This Is What Epic Drought Looks Like: Lake Mead Hits Historic Low
The big doom-and-gloom news in the water world this week is that America’s former largest reservoir, Lake Mead near Las Vegas on the Colorado River, hit a historic low on Sunday. The reservoir serves water to the states of Arizona, Nevada and California, providing sustenance to nearly 20 million people and crops that feed the nation.
All the news stories and pundits blame the historic draining of Lake Mead on drought and/or climate change, but I’m going to take a different tack on this story. The reservoir hit a historic low because the entire Colorado River water supply system has been grossly mismanaged. Further, the gross mismanagement is escalating as the upstream states plot their next moves to further drain the reservoirs imperiling the economy of the region as well as degrading the health of the Colorado River.
For nearly two decades every water supply agency in the Southwest U.S., including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation which manages the Colorado River system, has known that the river is “over-allocated”—i.e., that more water is taken out than flows in. Yet, almost nothing has been done to stem the decline which is likely to get worse as climate change progresses. Finally in 2013, the Bureau of Reclamation publicly created the “Colorado River Basin Study” that, sure enough, said the system is in severe decline and offered a bunch of ideas on how to address it. However, few of those ideas have been enacted as the nation watches the reservoir drop and Nevada, Arizona and California still take almost all of their full allotment of water out of the river.
Even more malevolently, the level of water in Lake Mead is partly driven by how much water flows into it from the upstream states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. At the same time that Mead hit a historic low, those three states are not only still taking all of the same water out of the system, they are aggressively planning to build even more dams and reservoirs that divert more water.
- In Colorado, Denver Water is proposing to build a larger dam/reservoir, Northern Water (which supplies water to Northern Colorado) is also proposing to build a new reservoir, and the State of Colorado is going through a planning process to build billions of dollars worth of water projects, all of which would further drain the Colorado River ecosystem.
- In Utah, state and local planners are moving forward with a massive pipeline proposal out of the Colorado River at Lake Powell, and the state government is going through a planning process that proposes to put more dams on every river in the state.
- In Wyoming, water planners are aggressively trying to start two reservoir projects that would further drain the Green River which flows into the Colorado, and are planning more water diversion projects in the future.
All of these projects are being proposed so the upstream states can get the last legally allowed drops of water out of the system before it collapses in the near future. This water management is a kind of “Mutually Assured Destruction” escalating the water war across the Southwest U.S.
If there is a slight bright side here it’s that the states have agreed to some “trigger” points in Lake Mead—levels to which if the reservoir drops, the states will start taking out less water, led first by Arizona. Those triggers will likely be hit in the next 12 to 18 months. Further, water agencies in Nevada, Arizona and Southern California have also agreed to some new conservation measures that will take less water out of the reservoir.
But that’s not enough. Here’s the bold action that needs to be taken:
- Every water supply agency needs to agree to water conservation measures that stabilize the system right now, before it reaches trigger points and collapse scenarios. The conservation measures should occur in cities and on farms across the Southwest U.S. If the water supply agencies won’t do it, the federal government—which has the authority—needs to step in and get it done.
- No water supply agency should propose to take one more new drop of water out of the Colorado River system. Instead of Mutually Assured Destruction, we need Multi-Lateral Disarmament. All of the proposed projects should be stopped—if the agencies won’t stop them, then the federal government should. If the federal government won’t do it, then the court system should as these project go through permitting processes and get hit with inevitable lawsuits.
- The health of the Colorado River needs to addressed for the first time in history. At the top of the system in Colorado, the river is nearly drained and even more endangered by proposed dam projects. In the middle section of the river in Utah and Arizona, the dams have completely degraded the ecosystem leading to multiple endangered fish and a massively disrupted flow regime and ecology. At the bottom of the system, the Colorado River is still drained bone dry—all 5 trillion gallons drained out before it reaches the Gulf of California creating a holocaust of environmental degradation.
Gross mismanagement needs to be replaced with bold action, and then the doom and gloom news stories would be replaced with hope for a brighter future.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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