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Heat Waves, High Winds Compounding Water Shortage

Water has always been the key to life in the American West. Without a series of land-grabs, water schemes and the industrial revolution, sprawling farms, ranches and cities would have just been a dream. Now, the artificial conditions created to fuel the rapid expansion have created a nightmare. Towns are being evacuated to get citizens out of harm’s way. Cities are using dwindling water supplies to wage hopeless fights against fire. The situation will proceed to get worse.

The past year has been the driest or second driest in most Southwestern states since record keeping began in 1895. Almost 75 percent of the American West is experiencing severe drought, which puts more than 57 million people in harm’s way. While the West has long experienced boom and bust cycles of precipitation, climate change is increasing the volatility and intensity of these cycles.

Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest hit all-time records in late June. Cities such as Portland and Seattle experienced temperatures over 110 degrees, which rivaled the heat experienced in Phoenix, Arizona. The heat wave caused at least 100 deaths.

“We’re really seeing the fingerprints of climate change in the new normals,” MichaelPalecki, who manages the project at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, said when the normals were updated.

Last year tied 2016 as the hottest year on record. Global temperatures continued rising thanks to heat-trapping greenhouse gases and a devastating heat dome.

While drought and dry weather occur and vary naturally in the region, the increasing temperatures pushing the American West over the edge are human in origin. Some scientists suggest that the word drought is no longer accurate, because it implies that the water shortages may end. According to their analysis, the added heat and winds from climate change supercharged the drying process, making the current drought the second worst in the last 1,200 years. The Colorado and Rio Grande rivers are trickling compared to their long-term averages.

Thanks to global warming, we can’t rely on the past to predict the future.

“The region would have been in a state of drought regardless, but climate change is pushing this event to be one of the worst in 500 years,” says Ben Cook, a climate scientist at Columbia’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. “The previous mega-droughts lasted 20, 30, even 40 years, really eclipsing anything we’ve had to manage in the last 100 years,” says Cook.

drought and climate change

The effects of the drought are impacting many stakeholders across the West. Unfortunately, millions of Californians are running out of water. Compounding the problem, millions of Americans rely on California for food. Along the California-Oregon border in the Klamath River basin, water reserves are so low that farmers in the region will receive only 8 percent of the water they usually get. The Yurok and Karuk tribes, which steward salmon and other fish populations along the river, are concerned that it won’t have enough water to keep the fish healthy.

The Colorado River, the source of water for almost 40 million people, is dropping. It hasn’t reached the ocean in years. The decline in the river’s flow is exacerbated by both a 20-year drought and climate change. But it has been a century in the making. Cities cannot solve this problem alone because approximately 75-80 percent of Colorado River water is used for agriculture.

Human-caused climate change, in tandem with human reshaping of the natural hydrological systems—by damming rivers, growing vast fields of crops, and more—have shifted the baseline conditions so thoroughly that there is no way to return to what used to be considered normal. Farms and cities have begun imposing water restrictions.

Today’s catastrophic conditions are influenced by many factors, including a La Niña that began late last year. A La Niña makes it more likely that Pacific storm systems drift northward toward the Pacific Northwest and Canada instead of California and the Southwest.

“It’s incredible, how much of the West is in extreme or exceptional drought right now,” said Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project.

In much of the western United States, water demand has exceeded supply for decades.

Global warming and climate change are compounding the problem by shrinking water supplies even more. That’s bad news for millions of people and for the farmland that produces most of the country’s fruits and vegetables. Water cutbacks are reverberating through California’s $50 billion agricultural industry, which employs tens of thousands of people in many small towns across the state.

“Politicians in the 1920s ignored science and promised more water to the cities and farms than the river can deliver. So we’d be in trouble even without climate change. But warming temperatures are making the problem worse, by increasing evaporation so less water can make it downstream to users,” John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.

Read the full story about the drought in the American West and its implications for cities across the region.

Greener Cities and climate action

Greener Cities is a division of Crossbow Communications. Greener Cities is a resource for sustainable and resilient cities and communities around the world.

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Author: Gary Chandler

Gary Chandler is a sustainability strategist, author and advocate. Follow him on Twitter @Gary_Chandler