what the installation process involves. What kind of customization can you expect? Will your solar provider use salaried installers, or outsourced contractors? These are all important questions to raise during the due diligence process.
Texas is a big place, and as you look for a good solar power provider, you want to ensure that their services are available where you live. If you live in Austin, it doesn't do you much good to have a solar company that's active only in Houston.
Pricing and Financing
Keep in mind that the initial cost of solar panel installation can be sizable. Some solar companies are certainly more affordable than others, and you can also ask about the flexible financing options that are available to you.
To guarantee that the renewable energy providers you select are reputable, and that they have both the integrity and the expertise needed, we would recommend assessing their status in the industry. The simplest way to do this is to check to see whether they are North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) certified or belong to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) or other industry groups.
Types of Panels
As you research different companies, it certainly doesn't hurt to get to know the specific products they offer. Inquire about their tech portfolio, and see if they are certified to install leading brands like Tesla or Panasonic.
Rebates and Tax Credits
There are a lot of opportunities to claim clean energy rebates or federal tax credits which can help with your initial solar purchase. Ask your solar provider for guidance navigating these different savings opportunities.
Going solar is a big investment, but a warranty can help you trust that your system will work for decades. A lot of solar providers provide warranties on their technology and workmanship for 25 years or more, but you'll definitely want to ask about this on the front end.
The 10 Best Solar Energy Companies in Texas
With these criteria in mind, consider our picks for the 10 best solar energy companies in TX.
SunPower is a solar energy company that makes it easy to make an informed and totally customized decision about your solar power setup. SunPower has an online design studio where you can learn more about the different options available for your home, and even a form where you can get a free online estimate. Set up a virtual consultation to speak directly with a qualified solar installer from the comfort of your own home. It's no wonder SunPower is a top solar installation company in Texas. They make the entire process easy and expedient.
Sunpro Solar is another solar power company with a solid reputation across the country. Their services are widely available to Texas homeowners, and they make the switch to solar effortless. We recommend them for their outstanding customer service, for the ease of their consultation and design process, and for their assistance to homeowners looking to claim tax credits and other incentives.
Looking for a solar contractor with true Texas roots? Longhorn Solar is an award-winning company that's frequently touted as one of the best solar providers in the state. Their services are available in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio, and since 2009 they have helped more than 2,000 Texans make the switch to energy efficiency with solar. We recommend them for their technical expertise, proven track record, and solar product selection.
Solartime USA is another company based in Texas. In fact, this family-owned business is located in Richardson, which is just outside of Dallas. They have ample expertise with customized solar energy solutions in residential settings, and their portfolio of online reviews attests to their first-rate customer service. We love this company for the simplicity of their process, and for all the guidance they offer customers seeking to go solar.
Next on our list is Kosmos Solar, another Texas-based solar company. They're based in the northern part of the state, and highly recommended for homeowners in the area. They supply free estimates, high-quality products, custom solar designs, and award-winning personal service. Plus, their website has a lot of great information that may help guide you while you determine whether going solar is right for you.
Sunshine Renewable Solutions is based out of Houston, and they've developed a sterling reputation for dependable service and high-quality products. They have a lot of helpful financing options, and can show you how you can make the switch to solar in a really cost-effective way. We also like that they give free estimates, so there's certainly no harm in learning more about this great local company.
"Powered by the Texas sun." That's the official tagline of Alba Energy, a solar energy provider that's based out of Katy, TX. They have lots of great information about solar panel systems and solar solutions, including solar calculators to help you tabulate your potential energy savings. Additionally, we recommend Alba Energy because all of their work is done by a trusted, in-house team of solar professionals. They maintain an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau, and they have rave reviews from satisfied customers.
Circle L Solar has a praiseworthy mission of helping homeowners slash their energy costs while participating in the green energy revolution. This is another company that provides a lot of great information, including energy savings calculators. Also note that, in addition to solar panels, Circle L Solar also showcases a number of other assets that can help you make your home more energy efficient, including windows, weatherization services, LED lighting, and more.
You can tell by the name that South Texas Solar Systems focuses its service area on the southernmost part of the Lone Star State. Their products include a wide range of commercial and residential solar panels, as well as "off the grid" panels for homeowners who want to detach from public utilities altogether. Since 2007, this company has been a trusted solar energy provider in San Antonio and beyond.
Good Faith Energy is a certified installer of Tesla solar technology for homeowners throughout Texas. This company is really committed to ecological stewardship, and they have amassed a lot of goodwill thanks to their friendly customer service and the depth of their solar expertise. In addition to Tesla solar panels, they can also install EV charging stations and storage batteries.
What are Your Solar Financing Options in Texas?
We've mentioned already that going solar requires a significant investment on the front-end. It's worth emphasizing that some of the best solar companies provide a range of financing options, allowing you to choose whether you buy your system outright, lease it, or pay for it in monthly installments.
Also keep in mind that there are a lot of rebates and state and federal tax credits available to help offset starting costs. Find a Texas solar provider who can walk you through some of the different options.
How Much Does a Solar Energy System Cost in Texas?
How much is it going to cost you to make that initial investment into solar power? It varies by customer and by home, but the median cost of solar paneling may be somewhere in the ballpark of $13,000. Note that, when you take into account federal tax incentives, this number can fall by several thousand dollars.
And of course, once you go solar, your monthly utility bills are going to shrink dramatically… so while solar systems won't pay for themselves in the first month or even the first year, they will ultimately prove more than cost-effective.
Finding the Right Solar Energy Companies in TX
Texas is a great place to pursue solar energy companies, thanks to all the natural sunlight, and there are plenty of companies out there to help you make the transition. Do your homework, compare a few options, and seek the solar provider that's right for you. We hope this guide is a helpful jumping-off point as you try to get as much information as possible about the best solar companies in Texas.
Josh Hurst is a journalist, critic, and essayist. He lives in Knoxville, TN, with his wife and three sons. He covers natural health, nutrition, supplements, and clean energy. His writing has appeared in Health, Shape, and Remedy Review.
By Tara Lohan
Aerial photos of the Sierra Nevada — the long mountain range stretching down the spine of California — showed rust-colored swathes following the state's record-breaking five-year drought that ended in 2016. The 100 million dead trees were one of the most visible examples of the ecological toll the drought had wrought.
Now, a few years later, we're starting to learn about how smaller, less noticeable species were affected.
One of those is the California newt (Taricha torosa). These large, colorful amphibians live across the state, from Mendocino County to San Diego County, but newts living in Southern California fared worse during the drought, according to a new study published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports. And worse, anticipated future changes to the climate are likely to put northern newts in the same boat in coming decades.
Researchers have been surveying populations of these amphibians for decades. By tagging them with transponders and following their movements, they've learned that the newts can live for more than 30 years and return to the same spots year after year as they migrate between freshwater and land.
But as the drought began in 2012, the researchers noticed a change in the Southern Californian populations. There were fewer newts from the tagged population coming back to dozens of breeding sites monitored across the region each year. The researchers also observed fewer egg masses, tadpoles and larvae.
"Here's a long-lived species that we're not seeing individuals that we've seen for the last 10 or 15 years coming back to the sites where they usually breed," says Gary Bucciarelli, the lead author of the report and an assistant adjunct professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA.
And there was one more piece of bad news: Most of the adult newts that did return in Southern California were in poorer body condition than before the drought began. This negative trend, the researchers concluded, was linked to drier and warmer conditions that were far outside the 100-year average.
At the time the state was experiencing drought conditions not seen there for 1,200 years. You'd expect drought to hurt amphibians, which rely on access to water, but Bucciarelli says the research shows that similarly record-high air temperatures may have played an even greater role than precipitation.
Warmer temperatures remove necessary moisture from the terrestrial environment. But they could also affect food — a shifting climate may mean less prey, says Bucciarelli. Or it could mean that newts spend more time wandering around, burning calories, and less time hunkered down as they normally would.
Whatever exactly happened in this case, "It all was strongly correlated with the extreme deviation in climate," he adds.
Amphibians spend part of the year on land, and we know far less about how they spend their terrestrial days. "When they're on land we don't know if they're underground, moving around, in a deep sleep, or what they're feeding on," he says. "This research suggests there are things happening on land that are impacted by temperature that we don't really understand."
One thing is certain, though: Climate change will bring more severe droughts and higher temperatures to California, and that could push newts in Southern California, which are already a species of conservation concern, closer to extinction.
And in the next 50 years, the northern populations are likely to experience the same change in body condition. That means that the northern range "likely will not provide climate refuge for numerous amphibian communities," the researchers conclude.
That's particularly bad news considering that globally, an estimated 40% of amphibians face extinction. A disease caused by chytrid fungus has devastated many amphibian populations, especially in Australia, Central and South America, and wiped out 90 species already.
But amphibians face other threats, too. And the California newt is no exception.
The species is adapted to drought, but "they haven't dealt with drought coupled with temperature changes that are this rapid and this severe, in conjunction with habitat fragmentation, land use changes and fire frequency changes," Bucciarelli says. "Now we're beginning to see how these combined stressors are acting out ecologically."
So what do we do?
Collecting more data is a good start. Land managers need to begin long-term monitoring surveys of populations of amphibians now, even if the species aren't currently a major concern. "You never know what's going to happen and having baseline data is super important," he says.
Proactively improving habitat is also critical. We can start by ensuring that habitats are free of non-native species, says Bucciarelli, who has also tracked the negative effects of introduced fish and invasive crayfish on amphibians.
Suitable habitat is key, but so is connection. Many newt populations in Southern California have become islands, separated by development that limits their genetic diversity — and in the long run, their capacity to adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions. Ensuring habitat connectivity could help strengthen their resilience.
Even if all of that happens, climate change will continue to be a threat, and Bucciarelli says we may need to develop contingency plans for worsening conditions if we hope to save these newts.
"We'll have to think of different and more creative management strategies to help in years when temperature and precipitation are not in line with the norm."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
By Jose Pablo Ortiz Partida
The immediate emergency of COVID-19 has been a powerful reminder that the most valuable things in our lives are our families, friends, and the welfare of our communities.
The current pandemic is a threat to those closest to us today in a way that presages what we will experience on an accelerating basis due to the climate emergency. In a place like California's San Joaquin Valley (SJV), Latinos account for 70 percent of COVID-19 cases, even though they represent 42 percent of the population. Improving access to clean and affordable water even as the pandemic grows more urgent, is critical to reducing the types of burdens worsened by the COVID-19 crisis. Continuing the hard work on groundwater sustainability required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) could lessen the impact of future crises in the valley. The low level of preparation communities have experienced around the pandemic, echos what these same communities face for water management on a daily basis and will face with future climate change threats unless fundamental changes are made locally.
Thousands of People in the SJV Live Without Reliable Access to Water.
California is the wealthiest state in the most prosperous country in the world, and yet, there are close to one million people living without reliable access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. Most of these people are concentrated in disadvantaged communities in the SJV. California identifies disadvantaged communities as areas that experience disproportionate levels of a combination of poverty, air and water pollution, high unemployment, and high rates of cardiovascular diseases and asthma. According to a report from the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, residents in these communities are over 60% Hispanic.
The SJV is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, producing more than half of California's agricultural output with over 200 different crops and annual revenue of about 20 billion US dollars. The astonishing volume of water that agriculture requires has led to over-exploitation of groundwater and the continuous lowering of groundwater levels that has impacted water quality and quantity.
Groundwater is the primary source for household water needs and agricultural water supply. Yet, thousands of people are unable to drink and use the water in the SJV, because there are multiple contaminants in it. Some of the water pollution comes from natural sources and includes substances like arsenic, but most of it has emerged due to agricultural practices. These contaminants include pesticides and nitrates, which are linked to cancer, birth defects, and blue baby syndrome.
In years with average precipitation, water flowing in California's rivers from rain and melted snowpack meets about 60 percent of the state's water demand and groundwater meets the remainder. However, during dry years water supply sources shift and put severe stress on groundwater levels. During the California drought from 2012 to 2016, groundwater use, mostly from agricultural water pumping, grew to 80 percent in some regions of the SJV increasing overdraft. Groundwater overdraft occurs when water extractions exceed recharge into an aquifer. An analogy is your bank account; extract more money than is put in, and your account will go dry. Aquifers are like a shared account, with some people taking out more than others. Consequently, thousands of domestic wells ran dry, unable to reach water due to lowered groundwater levels, in large part due to increased agricultural water pumping, and affecting thousands of people across the valley.
We think about drought as standalone events, but in reality, human actions triggered by droughts can have effects that continue long after the drought has ended, like permanently lowering the water table. In the SJV, the last drought has permanently reduced the capacity of some aquifers because overdraft left air in between soil particles instead of water, and the soils subsided eliminating the space for water storage. Overdraft also leads to infrastructure damage from land subsidence, that is when the ground levels drop, plus reduction of surface water, and an increase in water quality problems. That range of concerns brought by overdraft formed the basis of SGMA.
Groundwater Sustainability Plans Could Fix Part of the Problem but Are Currently Inadequate.
SGMA passed in 2014 and is the first legislation in California to mandate sustainable management of groundwater resources. SGMA is intended to bring about groundwater sustainability by the year 2040. Local water agencies describe the means to achieve this goal in their Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs). For those interested in the details of SGMA, here is a thorough description of it. The focus of this post is on the latest developments.
The 21 most critically over-drafted groundwater basins submitted their GSPs at the beginning of the year and are now under review by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). External reviews of these plans argue that some of them do not sufficiently address current and future impacts on disadvantaged communities. For example, the Groundwater Leadership Forum (a group of organizations funded by the Water Foundation focused on ensuring the success of SGMA and of which UCS is part) also reviewed several GPSs and found gaps in how drinking water, climate change, stakeholder involvement, managed wetlands, and groundwater-dependent ecosystems were addressed in the plans. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reviewed 36 plans submitted for basins overlapping the SJV. They found Kings Basin (surrounding Fresno) stands out for having the highest number of domestic wells that may go dry, about 600 of them, under the proposed water level sustainable thresholds and yet the local groundwater plan considers that an insignificant impact from continued overdraft. This is concerning and unacceptable. Public comments can be consulted in the SGMA portal from DWR.
I, and many others are concerned that multiple GSPs have questionable integrations of climate change projections. GSPs are considering numerous projects to tackle their local overdraft, yet they are not planning for the uncertain future that climate change is bringing. To reduce some of the vulnerabilities that we see now, GSPs need to integrate climate change and show benefits on the range of future scenarios.
Another concern is that on May 14, the Governor announced a $40 million cut on funding for SGMA. Part of the money was expected to support 37 new staff positions at DWR to uphold its statutory obligation on reviewing GSPs. While the budget still allocated $26 million of existing Proposition 68 bond funds to help with implementation projects in critically overdraft basin, it is unlikely that DWR will have the capacity to review the GSPs thoroughly. However, the governor's budget did prioritize safe and affordable drinking water and the State Water Board approved $130 million for 2020-2021 to projects that support such objective on vulnerable communities.
Without Bold Action and Preparation, Climate Change Threats May Bring Similar Impacts to Those of COVID-19.
The lack of drinking water causes many residents in the valley to rely on bottled water as their primary source for drinking and cooking. Panic buying at the beginning of the pandemic left stores across the valley without bottled water. In the case of COVID-19, unsafe and unreliable access to water has endangered a multitude of low-income communities by preventing them from performing protective, hygienic acts, handwashing, in particular, and forcing them to go to public water supply kiosks. As we've all learned, hand washing is one of the most necessary measures needed to slow and stop the spread of a virus. Without a correct implementation of groundwater sustainability plans under SGMA, many of these risks will continue.
Shelter in place orders resulted in people losing their jobs and hence, their source of income and being unable to pay utility services. Small utility services were also impacted because of low economic margins of operations in which small drops in income translate to being unable to provide service. Fortunately, many organizations and individuals wrote a letter to Governor Newsom that prompted him to issue an executive order protecting homes and small businesses from water shutoffs.
We now have the opportunity to give meaning to these current hardships by learning from them to prevent hardships from climate change. Climate change is a threat intensifier. In this case, the threat is a virus, and historical inequities and water vulnerabilities increased its impact on the most vulnerable among us. An example of the unpreparedness of the system to support our vulnerabilities during times of crisis is seen in the case of school children who rely on school lunches as their main meal of the day but are now unable to access this resource due to school closures. Some farmworkers, while cataloged as 'essential' by the federal government during this crisis, are undocumented and were not part of the stimulus package. The height of irony is farmworkers struggled with access to food distribution when they needed it.
There Is No Scenario Where Water Is Not Absolutely Necessary to Lessen the Impacts During a Crisis.
One of my colleagues wrote that moments of crisis often expose the weak points of a system. In the SJV, the weak points of the water system have been exposed for years and won't be strengthened without managing water resources sustainably. This is evidenced by the number of people in the SJV without access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. Considering that about 95% of valley residents depend on groundwater for at least part of their water, it is critical that GSPs explicitly include strategies for addressing some of the current and future water issues in the SJV.
Numerous, various kinds of climate threats will come, whether they develop as floods, heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, or other climate hazards, we need to be prepared and do everything possible to improve sustainable water management for all. While future climate-change-derived crises most likely will be different than COVID-19, there is no scenario where water is not absolutely necessary to lessen the impacts.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
By Jeff Berardelli
From the historic heat wave and wildfires in the West, to the massive derecho that tore through the middle of the nation, to the record-breaking pace of this year's hurricane season, the unprecedented and concurrent extreme conditions resemble the chaotic climate future scientists have been warning us about for decades — only it's happening right now.
While climate catastrophes are typically spaced out in time and geographic location, right now the U.S. is dealing with multiple disasters. The Midwest is cleaning up from a devastating derecho that caused nearly $4 billion in damage to homes and crops, as nearly a quarter-million people in the West are under evacuation orders or warnings from fires that have burned over 1 million acres, and at the same time residents along the Gulf Coast are bracing for back-to-back landfalls of a tropical storm and hurricane.
"This current stretch of natural catastrophe events in the United States are essentially a snapshot of what scientists and emergency managers have long feared," says meteorologist Steven Bowen, the head of Catastrophe Insight at AON, an international risk mitigation firm.
Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University, happened to be in Australia on sabbatical last year and witnessed the devastating wildfires there — a similar scene to what is playing out in California right now. For years Mann has sounded the alarms about the acceleration of human-caused climate change, but even he is somewhat surprised at the pace.
"In many respects, the impacts are playing out faster and with greater severity than we predicted," he said.
Multiple extremes resemble the chaotic climate future scientists have been warning us about for decades — only it's… https://t.co/CjhLfao5rc— CBS News (@CBS News)1598299214.0
To be sure, these events are not all related to each other, but the one thing they do have in common is that climate change makes each one more likely. The simple explanation is that there's more energy in the system and that energy is expended in the form of more extreme heat, fire, wind and rain.
It may be tempting to look at these extremes as a "new normal," but Dr. Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says while it may be new, it won't be normal.
"For some time we have talked about a 'new normal' but the issue is that it keeps changing. It does not stop at a new state. That change is what is so disruptive," he said.
The fires unfolding in California right now have no parallel in modern times. With more than 1 million acres burned in just one week, the season is already historic with more acres burned in this past week than is typical of an entire year. Two of the state's top three largest fires on record are burning at the same time — the LNU and SCU complex fires — with the likelihood that one of these will take over the top spot soon.
As of Monday morning, CalFire reports over 7,000 fires have burned more than 1.4 million acres this season, overwhelming resources to the point where many of the smaller fires are being allowed to burn. CalFire stated that to fight these fires to the maximum of their ability, the agency would need nearly 10 times more firefighting resources than are available.
As is the case in any natural disaster, the cause can be traced to multiple coinciding events. In this case, the spark for most of these fires was a siege of lightning strikes as a result of moisture drawn into California from two decaying tropical systems in the eastern Pacific, which ignited dry brush.
Daniel Swain is a well-known climate scientist who specializes in studying the link between climate change and weather in the West at the University of California, Los Angeles. In a blog post he described how even someone like him, well-versed in climate disaster, is shocked by the current situation: "I'm essentially at a loss for words to describe the scope of the lightning-sparked fire outbreak that has rapidly evolved in northern California – even in the context of the extraordinary fires of recent years. It's truly astonishing."
While it's not rare for tropical moisture to invade California, it is infrequent, and extremely unfortunate that it happened during one of the worst western U.S. heat waves in recent history, not to mention an ongoing short- and long-term drought. Researchers believe that in the year 2000 the western U.S. entered a megadrought, one of the worst in the past 1,200 years.
This is why climate scientists often say that climate change "loads the dice" for extreme weather. The cause of the fires is not climate change, but many of the factors which set the stage and made conditions ripe for fire ignition and spread are a direct result of a warming climate.
On August 16, Death Valley reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperature ever reliably measured on Earth. It was just a small part of a monster heat wave which broke hundreds of heat records over a two-week span. The link between heat waves and climate change is straightforward, and multiple studies have shown that a warmer climate is making heat waves more likely and more intense.
"Basically there is more heat available: Earth's energy balance is out of whack," says Trenberth. That extra heat energy, trapped in the atmosphere by excess greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels, must be used up in some way.
Trenberth explains, if the land was wet the heat would be used first to evaporate water, keeping air temperatures moderate. But when the air and ground are bone dry, as is typical of the dry season in California — especially in summers like this — the excess heat energy is expended by drying out the brush and warming and drying the air.
This long-term drying out of the air has created a "vapor pressure deficit" — or in simpler terms, a moisture deficit. According to a 2019 study, this is a leading reason for the intensified summer fire seasons in California, presently at record levels.
"Vapor pressure deficit" (gap between how much moisture *could* be in the air vs. how much is *actually* there) is… https://t.co/LXKN0hUQLi— Daniel Swain (@Daniel Swain)1597973351.0
According to the paper, "Nearly all of the increase in summer forest-fire area during 1972–2018 was driven by increased vapor pressure deficit."
A derecho is a particularly fierce and long-lasting line of thunderstorms, often causing winds over 75 mph. While these weather events are common during summer, the event that took place August 10 in Iowa and Illinois seemed otherworldly.
The squall line plowed a path 800 miles long and 40 miles wide through communities and corn fields, damaging 43% of Iowa's corn and soybean crop and causing nearly $4 billion in damage. Winds are estimated to have reached up to 140 mph, with hurricane-force winds lasting 40 to 50 minutes.
At first glance it would seem that this is just a freak natural event, with no real connection to climate change, but that may not be the case. While there is not much research on the connection between climate change and derechos, one recent paper found some alarming results.
The research team used a climate model to simulate mesoscale convective systems (MCSs), a technical term for masses of thunderstorms, in a warming world. These MCSs are the parent structures which sometimes spawn derechos. Using a high greenhouse gas emissions scenario, the paper concluded: "At the end of the century, the number of intense MCSs are projected to more than triple in North America during summer due to more favorable environmental conditions."
The research also found that MCSs' maximum hourly precipitation rates will increase by 15% to 40% in the future, due to a warmer atmosphere loaded with more moisture. "The moisture source for MCSs in the central U.S. is predominantly the Gulf of Mexico and climate change will increase the low-level jet stream moisture transport from the Gulf northward," explains lead author Dr. Andreas Prein, from the National Center For Atmospheric Research.
"How this all relates to changes in derecho frequency and intensity is poorly understood," Prein admits, but now that climate models are capable of modeling this, he plans to make it a priority in future studies.
While Mann did not comment specifically on derechos, he does feel extreme events are not properly captured in current climate models. "I have argued that the climate models are likely underpredicting the impact on the frequency and severity of various types of extreme summer weather events due to deficiencies in their ability to capture some of the relevant jet stream dynamics."
Having two tropical systems like Marco and Laura in late August, the beginning of the peak of hurricane season, is not abnormal, even if the storms are very close to one another. But what is abnormal is the record-setting pace of the current hurricane season. So far the Atlantic season has tallied 14 named storms, 10 days ahead of record pace. That's two more than the average number for an entire season, which runs through the end of November. Seasonal forecasters are predicting up to 25 named systems this year, which would place second behind 2005.
While there are many factors that contribute to how active a hurricane season will be, the most obvious is the warm water which fuels storm development. This year, nearly the entire tropical Atlantic Basin is above normal. This is part of a long-term trend of warming in which Atlantic sea surface temperatures have increased by around 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, and the measure of Ocean Heat Content hits record highs each and every year.
Warmer ocean temperatures do not guarantee more storms, but they do tip the balance, giving storms that extra boost to develop. After years of research, climate science is still not sure how a warming climate will impact the number of systems in the future, but there is consensus that, in general, hurricanes will get stronger and the strongest, most destructive hurricanes will get more frequent. Since major hurricanes — Category 3 and greater — are responsible for 85% of the damage, a warmer climate is likely to have devastating economic and human consequences.
Within research circles and among emergency planners, the concept of compound threats has become a very popular subject. For years now scientists have warned that increasing population, exposure and vulnerability combined with extreme events spiked by climate change, would overwhelm resources and compromise emergency response. Experts argue we are now seeing that unfold in real time.
"These equally profound events occurring in different parts of the country at the same time — what we call compounded or connected extremes — run the risk of putting significant strain on resources, budgets, and the supply chain," said Bowen.
This is a topic often missed in general discussions of climate change. It may seem easy to dismiss a few degree rise in global temperatures as inconsequential. However, when a cascade of extreme events, each made worse by human-caused climate change, pile on top of one another, it exposes the fragility of interconnected human systems.
"Add in the continued complications posed by COVID-19, and you're faced with even greater challenges in trying to get communities back on their feet," Bowen said.
Bowen recently authored a paper with other prominent scientists attempting to tackle this complicated issue. He says because of socioeconomic factors, population spreading into more high-risk regions, and an acceleration of climate change, more intense events "will only exacerbate the impacts of these compound scenarios in the future."
Experts warn that what we are witnessing in the present moment is a window into everyday life in the not-too-distant future if humans do not reverse course and curb emissions. This is how climate change becomes a truly destabilizing force. That's why Bowen and colleagues argue that much more urgency is needed to identify these unexpected combinations and the risks they pose to society.
This story originally appeared in CBS News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
- Alaska's Marine Ecosystem Is Changing 'Decades Too Early' Due to ... ›
- Climate Crisis Made Australia's Historic Wildfires at Least 30% More ... ›
- U.S. Voters Increasingly Concerned About Climate Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- California Wildfires Scorch Land the Size of Delaware During Record Heat - EcoWatch ›
- Tropical Storm Beta Makes Landfall in Texas, Drenching Storm-Weary Gulf Coast - EcoWatch ›
- Hurricane Delta Breaks Record for Earliest 25th Named Storm - EcoWatch ›
- The Top 10 Extreme Weather and Climate Events of 2020 ›
- Global Warming Heats 2020 to Record Temps - EcoWatch ›
- Increase in Lightning Strikes Expected to Ignite More Wildfires - EcoWatch ›
- As Extreme Weather Events Increase, What About Wildlife? ›
- Cutting Emissions Could Save Billions of People From 'Lethal' Heat and Humidity, New Research Finds - EcoWatch ›
- Wildfires Burn Across Midwest ›
When California's historic five-year drought finally relented a few years ago, the tally of dead trees in the Sierra Nevada was higher than almost anyone expected: 129 million. Most are still standing, the dry patches dotting the mountainsides.
But some trees did survive the test of heat and drought. Now, scientists are racing to collect them and other species around the globe in the hope that these "climate survivors" may have a natural advantage, allowing them to cope with a warming world a bit better than others in their species.
On the north shore of Lake Tahoe, Patricia Maloney, a UC Davis forest and conservation biologist, hunts for these survivors. Most people focus on the dead trees, their brown pine needles standing out against the glittering blue of the lake. But Maloney tends not to notice them.
"I look for the good," she said. "Like in people, you look for the good, not the bad. I do the same in forest systems."
Maloney studies sugar pines, a tree John Muir once called the "king" of conifers. "They have these huge, beautiful cones," Maloney said. "They're stunning trees."
The sugar pines on these slopes endured some of the worst water stress in the region. Winter snowpack melts earliest on south-facing slopes, leaving the trees with little soil moisture over the summer. That opens the door for the trees' tiny nemesis, which would deal the fatal blow.
"Here you have some really good mountain pine beetle galleries," Maloney said, as she peeled the bark off a dead sugar pine to show winding channels eaten into the wood. "Like little beetle highways."
Pine beetle outbreaks are a normal occurrence in the Sierra. As the beetles try to bore into the bark, pine trees can usually fight them off by spewing a sticky, gummy resin, entrapping the insects. But trees need water to make resin.
"The tank ran dry, and they weren't able to mobilize any sort of resin," Maloney said.
But next to this dead tree, Maloney points to one towering above, with healthy green pine needles. Somehow, it was able to fight the beetles off and survive the drought. As she's found more and more of these survivors, Maloney has studied them, trying to figure out what their secret is.
Mountain pine beetle larvae leave holes in sugar pine bark after emerging.
Lauren Sommer / KQED
"What we found is that the ones that were green, like this one, were more water-use efficient than their dead counterparts," she said.
In other words, the survivors had an innate ability to do more with less.
Individual members of any species can vary dramatically, something tied to genetic differences. That diversity comes in handy when environmental conditions change.
The drought, heat and beetle outbreaks in recent years put extreme pressure on sugar pines, creating a natural experiment that weeded out all but the toughest.
"I think what we're seeing is contemporary natural selection," Maloney said.
Now, she's trying to ensure their descendents survive.
Inside a greenhouse at her Tahoe City field station, Maloney showed off a sea of young green trees in their own containers. These 10,000 sugar pine seedlings grew from seeds Maloney and her team collected from 100 of the surviving sugar pines.
Over the next year, these young trees will be replanted around Lake Tahoe, both on national forest and private land. The hope is the trees, due to their genetics, will be better able to handle a warming climate, more extreme droughts and more frequent beetle outbreaks.
"These survivors matter," Maloney said.
She plans to study the genetics of these trees as they grow, research that could help in other climate-threatened forests.
Patricia Maloney next to a dead sugar pine on Lake Tahoe.
Lauren Sommer / KQED
Maloney's not alone in searching for species that can handle the warming climate.
Steve Palumbi, a biology professor at Stanford University, has been looking for coral that can handle heat.
"Evolution is a tool that we can bring to bear in helping us get through this future," he said.
Coral reefs are bleaching and dying as oceans warm, so Palumbi is growing surviving corals in the hope they can build new reefs, full of "super corals." Reefs aren't just tourist attractions, he says. They're also biodiversity hotspots that protect coastlines from flooding by absorbing wave energy.
"If it gives us another decade, if it gives us another two generations, that'll be good, we'll take it," he said. "I see these next 80 years as the time where we have to save as much as possible."
But beyond that, it gets trickier, given the rate the climate is changing.
"The question in the future is: When the environment changes and it changes really fast, can these populations keep up? How fast can they adapt? How much help will they give us in keeping those ecosystems going?"
Palumbi says, ultimately, the best solution for these species is for humans to curb emissions of heat-trapping gases.
In the meantime, scientists are trying to buy them a little more time.
This story originally appeared in KQED. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
- The Iconic Joshua Tree Is in Trouble - EcoWatch ›
- Three of World's Largest Sugar Pines Are Found in California - EcoWatch ›
By Natalie Muller
Trees soak up carbon from the atmosphere, provide a home to wildlife and even improve our mental well-being. But did you know they can also "talk" to each other, and send out distress signals when under attack?
1. 60,000 Different Species
There are around 3 trillion trees on Earth, according to a global study led by researchers from Yale University. That includes over 60,000 known tree species, more than half of which are endemic — meaning they're found in only one country. Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia are home to the most tree species. The bad news: there are 46% fewer trees today than at the start of human civilization.
2. Trees 'Migrate' to Escape Climate Change
Trees clearly can't uproot themselves and move, but their population centers can shift over time in response to climate pressures. A study looking at 86 trees species between 1980 and 2015 in the eastern United States found that 73% moved west, where rainfall is increasing. Others headed to the poles, apparently to escape heat. On average, they moved about 16 kilometers (10 miles) per decade.
3. Keeping Cities Cool
Trees not only give us shade, they can also mitigate extreme temperatures by transpiring — absorbing the sun's radiation and releasing water into the air through their leaves. Urban areas can become sweltering "heat islands" in summer. But a 2019 study from the US found that tree canopy cover of 40% or more could lower summer temperatures in cities by as much as 5 degrees Celsius.
4. Sucking Up Pollutants
Trees draw CO2 from the atmosphere and are therefore crucial in the fight against climate change. They can also use their leaves to filter particulate matter and toxic gases like nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide from the air. A recent UK study found that silver birch, yew and elder trees could reduce particles at rates of 79%, 71% and 70% respectively.
5. Healing Power
Trees can reduce our stress levels and help us feel happier and healthier. Several studies have shown that spending time in nature, or even just looking at trees or flowers through a window, can lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, improve sleep, reduce depression and anxiety, and even speed up recovery after surgery.
6. Trees 'Talk' to Each Other
Forests have their own communication systems — almost like an underground internet —that allows trees to swap nutrients and send warnings about drought or disease. They interact via networks of soil fungi, known as mycorrhizal networks. Research by ecologist Suzanne Simard has shown that paper birch (pictured) and fir trees use this system to send water, carbon and nutrients back and forth.
7. Sending Signals in the Air
Trees can't flee if their leaves are being devoured by a hungry herbivore. But what they can do is release chemicals — volatile organic compounds — into the air to warn nearby members of the same species there's a threat in the area. Studies show that other trees respond by boosting their own production of anti-herbivore toxins, which, in the case of acacias (pictured), makes their leaves bitter.
8. Call for Backup
When besieged by bugs or parasites, some species, including apple trees, and tomato, cucumber and lima bean plants, release compounds into the air to alert the attackers' predator. Most often, these predators are insects. But a European study showed that trees infested with caterpillars also put out chemical signals to attract caterpillar-eating birds, such as the great tit (pictured).
9. Methuselah Has Lived Through a Lot
Trees are the oldest living organisms on Earth. One individual can survive hundreds, even thousands of years. According to the OldList, an officially dated record of ancient trees, the oldest known living individual is a bristlecone pine in California's White Mountains. Named Methuselah, it's around 4,850 years old. Its exact location is kept a secret to protect it from vandals.
10. Hyperion, the Giant
A photograph can't really do justice to the world's tallest trees: redwoods. The tallest known living specimen is a coast redwood called Hyperion measuring 115.85 meters (380 feet) — more than Big Ben or the Statue of Liberty. The giant, discovered in 2006 in California, is believed to be several hundred years old.
11. Other Record Breakers
California is also home to a giant sequoia named General Sherman, thought to be the biggest living tree in terms of volume. It stretches to a height of 83.8 meters and is 7.7 meters in diameter. The title of the world's widest tree goes to the Arbol del Tule (pictured), a Montezuma cypress in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It has a diameter of 11.6 meters and a circumference of 42 meters.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
By Tara Lohan
It's not too hard to find salmon on a menu in the United States, but that seeming abundance — much of it fueled by overseas fish farms — overshadows a grim reality on the ground. Many of our wild salmon, outside Alaska, are on the ropes — and have been for decades.
Twenty years ago Pacific salmon were found to have disappeared from 40% of their native rivers and streams across Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California. In places where they remain, like the Columbia River system, the number of wild fish returning to streams is estimated to have plunged by as much as 98%. Today 28 populations of West Coast salmon and steelhead are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
New research is helping to put the problem — and solutions — into focus. But in some cases, policy to implement changes still lags.
1. Trouble in Washington
With 14 salmon and steelhead species listed as endangered in Washington, a new report by the state declared that "too many salmon remain on the brink of extinction. And time is running out." Four key factors, the researchers say, have been attributed to their historical decline: habitat, harvest, hydropower and hatcheries.
2. Upstream Changes
Along with historic threats, there's another new factor making salmon recovery challenging for Washington and other West Coast states: climate change. Increasing temperatures are causing snowpack declines, resulting in warmer streams that can stress or kill salmon. Additionally, more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow causes rivers to run faster earlier in the season, which can wash away salmon nests and sweep young salmon out of their calm-water habitat before they're ready — reducing their chances of survival.
3. Ocean Woes
It's not just freshwater habitat for salmon that's changing. A recent study in the journal Communications Biology looked at how eight populations of wild spring-summer Chinook from the Snake River Basin fared during the ocean phase of their lives. And it's not good. If ocean warming continues, by the 2060s mortality for Chinook could be as high as 90%.
4. Ripple Effect
Pacific salmon are an integral cultural resource for Pacific Northwest tribes and provide thousands of regional jobs. But the fish don't just feed people. They also nourish freshwater and marine ecosystems, along with more than 100 species.
And for one animal in particular, the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whale (Orcinus orca), the decline of Chinook is an existential threat. It's been long known that Southern Residents feed primarily on Chinook — the largest Pacific salmon species — during the summer. But a new study published in the journal Plos One found that Chinook were also important year-round.
Southern Resident killer whales. NOAA
5. Implementing Solutions
In an effort to help the recovery of Southern Residents and help boost salmon populations in the region, conservation groups have increased their calls to remove four dams on the Lower Snake River, a major tributary of the Columbia River in Washington.
While the science supports dam removal to save salmon, putting that into action has run into a wall of political opposition — mostly from conservatives. However, a recent plan proposed by Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson to breach the Snake River dams was a rare showing of Republican support, which could signal more bipartisan efforts ahead.
Other dam removals — both large and small — have proved beneficial for salmon in Washington and other states. In California a groundbreaking project to allow rivers to flood fallow farm fields in winter has helped provide both food and rearing habitat for salmon — and has helped prove that water managers don't have to choose between fish and farmers.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
- Is This How We Save Wild Salmon? - EcoWatch ›
- Atlantic Salmon Is All But Extinct as a Genetically Eroded Version of ... ›
- Hard Evidence Shows Farmed Salmon Is Destroying Wild Salmon ... ›
By Beverly Law and William Moomaw
Protecting forests is an essential strategy in the fight against climate change that has not received the attention it deserves. Trees capture and store massive amounts of carbon. And unlike some strategies for cooling the climate, they don't require costly and complicated technology.
Yet although tree-planting initiatives are popular, protecting and restoring existing forests rarely attracts the same level of support. As an example, forest protection was notably missing from the $447 million Energy Act of 2020, which the U.S. Congress passed in December 2020 to jump-start technological carbon capture and storage.
In our work as forest carbon cycle and climate change scientists, we track carbon emissions from forests to wood products and all the way to landfills – and from forest fires. Our research shows that protecting carbon in forests is essential for meeting global climate goals.
Ironically, we see the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a model. This program, which was created after the 1973 oil crisis to guard against future supply disruptions, stores nearly 800 million gallons of oil in huge underground salt caverns along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. We propose creating strategic forest carbon reserves to store carbon as a way of stabilizing the climate, much as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve helps to stabilize oil markets.
The U.S. has more than 800 million acres of natural and planted forests and woodlands, of which nearly 60% are privately owned. USDA / USFS
Carbon Stockpiles That Grow
Forests pull about one-third of all human-caused carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere each year. Researchers have calculated that ending deforestation and allowing mature forests to keep growing could enable forests to take up twice as much carbon.
Half of a tree's stems, branches and roots are composed of carbon. Live and dead trees, along with forest soil, hold the equivalent of 80% of all the carbon currently in Earth's atmosphere.
Trees accumulate carbon over extremely long periods of time. For example, redwoods, Douglas firs and western red cedars in the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest can live for 800 years or more. When they die and decompose, much of that carbon ends up in soil, where it is stored for centuries or millennia.
Mature trees that have reached full root, bark and canopy development deal with climate variability better than young trees. Older trees also store more carbon. Old-growth trees, which usually are hundreds of years old, store enormous quantities of carbon in their wood, and accumulate more carbon annually.
There are many fallacies about forest carbon storage, such as the concern that wildfires in the American West are releasing huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. In fact, fires are a relatively small carbon source. For example, the massive Biscuit Fire, which burned 772 square miles in southwest Oregon in 2002, emitted less than 10% of Oregon's total emissions that year.
Another false claim is that it's OK from a climate perspective to cut trees and turn them into furniture, plywood and other items because wood products can store substantial amounts of carbon. These assertions fail to count cradle-to-grave emissions from logging and manufacturing, which can be substantial.
The wood products industry releases carbon in many ways, from manufacturing products and burning mill waste to the breakdown of short-lived items like paper towels. It takes decades to centuries for newly planted forests to accumulate the carbon storage levels of mature and old forests, and many planted forests are repeatedly harvested.
In a review that we conducted with colleagues in 2019, we found that overall, U.S. state and federal reporting underestimated wood product-related carbon dioxide emissions by 25% to 55%. We analyzed Oregon carbon emissions from wood that had been harvested over the past century and discovered that 65% of the original carbon returned to the atmosphere as CO2. Landfills retained 16%, while just 19% remained in wood products.
In contrast, protecting high carbon-density western U.S. forests that have low vulnerability to mortality from drought or fire would sequester the equivalent of about six years of fossil fuel emissions from the entire western U.S., from the Rocky Mountain states to the Pacific coast.
Focus on Big Trees
In a recently published analysis of carbon storage in six national forests in Oregon, we showed why a strategic forest carbon reserve program should focus on mature and old forests. Big trees, with trunks more than 21 inches in diameter, make up just 3% of these forests but store 42% of the above-ground carbon. Globally, a 2018 study found that the largest-diameter 1% of trees hold half of all the carbon stored in the world's forests.
Findings like these are spurring interest in the idea of proforestation – keeping existing forests intact and letting them grow to their full potential. Advocates see proforestation as an effective, immediate and low-cost strategy to store carbon. Older forests are more resilient to climate change than young tree plantations, which are more susceptible to drought and severe wildfires. Like the 2,000-year-old redwoods in California that have survived recent wildfires, many tree species in old forests have lived through past climate extremes.
Creating forest carbon reserves would also conserve critical habitat for many types of wildlife that are threatened by human activities. Connecting these reserves to other parks and refuges could help species that need to migrate in response to climate change.
Using Forests to Meet Climate Goals
More than half of U.S. forested lands are privately owned, so strategic forest carbon reserves should be established on both public and private lands. The challenge is paying for them, which will require a major shift in government and societal priorities. We believe that transferring public investment in oil and gas subsidies to pay private land owners to keep their forests growing could act as a powerful incentive for private land owners.
Many researchers and conservation advocates have called for comprehensive actions to slow climate change and reduce species losses. One prominent example is the 30x30 initiative, which seeks to conserve 30% of the world's land and oceans by 2030. In an executive order on Jan. 27, 2021, President Biden directed his administration to develop plans for conserving at least 30% of federally controlled lands and waters by 2030.
Recent projections show that to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, governments will have to increase their pledges to reduce carbon emissions by as much as 80%. We see the next 10 to 20 years as a critical window for climate action, and believe that permanent protection for mature and old forests is the greatest opportunity for near-term climate benefits.
Beverly Law is professor emeritus of global change biology and terrestrial systems science at Oregon State University.
William Moomaw is professor emeritus of international environmental policy at Tufts University.
Disclosure statements: Beverly Law receives funding from U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. She is a Fellow of the Earth Leadership Program. William Moomaw receives funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He is affiliated with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, the Climate Group – North America, the Earthwatch Institute and the Nature Conservancy.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
- Bipartisan Climate Bill Highlights Forest Restoration, Conservation ... ›
- New Forests Planted Near Rivers Could Use up All the Water, Study ... ›
- Restoring Tropical Forests Isn't Meaningful if Those Forests Only ... ›
- Family Forests Are Key to Fighting Climate Change. - EcoWatch ›
- Earth's Intact Forests Are Invaluable, and in Danger - EcoWatch ›
Nearly 1.6 million people in the southern part of Madagascar have faced food insecurity since 2016, experiencing one drought after another, the United Nations World Food Program reported.
A study published Monday found billions more could face food insecurity as Earth's tropical rain belt shifts in response to climate change, causing increased drought stress and intensified flooding.
"Our work shows that climate change will cause the position of Earth's tropical rain belt to move in opposite directions in two longitudinal sectors that cover almost two thirds of the globe, a process that will have cascading effects on water availability and food production around the world," lead author Antonios Mamalakis, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, told UCI News.
Researchers at the University of California, Irvine and other institutions analyzed how the tropical rain belt would respond to a future where greenhouse gas emission continued to rise through 2100, UCI News reported. Their findings, published in Nature Climate Change, revealed the rain belt will shift northward over the Eastern Hemisphere, impacting countries in southeastern Africa.
In Madagascar, these impacts are already being felt.
"We only had one day of rain in December in the whole region. And the thunderstorms have been blasting… and destroying and burying the crops that were there," Lola Castro, the United Nations World Food Program regional director for Southern Africa and Indian Ocean States, told UN News. "The result is famine-like conditions."
Madagascar's vulnerability to the climate crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has left people with little to eat, Castro said. "Cactus mixed with mud, roots, whatever they can find, leaves, seeds, whatever is available."
The rain belt is projected to shift toward a warming atmosphere, co-author James Randerson, UCI's Ralph J. & Carol M. Cicerone Chair in Earth System Science, explained. "In Asia, projected reductions in aerosol emissions, glacier melting in the Himalayas and loss of snow cover in northern areas brought on by climate change will cause the atmosphere to heat up faster than in other regions," he told UCI News.
Since 2000, glaciers in the Himalayas are losing more than a vertical foot and half of ice every year, Columbia University's Earth Insititute reported, double the amount from 1975 to 2000.
"We know that the rain belt shifts toward this heating, and that its northward movement in the Eastern Hemisphere is consistent with these expected impacts of climate change," Randerson told UCI News.
In the Western Hemisphere, the rain belt is expected to move in the opposite direction by shifting southward, the study found. This will cause greater drought stress to Central America, a region which is experiencing more than five years of recurring drought, Reuters reported.
By combining an engineering approach to both climate science and data analytics, the team of researchers found previously unknown consequences associated with global warming. They also saw how much more there is to learn.
"The complexity of the Earth system is daunting, with dependencies and feedback loops across many processes and scales," author Efi Foufoula-Georgiou, UCI Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, told UCI News.
Determining how these changes will impact flooding, droughts, infrastructure and ecosystems can inform adaptation strategies and policies, Foufoula-Georgiou told UCI News. But time may be running out.
"What we are saying here is that the situation we're facing in southern Madagascar is not normal," Lola Castro told UN News, regarding the humanitarian crisis. "It's very different to any normal year of crisis and that we really need to act immediately."
- Half a Degree of Warming Makes a Big Difference to Global Food ... ›
- UN Warns of Impending Food Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Global Hunger Is Increasing, New UN Report Finds - EcoWatch ›
By Jeff Masters
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America's infrastructure a C- grade in its quadrennial assessment issued March 3. ASCE gave the nation's flood control infrastructure – dams and levees – a D grade. This is a highly concerning assessment, given that climate change is increasingly stressing dams and levees as increased evaporation from the oceans drives heavier precipitation events.
U.S. Dams Need $93.6 Billion in Upgrades
The group's 2021 report card gave the nation's 91,000-plus dams a D grade, jus as they had received in each of its assessments since the first one was issued in 1998. Drawing upon the latest data from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, ASCE estimated the cost of rehabilitating all U.S. dams at $93.6 billion, of which $27.6 billion is needed for federal dams. Over half (56.4%) of U.S. dams are privately owned. The cost to rehabilitate deficient high-hazard-potential dams, whose failure would result in loss of life, is estimated at nearly $20 billion. Over 2,300 dams in the U.S. are in this category. The average age of America's dams is 57 years.
The report identified one program that can help address existing funding needs – the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Program authorized in the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The goal of this program is to help fund the repair, removal, or rehabilitation of the nation's non-federal, high-hazard-potential dams. In federal fiscal year 2020, Congress appropriated $10 million for the program, less than 0.1% of the state dam safety group's needs estimate, and a quarter of the $40 million Congress had authorized for the program.
Figure 1. Debris fills the Feather River from the damaged spillway of California's Oroville Dam, the nation's tallest dam, after its near-collapse in February 2017. The Oroville incident forced the evacuation of nearly 190,000 people and cost $1.1 billion in repairs. California Department of Water Resources
A 2019 story by the Associated Press reported that the most recent U.S. fatalities from a dam failure were in March 2019, when the 92-year-old Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River in Nebraska failed, killing one person. The most recent previous dam failure fatalities involved seven people killed on Hawaii's Kauai Island in 2006 after the earthen wall of the Kaloko Reservoir collapsed.
At least five fatal dam failures occurred in the 1970s – Teton Dam, Idaho (14 deaths), Kelly Barnes, Georgia (39 deaths), Buffalo Creek coal slurry impoundment dam, West Virginia (125 deaths), Rapid City, South Dakota (238 deaths), and Johnstown, Pennsylvania (84 deaths). These failures ushered in the modern dam safety era. AP reported that many states have problematic private dams whose owners can't be identified. In 2018, for instance, Rhode Island listed 32 high- or significant-hazard dams with safety concerns and unknown owners.
A 2019 YaleEnvironment360 story by Jacques Leslie reported that "many people living on property that would be flooded if a dam fails are unaware of that possibility, in part because federal officials blocked public access to inundation maps after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In recent years, some states have again made the maps available. California requires that prospective buyers be informed if a property is in an inundation zone, a practice that should be far more widespread." The 2021 ASCE report card recommended initiating a public awareness campaign that would alert residents of the location and condition of dams in their area.
Figure 2. The L-550 levee on the Missouri River overtopping during the spring 2011 floods. USACE
U.S. Levees Need More Than $21 Billion in Upgrades
In spring 2019, the midwest U.S. experienced severe flooding, causing over $20 billion in damage. More than 80 Corps of Engineers levee systems were overtopped or breached, sometimes multiple times, and more than 700 miles of levees were damaged. Levee repairs were estimated at $1 billion. However, the Army Corps estimated that the levees prevented almost $350 billion in flood damages from October 2018 to September 2019. At least 17 million people live or work behind a levee, and U.S. levees protect $2.3 trillion in property, so the condition of these levees is critical. In addition, approximately 1,400 sites listed in the federal Toxic Release Inventory – including many EPA Superfund sites – lie in areas at high risk of flooding, according to a 2018 New York Times analysis.
In that context, the Civil Engineers' 2021 report card grade of D for the nation's 40,000 miles of levees is concerning. Drawing upon the latest data from the Corps of Engineers, the ASCE says in its report card that $21 billion is needed to improve and maintain just the moderate to high-risk levees in the Corps of Engineers portfolio. That is about 15% of the known levees in the U.S.
U.S. levees are, on average, 50 years old, many built using engineering standards less rigorous than current best practices. Encouragingly, fewer than 4% of U.S. levees are rated high or very high risk, down from 5% in 2017. However, 80% of high- or very high-risk levees have issues that likely would result in a breach prior to overtopping in an extreme flood, the report said.
The report card identified one program that can help address existing funding needs – the National Levee Safety Program. In federal fiscal year (FY) 2021 this program was funded at $5 million, just 0.02% of the $21 billion needed, and just 6% of its FY21 $79 million authorization.
Climate Change Is Driving More Precipitation and River Flood Damages
Increased precipitation in the U.S. in recent decades, partially the result of climate change, has caused an additional $2.5 billion a year in U.S. flood damages, according to a January 2021 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researches, climate scientists at Stanford University, found that between 1988 and 2017, heavier precipitation accounted for more than one-third of the $200 billion in damage. Causing heavier downpours, "Climate change may be exacerbating the cost of flooding," the authors concluded.
In an interview with E&E News, Study co-author Noel Diffenbaugh said in an interview with E&E News that "there is real economic value in avoiding higher levels of global warming. That's not a political statement. That's a factual statement about costs. And it also shows that there's real economic value to adaptation and resilience because we're clearly not adapted to the climate change that's already happened."
U.S. River Floods Are Increasing in Frequency
The number of "extreme streamflow" events observed in U.S. river systems since 1910 has increased significantly, according to a December 2020 study from Dartmouth College.
Along rivers that observed significant changes in streamflow in recent decades, the incidence of extreme streamflow events has doubled in frequency since the 1950-1969 period. Evan Dethier, a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth and lead author of the paper, said in an interview with phys.org that "the shifts toward more extreme events are especially important given the age of our dams, bridges, and roads. The changes to river flows that we found are important for those who manage or depend on this type of infrastructure."
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
By Jan Ellen Spiegel
Colorado is no stranger to drought. The current one is closing in on 20 years, and a rainy or snowy season here and there won't change the trajectory.
This is what climate change has brought.
"Aridification" is what Bradley Udall formally calls the situation in the western U.S. But perhaps more accurately, he calls it hot drought – heat-induced lack of water due to climate change. That was the core of research released in 2017 by Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University's Colorado Water Center, and Jonathan Overpeck at the University of Michigan.
Their revelation was that the heat from climate change was propelling drought. "Previous comparable droughts were caused by a lack of precipitation, not high temperatures," the study said. And all the factors at play were having compounding effects on each other that made the situation even worse. Those impacts were being felt most acutely on the biggest water system in the West – the Colorado River Basin.
Without a dramatic and fast reversal in greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change, Udall and Overpeck said, the additional loss of flow in the basin could be more than 20% by mid-century and 35% at the century's end – worse than currently assumed.
"I always say climate change is water change," says Udall, whose father was Arizona congressman Morris (Mo) Udall, an iconic environmental activist. "It means too much water, not enough water, water at the wrong time. It means reduced water quality. You get all of these things together as the earth warms up."
In Colorado it's all pretty much coming true. The drought is the second worst 20-year period in the past 1,200 years, according to Udall. This summer/fall alone had some of the hottest spells on record and the worst wildfire season ever. On the other hand, 2013 brought catastrophic floods to the Front Range. "I got 17 inches of water in my house here in four days. It's all part of the same change," Udall says.
It's forced Colorado to start facing the reality that its perpetual struggle for water can no longer be written off as cyclical weather that will all balance-out over short periods of time. It's climate change at work, and it requires long-term planning and likely fundamental changes to the paradigm of how the state gets, uses, and preserves its water.
The state and individual municipalities are beginning to address their new reality with policies that range from the obvious – conservation, just using less water, to the more innovative – considering using beaver dams to restore mountain wetlands and generally remediating the landscape to better handle water.
But all those actions and more must face the political reality of the longstanding way water-sharing is handled in the basin. It pits state against state, rural against urban, agriculture against, well, everyone.
The Colorado River Compact
The Colorado River Basin provides water to a massive swath of the Rocky Mountain and western states. The Compact that rules it dates to 1922, with California, Nevada and Arizona – the lower basin states – essentially getting first dibs on water that flows from upper basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah – with secondary access to the water, so they generally absorb the brunt of water losses.
Colorado is a headwaters state – where the river flows down from the continental divide. It relies on whatever falls out of the sky: It does not have the luxury of access to whatever water may flow in farther downstream.
A process to re-evaluate aspects of the Compact is underway with a 2026 deadline. No one expects the basic structure to change, though other contingencies are likely to be layered on, as has happened a number of times in the intervening years.
River levels are off some 20% since the Compact was initiated, compounding the water crunch while the region's population has grown dramatically, especially in Colorado. That combination of factors have many water experts and administrators convinced any new strategy has to do more than divvy-up the water differently.
That's because it's climate change and not cyclical weather causing the problems, Udall says emphatically: "Yup. Yup. Yup." He notes that scientists already see impacts they hadn't expected to see until 2050.
"I think some of the predictions about reduced flows in the Colorado River based on global warming are so dire it's difficult to wrap your brain around them. We have no operating rules for that kind of reduction in supply," says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources at the University of Colorado. "Even with these discussions that will be taking place over the next five years for the Colorado River system, I'm not sure that they will be able to get to an agreement about what would happen if flow is reduced by 50%."
The critical climate change impacts seem to act in a loop: heat causes more evaporation of surface water. The resulting lower water level means water will warm more easily, and in turn evaporates more readily.
Global warming is also changing the dynamics of snowpacks. They melt faster and earlier and don't regularly continue to slowly dissipate, creating a gradual runoff that is more beneficial and sustaining to the water supply. Udall notes that on April 1, 2020, there was 100% of normal snowpack above Lake Powell, which with Lake Mead are the two enormous reservoirs in the system. In a normal year that would provide 90-110% of runoff. But it provided only 52% in 2020 as a result of dry warm weather through fall.
Sustainable water supplies are also threatened as weather events occur more often as extremes: major rains in a short period of time sandwiched by extended dry periods. Torrential rains that follow a long drought may help the soil, but runoff may never make it to the water supply.
Wildfires, in recent years larger and longer, complicate matters by dumping ash and crud into water bodies, which results in less water and contamination that can render unusable what water there is. And if difficult climate conditions keep trees from growing back after fires, the resulting ecosystem changes could further damage water supplies.
Big Ideas in Place
"This is not your average variability," says Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which covers most of the water used by the state. "Cooperative management of water resources can really help in these hot dry summers," he says.
Mueller says the district tried releasing additional water from a reservoir that also creates hydropower. The extra water helps cool the river it flows into – slowing evaporation and allowing fishing and other activities often stopped when the water gets too warm and low to resume. That same water was also used for other hydropower plants downstream. Some then continued to other river areas. And some was diverted for crop irrigation, important given that farming and ranching are the biggest consumers of water in the state.
Basic conservation – just using less water – is always the first step, but even Colorado Water Conservation Board senior climate specialist Megan Holcomb admits: "We're definitely beyond that conversation."
The Board is considering systems that employ the technique of demand management: finding ways to use minimal water to allow for storage for dry years. So far, the thinking involves a voluntary program.
Already in place is an online tool called the Future Avoided Cost Explorer or FACE: Hazards. It helps quantify impacts of drought and wildfires on sectors of the Colorado economy.
"We know these hazards are going to continue to impact our economy, but we have no numbers to even say how much we should invest now so that we don't have financial impacts in the future," Holcomb says.
Castle talks about ideas such as consideration of water footprints on new developments and re-developments; integrating land use planning with water planning including things such as landscaping codes; and use of technology at various levels of water monitoring.
In Search of More Equitable Sharing of Water
She notes also a drought contingency plan adopted in 2019 by the Compact states calling for reductions in deliveries to the lower basin. It's pointed in the right direction, she says. "At the same time pretty much everyone involved in those discussions and that agreement also agreed that it was not sufficient," Castle says.
Many experts have called for more equitable sharing of water reductions. But ideas on what is fair differ from state-to-state and also among different groups within a region where some interests are pitted against agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the water usage in the basin.
"I think people look at that huge volume of water being used in irrigated agriculture as a place where there's flexibility. And when you get to the politics of working through that in an equitable way, it gets really complicated," says Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society.
The suggestions have included crop switching or alternative transfer mechanisms that call on farmers to periodically grow less water-intensive crops, or pay them not to grow, as a way to make water available for municipal use or storage.
"From a pure economic perspective, it may seem like you pay them and they're whole," Udall says. "There are actually a lot of things where they don't get whole. They potentially lose a market that they've established over years and a great relationship with a buyer. And if that goes away for a year, that buyer may not come back."
In the end, experts say people in the Southwest should definitely not count on more precipitation arriving to bail them out. "I would disabuse people of the idea that you're going to get more water," Udall says. "I think it's pretty clear you're going to have less water." So for folks who think building more reservoirs is a solution, Udall says: "It's not at all clear to me that that works."
But less conventional strategies just might.
Beaver Dams to the Rescue?
Beaver dams are a water management technique that has worked in nature for eons – at least for beavers. Sometimes for people? Not so much.
But the thinking is they could help slow water loss from high-elevation wetlands. That includes the real deals built by beavers or human-constructed beaver dam alternatives.
"We think there's a possible synergy there that helps to improve water supply for water users and helps to improve habitat conditions for species – birds in particular – that depend on that kind of wetlands being around," Pitt says.
The goal would be to protect remaining ones, help establish new ones, and do the same for high-elevation meadows.
A lot of research is still needed, Pitt says. "There's all kinds of instrumentation that has to go into place to understand the groundwater, the surface water, evaporation, the water balance, what it does to your river downstream," she says. There are water law considerations. And then the inevitable pilot projects.
Overall, she says, this type of holistic approach to water through natural ecosystem restoration could become a component of water-sharing agreements as have already been done with Mexico. In exchange for getting river areas restored to better flow, Mexico agreed to a sharing agreement it might not otherwise have.
More People, Less Water, and a Touch of Johnny Appleseed
More people and less water has forced Denver Water to work with uncertainties not previously considered. "Variability is the name of the game in Colorado," says lead climate scientist Laurna Kaatz. "And that variability's going to increase over time. That makes it incredibly challenging to continuously provide high-quality drinking water when you're not sure what's coming around the corner."
The situation calls for adaptive capacity, she says, to provide technical and legal flexibility to adjust for changing circumstances.
Kaatz pointed to the One Water project that pairs water with usage. For instance, treated wastewater could be used to water a golf course, saving the purest water for drinking.
Another project is called From Forests to Faucets, which works on watersheds as natural infrastructure to optimize water flow. It has already proved successful at keeping a wildfire in 2018 from encroaching on a reservoir. In April, Denver Water plans to expand its Airborne Snow Observatory, which uses technology developed by NASA to track snow availability, but now it can be deployed above an altitude of 8,000 feet.
Together the efforts seem to be working – since the 2002 drought, Denver Water has maintained a 22% per-person reduction in water usage from pre-drought levels.
Steamboat Springs is opting for tree-planting. The idea is that trees will help cool down the Yampa River, which is part of the Colorado River Basin. Hot, dry seasons had been pushing stream temperatures so high that part of the river wound up on EPA's impaired waterbody list.
"That was a call to action," says Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs' water resources manager.
The timing also dovetailed with the 2015 release of a Colorado Water Plan that included goals for stream management. Steamboat Springs did a streamflow management plan – released in 2018. In it was the idea of shading the Yampa.
"What we learned was that flow alone cannot overcome the thermal load for the solar radiation, as strength of that radiation increases over time," she says. "The more that we can prepare the river for that, the better it will buffer against the impacts of climate change."
They joined forces with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council's ReTree program that began in 2010 as a reforestation effort to counteract trees killed by pine beetle infestations. It morphed into a three-year Yampa River restoration.
"That work also increases resilience to future changes," says Michelle Stewart, the council's executive director. "We're really learning the important role soil moisture plays in resilience."
ReTree planted 200 narrow leaf cottonwoods in 2019 and another 350 this past October. This coming October, its plans are for 450 cottonwoods and 150 mountain alders. All were raised at the Colorado State Forest Nursery from Yampa Valley clippings. "We're using local trees that are already kind of adapting to big swings in temperature and probably have a little bit more of that hardiness that we need and drought readiness," she says.
It's too early to know how the shading is working but there are plans for citizen help to monitor that and to implement a soil moisture monitoring network in the Yampa Basin.
"This is a Johnny Appleseed project," says Romero-Heaney. "We plant today and hopefully my children will get to enjoy it."
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
- Remarkable Drop in Colorado River Water Use Sign of Climate ... ›
- Rising Temperatures to Blame for Water Loss in Colorado River ... ›
- Record Snow Hits Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Causing Mass Power Outages - EcoWatch ›