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Infrastructure Watch: Climate Matters

Douglas County, Lake Tahoe, climate change, infrastructure, environment

With “Infrastructure Week” becoming more of an “Infrastructure Year”, we continue to await Congress’ next moves on a pair of bills that may result in lasting change and realignment for America’s economy. But in the last few days, we’ve seen some sobering reminders of how America and our global climate simply don’t have much time to wait.

Believe it or not, climate change doesn’t wait for updates on legislation.

As expected, the Colorado River shortage declaration is now official.
climate change, infrastructure, environment, Colorado River, Lake Mead
Photo by Andrew Davey

Back in June and July, we noted the ample warning signs of the Colorado River’s rapidly shrinking water flow. On August 16, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made it official by declaring a Tier One Shortage at Lake Mead as the result of their most recent 24 month study projecting Lake Mead’s water level to hit just below 1,066 feet above sea level, which is just over nine feet below the 1,075 level to automatically trigger a shortage declaration and required water cuts for the Lower Basin states and Mexico.

Here in Nevada, this means that we lose 21,000 acre feet (or 7%) of our annual allotment of Colorado River water. Fortunately due to local conservation efforts, Southern Nevada already got our water use below the Tier One Shortage level before Reclamation declared this shortage. According to records that the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) provided to The Washington Post earlier this month, Nevada currently uses 256,000 acre feet of Colorado River water – 23,000 acre feet below our new 279,000 acre foot Colorado River water ceiling, and even further below our full portfolio of water resources that includes local groundwater, Virgin River water, and Muddy River water. With more aggressive turf removal efforts now underway, we can potentially drive our overall water use even lower.

Clark County, Nevada, water, climate change, climate change, infrastructure, environment,
Photo by Andrew Davey

However, as we calculated in June, we risk slashing deep into the “water buffer” that we’re now trying to build through better conservation if we get too aggressive in expanding Las Vegas’ urban footprint. More specifically, the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act that Nevada’s Congressional delegation have coalesced behind aims to unlock just over 30,000 acres of federal public lands for suburban and exurban development, mostly along the I-15 corridor south of Henderson. Though this technically leaves us with about 50,000 acre feet of leftover “buffer water”, keep in mind that Nevada will undergo another cut to water allocation under a Tier Two Shortage should Lake Mead fall below 1,050 feet above sea level.

Basically our water forecast appears much safer than the more alarmist national media reports suggest, but it can quickly devolve into a “five alarm fire” under a “perfect storm” scenario of hyper-aggressive suburban and exurban expansion and continuing aridification of the Colorado River Basin. And no, the so-called “solutions” like lawsuits demanding higher allocation of Colorado River water and construction of pipelines eastward to the Mississippi River have no basis in reality. Instead of entertaining “dank memes!” as Deus-ex-Machina “solutions”, we need to get real about our water shortage and how we must adapt in order to survive.

The Caldor Fire has already blown past expectations for summer wildfires up north.

Wildfires may pose a constant threat to the Tahoe region, but climate change has led to the ever worsening danger of super-fires. Even as the Caldor Fire was burning farther south, the wildfire smoke became so unbearably thick that restaurants, stores, and other tourist attractions had to shut down… And cut down what’s typically a busy and lucrative summer tourism season. 

But today, much of Lake Tahoe’s western shore and the vast majority of the south shore – including the south shore’s population center at South Lake Tahoe – are under high alert and evacuation orders. The region has already suffered under the threat of regional super-fires throughout the summer, but now the danger is much closer to home than scientists were even expecting a month ago. 

For all the past complaints about climate action being “too expensive” and “impractical”, we’re experiencing real world examples up north and down south of why those “hot takes” were dangerously wrong. The climate crisis is here, and what we used to consider “once in a lifetime” is rapidly becoming “our new normal”.

Looking east, the struggle is also very real. 

On Sunday, Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana. It initially hit as a Category Four hurricane, and it had only dropped to Category Three upon reaching New Orleans. Though Ida finally weakened back down to tropical storm level yesterday, that only came after the Louisiana Gulf Coast and New Orleans metro regions experienced widespread flooding, high winds, property damage, and power outages

In a tragic twist of coincidence, Ida made landfall almost exactly 16 years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. Though federal, state, and local officials spent the last 16 years rebuilding much of the region and overhauling their disaster readiness programs, there are neighborhoods that still bear the scars of Katrina

Even in the wake of Katrina, the science had become quite clear on how climate change was affecting the Gulf Coast – and more specifically, how climate change was contributing to more potent and more dangerous hurricane seasons. As the Gulf Coast begins to pick up the pieces from Ida’s wreckage, we can already tell how the previously unusually hot water of the Gulf of Mexico provided the ideal climate for Ida to turbocharge from Category One to Category Four hurricane in just 24 hours. Though Louisiana and Mississippi appear to have avoided the worst case scenario that some meteorologists and climatologists feared, we can already tell that Ida had no plan to hold them harmless.

So what do we do about this? (Hint: Remember those two infrastructure bills in Congress?)

As we’ve been noticing throughout Nevada, and elsewhere in America, climate change has rapidly shifted from “faraway concern” to clear and present danger. So why aren’t more policymakers recognizing the severity of this crisis?

Let’s examine the latest with Congressional Democrats’ two infrastructure bills. While the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (or “the bipartisan bill”) includes some funding for climate resiliency programs, including $8.3 billion for sorely needed Western water infrastructure programs, it’s ultimately written as a net polluter bill because it dedicates more funding to fossil fuel supporting infrastructure than to renewable energy programs and other efforts to lower America’s carbon footprint. The reconciliation infrastructure package, however, includes carbon pricing mechanisms like polluter fees and the Clean Electricity Payment Program to encourage utility companies to accelerate their transition to renewable energy. In addition, the reconciliation infrastructure package that Democrats are now working on will probably include incentives for consumers to reduce their own carbon footprints, as well as more direct investment in community renewable power. 

Jacky Rosen, Joe Biden, Catherine Cortez Masto, Congress, infrastructure
Photo by Andrew Davey

Even though the White House and Congressional Democratic leaders have been signaling since June their plan to advance both of the infrastructure bills, a small group of conservative House Democrats threatened to derail the budget resolution to unlock reconciliation. They claimed that America “could not afford unnecessary delays” of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) repeatedly pointed to her plan to tee that up for final House approval once the House and Senate finish work on the larger reconciliation infrastructure package. 

Despite “The Unbreakable Ten” going public with their threat to kill the reconciliation package that will likely include the core of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda and the climate action that dozens of their Democratic colleagues promised on the campaign trail, the House passed the budget resolution on a 220-212 party-line vote last Tuesday. But even as that hurdle finally got cleared, another hurdle came into clearer view: Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) are claiming that they won’t vote for the full $3.5 trillion in new investment that the budget resolution allows for, so Congressional Democratic leaders must again find a way to satisfy them while simultaneously keeping all the rest of the House and Senate Democrats on board. 

Climate change is serious. The need for climate action is very real. When will we finally recognize “the fierce urgency of now”?

All too often, we face disasters that suddenly befall us and give us precious little time to respond. This is not one of those cases. While individual natural disasters like Hurricane Ida and the Caldor Fire might emerge and intensify quickly, the crisis of climate change has been more of a relatively “slow burn”. The United Nations has housed the IPCC and encouraged international climate talks since 1988, and scientific research has been pointing at carbon pollution as the primary culprit for even longer.

All too often, we look back at history and ask, “Why didn’t we act sooner to stop that?” We’re asking this now regarding COVID-19, and we continue to live with the consequences of past failures to contain this pandemic. We’re also asking this regarding the War in Afghanistan, as over 60 years’ worth of American entanglements in Afghanistan have ended with a global refugee crisis and the restoration of Taliban power that America allegedly defeated back in 2001.

With climate change, we’re still in the phase where we can act here and now to “stop that”. Please keep this in mind. Even when we factor in the dire warning of this year’s IPCC report, we still have time to fend off the worst case scenario of extinction-level climate armageddon. It’s now a matter of whether or not we use this time we have left to act before it becomes too late.

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  1. […] time we checked in on Democrats’ infrastructure bills, the House passed the necessary budget resolution for the reconciliation package on a 220-212 […]

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