Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
Millions of people rely on the Colorado River, but the climate crisis is causing the river to dry up, putting many at risk of "severe water shortages," according to new research, as The Guardian reported.
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By Tara Lohan
In the last few weeks of 2018, the Trump administration set the stage for a big battle over water in the new year. At stake is an important rule that defines which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. The Trump administration seeks to roll back important protections for wetlands and waterways, which are important to drinking water and wildlife.
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After years of unrelenting drought, federal forecasters reported there are better-than-even odds that the nation's largest reservoir will decline into shortage conditions by 2020, forcing Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to reduce their Colorado River water use.
Millions of U.S. residents and farmers are served by the Lake Mead reservoir that's supplied by the Colorado. However, water levels have dropped consistently after years of back-to-back drought. The reservoir is considered full at 1,220 feet above sea level, which has not been seen since 1983.
Conservation groups on Thursday sued Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Bureau of Land Management for approving new leases to allow fracking on more than 45,000 acres in western Colorado, including within communities and within a half-mile of a K-12 public school, without analyzing or disclosing environmental and public health threats as required by federal law.
"Fracking is a filthy, dangerous business, and dodging environmental analysis puts people and public lands at risk," said Diana Dascalu-Joffe, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The Trump administration is trying to ignore science, public health and climate change threats to enrich corporate polluters, but it can't shrug off the law."
A lawsuit filed Monday is seeking to establish personhood rights for the Colorado River--a unique move that could have larger implications for environmental law.
The suit, brought by Denver lawyer Jason Flores-Williams against Colorado and Gov. John Hickenlooper, names the river itself as a plaintiff and environmental group Deep Green Resistance as an ally of the body of water to appear in court on its behalf.
A draft letter backed by officials in Arizona and Utah is urging the Trump administration to review the uranium mining ban near the Grand Canyon. The letter, which is expected to be sent to Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke on Monday, asks the department to completely overturn the Obama-era environmental protections.
By Tim Radford
The Colorado River is dwindling, and climate change is officially to blame. In the first 14 years of this century, the flow declined to only four-fifths of the 20th century average, according to new research. The water lost would have been enough to supply two million people for a whole year.
Altogether, the river supplies water to seven U.S. states and two in Mexico, and 40 million people rely on it for their water. But the entire Colorado River basin has been experiencing sustained drought since 2000. And somewhere between one sixth and one half of this liquid loss can be put down to global warming, scientists said.
They publish their findings in the journal Water Resources Research. "This paper is the first to show the large role that warming temperatures are playing in reducing the flows of the Colorado River," said Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences and of hydrology and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona.
"We're the first to make the case that warming alone could cause Colorado River flow declines of 30 percent by mid-century and over 50 percent by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated."
His co-author Bradley Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University, said, "The future of the Colorado River is far less rosy than other recent assessments have portrayed. A clear message to water managers is that they need to plan for significantly lower river flows."
The two scientists began by looking at the drought years of 2000-2014. The river starts with precipitation in the upper regions of its drainage basin, in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
They found that in the first decade and a half of this century, average temperatures in the region were 0.9°C higher than the average for the past 105 years. This is, very roughly, the temperature by which the globe has warmed on average over the last century, under a global warming regime driven by greenhouse gases emitted from fossil fuel combustion.
Lake Powell: Going, Going, Gone? - EcoWatch https://t.co/qu3xLvqQc7 @ClimateDesk @CeresNews— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1471384872.0
But there is another factor to consider. The U.S. Southwest has a climate history characterized by intermittent megadroughts—periods of much lower rainfall over spans of 20 to 60 years.
Researchers have proposed that the risk of megadroughts is likely to increase in any climate change scenario. What actually will happen is uncertain, but the scientists are betting that as greenhouse gas emissions rise, so will the difficulties of water supply.
"Even if the precipitation does increase, our work indicates that there are likely to be drought periods as long as several decades when precipitation will still fall below normal," said Overpeck.
According to Udall, "Current planning understates the challenge that climate change poses to the water supplies in the American Southwest. My goal is to help water managers incorporate this information into their long-term planning efforts."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.
A study released in Science Advances Wednesday finds strong evidence for severe, long-term droughts afflicting the American Southwest, driven by climate change. A megadrought lasting decades is 99 percent certain to hit the region this century, said scientists from Cornell University, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Historically, the Colorado emptied into the Gulf of California. Today, what little remains of the Colorado River when it reaches Mexico has been diverted to irrigate the farms of Mexicali Valley. The rest of the river exists mostly as a dry memory.ProPublica
"Historically, megadroughts were extremely rare phenomena occurring only once or twice per millennium," the report states. "According to our analysis of modeled responses to increased GHGs, these events could become commonplace if climate change goes unabated."
Rising temperatures will combine with decreased rainfall in the Southwest to create droughts that will be worse than the historic "Dust Bowl" of the 20th century and last far longer. The Dust Bowl lasted no longer than eight years, and affected 100 million acres around the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and adjacent lands in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Dust storms swept through large swaths of former farmland, depositing dust as far east as Chicago, New York and Washington. It is estimated that more than half a million people were made homeless, and some 3.5 million Dust Bowl refugees migrated west, in hopes of finding work.
Maps show risk of megadrought under different levels of global temperature rise.Science Advances
The megadrought study looked at conditions under a 2-degree Celsius level of global warming, 4 degrees and 6 degrees. With 4 degrees of warming, which is the rate the planet is currently heading for, megadroughts are almost a certainty. If the rise in global temperatures is kept to 2 degrees, which is the upper-limit goal of the Paris climate agreement, the risk of megadroughts is between 30 and 60 percent.
Currently, 62 percent of California—home to 39 million people—is under severe or worse drought conditions. The state is entering its sixth consecutive year of drought, with record-low levels of precipitation and snowpack. Moderate or worse drought covers 45 percent of Arizona and 37 percent of Nevada. The water level in many of California's lakes and reservoirs remains below historic averages.
California drought enters its 6th year https://t.co/hBssQk9D9r via @ClimateNexus @EcoWatch #climate #globalwarming… https://t.co/EKnKJzwfrz— climatehawk1 (@climatehawk1)1475524861.0
Much of the Southwest relies on the Colorado River and its tributaries for some or all of its water. Beginning as a trickle seeping out of the ground above 10,000 feet, just west of the Continental Divide, the Colorado feeds critical farmland, public water supplies and helps generate hydroelectric power. Thirty to 40 million people rely on Colorado River water.
Historically, the Colorado emptied into the Gulf of California. Today, what little remains of the Colorado River when it reaches Mexico has been diverted to irrigate the farms of Mexicali Valley. The rest of the river exists mostly as a dry memory.
"The Colorado River is one of the most dammed and diverted rivers on the planet," said Gary Wockner, executive director of Save The Colorado, in an interview with EcoWatch. "In fact, every drop of its water, over 5 trillion gallons of water per year, is diverted out and the river no longer meets the Gulf of California."
California and the Southwest rely on the Colorado River for much of their water supply.Colorado River Water Users Association
Under the 4-degree scenario plotted by the study, all but the extreme southeast corner of California is at a 90 to 100 percent risk of megadrought. The Colorado River supplies 55 to 65 percent of water for Southern California. ProPublica reported last year that more people are entitled to Colorado River water than the river can supply—or has supplied, on average, for the past 110 years.
"Much of the water is lost, overused or wasted, stressing both the Colorado system, and trickling down to California, which depends on the Colorado for a big chunk of its own supply," ProPublica reported.
Colorado's Lake Powell: Going, Going, Gone? - EcoWatch https://t.co/30e6rVgAyz— Norman Buffong (@Norman Buffong)1473343720.0
In California's San Joaquin Valley, over-pumping of groundwater for irrigation has caused the land to sink—in some places, as much as two to three feet. A NASA study, conducted last year, showed the extent of the problem.
One spot near the California Aqueduct sank eight inches in just four months. Toxic algal blooms have affected more than 40 lakes and waterways this year, the greatest number on record. A shift in electric power generation in the state away from dwindling hydropower sources to natural gas has cost Californians $2 billion and increased carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 10 percent.
Toxic algae blooms set historic records from coast to coast>>https://t.co/yjlKVN7uWt via @EcoWatch https://t.co/FkZFYuUb4W— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice)1475424002.0
"A megadrought occurring again in the Southwest in the coming decades would impose unprecedented stresses on water resources of the region, and recent studies have shown that they are far more likely to occur this century because of climate change compared to past centuries," stated the authors of the megadrought study. They call for a mix of adaptation policies, including reducing demand, greater water efficiency, and shifts to groundwater supplies, as well as further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
"The implications are that the river is already severely depleted and the reservoirs are at near historic lows and all the predictions are that it is going to get worse," said Wockner. "And so people who manage water supplies need to be managing for less water."
President Obama made a historic announcement Wednesday, saying that the federal government is considering investing in the geothermal power in the rock formations under the Salton Sea in Southern California. Considered to be "the most powerful geothermal reservoirs in the world," the Salton Sea announcement could play a critical role in the future management of the Colorado River.
Mud flies as carbon dioxide gas from deep underground fissures escapes through geothermal mudpots or mud volcanoes, over the southern San Andreas earthquake fault near the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge near Calipatria, California. David McNew
Fifty years ago, Glen Canyon Dam was built above the Grand Canyon, and the Colorado River was enslaved to generate electricity to feed the hunger of the booming southwestern cities and suburbs. The Colorado's pulsing flows had carved and nourished the Grand Canyon for millennium, but that came to a crashing halt when the gates were closed and the water was ponded in Lake Powell. The environmental damage and steady decline of one of our nation's crown jewels has led to many calls for restoration of the natural system through the removal of Glen Canyon Dam.
The dam's ability to provide power has shielded it from any serious attempt to bring it down. Times change though and, over the last 16 years, the historic drought in the Southwest U.S. has drained Lake Powell to historic lows, severely diminishing the potential to generate hydroelectricity from the massive turbines encased in Glen Canyon Dam. Water and electricity managers are scrambling to come up with a plan to prop up the lake above what's called "power pool" so they can continue to generate and sell power. Any such solution is, however, clearly a stop-gap measure to keep the dam operational and is doomed to fail when confronted by the realities of climate change.
Lake Powell: Going, Going, Gone? - EcoWatch https://t.co/qu3xLvqQc7 @ClimateDesk @CeresNews— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1471384872.0
Fortunately, Obama's announcement offers a true path to the future.
The Salton Sea announcement could create an opportunity to replace the hydroelectric power generated at Glen Canyon Dam and a path forward to restoring the Grand Canyon. The geothermal reservoirs under the Salton Sea are an untapped resource that could add power to the grid as Lake Powell is slowly drained and Glen Canyon Dam is removed. Lake Powell's water could be put into Lake Mead, its downstream sister, thus keeping one fully functioning hydroelectric facility on the grid. Further, this "geo-hydro power trade" could keep the federal government solvent in its current financial contracts to provide electricity to the Southwest U.S.
The idea has already generated a bit of a buzz when Geothermal Resources retweeted this tweet:
Salton Sea Geothermal power could be used replace Glen Canyon hydropower as #climatechange drains Powell. #CORiver https://t.co/Mk9mtkDffQ— SaveTheColoradoRiver (@SaveTheColoradoRiver)1472665768.0
Climate change scientists have painted a bullseye on the Southwest U.S. and the Colorado River, indicating the area will become warmer and dryer with even less flow in the Colorado River. Hydroelectricity is threatened at both Lakes Powell and Mead, as well as reservoirs in California. Salton Sea geothermal power could be a breakthrough in building a climate change-resistant Southwest while also preserving and restoring the lifeblood of the region—the Colorado River.
The 16-year drought on the Colorado River has drained Lake Mead and Lake Powell to their combined lowest level in history. But that's nothing compared to what could happen, according to a new study from the State of Colorado.
The study indicates that a drought like the one that happened in 2000 – 2006 "would empty Lake Powell," according to the Aspen Daily News. "Another potential conclusion from the risk study is that any new trans-mountain diversion would only make it more likely that Powell would go below target levels," the publication noted.
And, whether you want to believe it or not, water agencies in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are proposing to do just that. In fact, Denver Water, Northern Water (in Colorado), and the states of Wyoming and Utah are all proposing even more dams and diversions of water out of the river and its tributaries that would accelerate the draining of Lake Powell and cause serious legal consequences for the entire Southwest U.S.
Further, climate change scientists have painted a bullseye on the Southwest U.S., indicating that it will get hotter and drier, with even less flow into the Colorado River. The lead investigator in the in-progress Colorado report has even said, "I haven't shown the climate change hydrology because it just scares everybody."
Save the Colorado has formally opposed all new proposed dams and diversions out of the river or its tributaries. We believe climate change is real and will have a serious impact on the Colorado River. The solution proposed by the State of Colorado is to buy massive amounts of water from farmers in Colorado, and then let that water run downstream to Lake Powell to keep the water level high enough to produce electricity at Glen Canyon Dam.
This plan is very unlikely to be successful. There's just not enough farmers who would want to sell massive amounts of water in order to keep the hydroelectric turbines spinning. Further, it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars every year to buy out those farmers even if they would sell.
What makes more sense is a responsible, planned effort by the government to drain Lake Powell, rather than letting drought and climate change do it in a haphazard way.
Lake Powell's days are numbered. The lake was a mistake, it's time to forsake.
News reports over the weekend confirm what we Coloradans have been hearing for months, that our Governor, John Hickenlooper, is on the short list for vice president by presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Having suffered through six long years of Gov. Hickenlooper here in Colorado, I offer these top five reasons why Clinton should not pick him as her vice president:
1. Climate Change
When Hickenlooper got in office, one of his first quips was about how he wasn't sure climate change was real. Throughout his tenure he's maintained an arm's length to the issue and when, in 2015, he finally released a "Climate Action Plan," it ensured that emissions would continue rising and the issue would not be taken seriously during his tenure.
As Governor, Hickenlooper gets to appoint the Public Utilities Commission in Colorado which oversees the electricity industry. Hickenlooper's appointments have been pro fossil fuel (the chair of the commission used to work for a fossil fuel company). In addition, he's repeatedly spoken in favor of the coal industry and even supports opening up roadless areas for more coal mining in Colorado.
3. Water and Rivers
To much ballyhoo, Hickenlooper launched the Colorado Water Plan which missed the mark and is an "all of the above" approach to water supply in Colorado. Further, no sooner did the ink dry, than he endorsed two controversial new dam and diversion projects that would further drain and destroy the already beleaguered Colorado River.
If there's one thing Hickenlooper will be known for, it's his support of fracking and the oil and gas industry. He's drank Halliburton's fracking fluid, sued cities that voted to ban fracking and he's stood arm-and-arm with Tea Party Republicans in his support for the fracking industry. He didn't get—he earned—the nickname "Frackenlooper."
5. Population Growth
During Hickenlooper's tenure, population growth has boomed in Colorado at a faster clip than at any time in history. He has lured, subsidized and promoted population and business growth which has had a devastating impact on our state's air quality, water supplies and road congestion. From mountains to plains, our state's landscape is being devoured by population growth.
Many folks in the environmental community in Colorado think we should all stay silent—after all, if Clinton picks Hickenlooper, he will be gone from here and we'll have a new dawn to try and get a new governor who respects and protects the environment. But I see it differently.
Under Hickenlooper's regime, the environmental community and the progressive base of the Democratic Party in Colorado has been split, scorned, marginalized and eviscerated. I do not want to see that happen to the U.S. by a person who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
As the largest reservoir in the U.S. falls to its lowest water level in history, Nevada State Sen. Tick Segerblom introduced a bill title and issued a press release on July 8 calling for an “independent scientific and economic audit of the Bureau of Reclamation’s strategies for Colorado River management.”
Sen. Segerblom’s position represents the growing political impatience with the current management system for the river. He takes hard aim at the Bureau of Reclamation as being responsible for these problems as he says, “Reclamation may have played a major role in erecting our Colorado River infrastructure, but it’s clearly time for people across the basin to begin leading its future management.”
Further, the Senator calls for a more environmentally minded management focus on the health of the river as stated in his press release: “Healthy rivers signal healthy societies, yet Reclamation failed to mention ecological issues in its recent analysis. The Colorado River is a river of national parks, but the river running through them is struggling.”
This week’s history-making, bad-news event at Lake Mead has already triggered lots of news stories, but almost all of these stories focus on the water supply for Las Vegas, Phoenix and California. But what about the health of the river itself? Senator Segerblom’s press release reminds us that this river is more than just water supply for cities and farms—it’s a living entity full of species that depend on the river for survival, and as the lake level falls, the first entity to feel even more pain won’t be Las Vegas or Phoenix but rather the river itself.
Let’s take a look at the environmental problems with the Colorado River and how they are getting worse. Grab a cup of coffee because this is a buzzkill:
- Four federally listed endangered fish continue to struggle to survive in the Colorado River, but managers’ answer to this problem is to continually spawn and restock the fish, not to address the underlying problem of too many dams and diversions.
- Many of the tributaries flowing into the Colorado River are severely depleted, and some, like the Gila River in Arizona, are completely drained dry almost every year.
- The ecological health of the Grand Canyon is severely degraded and imperiled—what was once a wild and brown frothy foment of a river filled with native fish, canyon-carving sediment and warm-water organisms is now a cold, clear-green, somewhat sterile and completely controlled dam/drainage system that has not been adequately mitigated or fixed.
- Climate change models indicate the decrease in flow in the Colorado River could be significantly more than Bureau of Reclamation is planning for, yet mangers have not even grappled with the last 15 years of drought let alone what climate change may increasingly offer.
- As river flows drop, as lake levels drop, and as climate change models indicate worsening conditions, cities and water districts in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona are proposing even more dams and diversions out of the Colorado River system. All the states and the cities are trying to get the last legally allowed drop of water out of the river before someone else does.
- Almost 1/12 of the entire flow of the Colorado River simply evaporates into thin air or seeps away into the ground surrounding all of the reservoirs, yet the river’s managers are not considering ways to mitigate or fix this loss to water supplies as well as to river health from the 50 to 100-year old dam and reservoir system.
To address these problems as well as water supply threats, the Bureau of Reclamation spent years creating the Colorado River Basin Study and released it publicly in 2012 with much fanfare. Since that time, Reclamation has appointed several “Working Groups” to further study the problem and offer solutions—including a “Healthy Flows Working Group”—but over a year has passed without public communication about recommendations or solutions.
To be fair, it’s not completely all bad news—there are a few glimmers of hope around the Colorado River basin too. The effort by the Bureau to restore the Colorado River Delta has been positive, environmental groups’ work to stop and stall new water projects has made a difference, and a few cities’ new pilot project, Colorado River System Conservation Program, offers a potential path forward.
But despite these glimmers of hope, there’s one overwhelming fact in the Colorado River ecosystem and it’s painted bright white with the increasing size of the bathtub ring across the walls of Lake Mead—we are draining more water out of the system than the river is putting in.
Whether you agree or disagree with Sen. Segerblom’s approach, something needs to change to address the water supply threats, and something must change as soon as possible to arrest the continual decline of the health of the Colorado River. The system, and the health of the river itself, cannot be sustained the way it’s currently operated.
Gary Wockner, PhD, coordinates the Save The Colorado River Campaign whose mission is to protect and restore the Colorado River and its tributaries from the source to the sea. Gary@SaveTheColorado.org.