Just last month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officially declared a Tier One Shortage for both of the Colorado River’s major reservoirs. Last week, Reclamation announced a revised forecast that’s even more grim.
How bad is it along the Colorado River, and how much worse might it get if we don’t get our act together soon?
So what’s the deal with Reclamation’s latest Colorado River Basin water forecast?
As we noted last week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released its new forecast for the Colorado River’s two major reservoirs last week. Going forward, Lake Powell faces a 25-35% chance of reaching the “deadpool” level within the next five years where the Glen Canyon Dam hydroelectric power plant can no longer operate. Even closer to home, Lake Mead faces a 22% chance of dropping all the way down to Tier Three shortage levels by 2023, and a 62%-66% chance of reaching a Tier Three shortage by 2026.
Under the 2019 seven-state Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), Nevada and Arizona will have to accept another round of water allocation cuts if Lake Mead falls below the 1,045 feet level that falls within Tier Two Shortage. And under the 2007 Interim Guidelines, Nevada, Arizona, and California will all have to accept another round of water allocation cuts should Lake Mead fall to 1,030 – which is actually slightly above the 1,025 level that triggers a Tier Three Shortage under the 2019 DCP.
As we’ve been warning for some time, Nevada policymakers’ plans for future growth must take into account the likelihood of less Colorado River water to work with. Nevada’s members of Congress have pitched the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act as a responsible plan for future development. But even with the state government approving Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA)’s more aggressive water conservation plan that involves a historic amount of turf removal, we may only have about 50,000 acre feet worth of “buffer water” left to withstand potential Tier Two and Tier Three water allocation cuts if Congress passes the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act and turns over a net 30,633 acres of federal public lands for new suburban and exurban development.
The climate connection – here, and abroad
Since this is just a forecast, we just don’t know yet where exactly the water levels will land along the Colorado River. We also don’t know exactly how the seven Colorado River Basin states, the U.S. federal government, the Basin’s Native American tribal communities, and the Mexican government will respond should this forecast begin to become reality. We do, however, know plenty about why the Colorado River’s water flow has dropped this low, and why we’re likely to have even less Colorado River water available going forward.
Last month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their updated report that made very clear climate change’s likely role as the key driver behind worsening wildfires, water shortages, and mega-storms. This just adds to the already mounting scientific consensus that climate change is causing aridification in multiple regions around the world – including our own American West. Around the world, national governments are having to decide what more they will do to address climate change and prevent the escalation of carbon emissions that threatens the future of humanity.
Just in the last month, voters’ worries about climate change played an outsized role in parliamentary elections in Canada and Germany. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau managed to win another minority government thanks in part to his Liberal Party fulfilling the promise to pass a climate plan with a carbon tax and the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, and the Liberals will likely need the support of more progressive members of Parliament who demand bolder climate action. In Germany, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party increased their respective Bundestag seat counts and stand a decent chance at taking the driver’s seat for the next national government. In Germany the Green Party specifically campaigned on the promise of phasing out coal power by 2030, and the SPD campaigned on the promise of 100% renewable power by 2040.
Coming back to America, President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats campaigned last year on the promise of more aggressive climate action. Their Build Back Better reconciliation package probably marks Democrats’ one last chance to fulfill this promise, so House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-California) final push to finish work on the Build Back Better package and how well she manages to make this happen will probably say a lot about whether the U.S. government will finally become a more beneficial actor for global climate solutions.
On our regional water shortage and the larger global climate crisis, we’ve indulged in far too much denial. We can’t solve these problems if we don’t want to admit they exist.
For nearly three decades, the world’s most powerful entities have made the ultimate habit out of kicking the can of climate change down the road. The 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit was the first official global climate summit, and it largely failed to produce a concrete international climate action plan. The Rio Earth Summit led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, yet the world’s largest polluter at the time never even bothered to ratify the treaty and join the agreement, as a 95-0 nonbinding U.S. Senate vote of disapproval scared then President Bill Clinton into never even sending Kyoto to the Senate for a formal ratification vote. Eventually the United Nations tried again in Copenhagen in 2009, and that failed to produce any legally binding commitments to cut carbon emissions.
Finally, the world seemed to make some actual progress with the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit overall global warming “well below 2°C” above pre-industrial levels. But once again, the Paris Agreement has no legally binding climate goals, no enforcement mechanisms, and no comprehensive system in place to move the world towards the emissions reduction that they agreed to on paper. So really, is it any surprise that most countries are not on track to hit the Paris Agreement’s 2030 climate goals? Even worse, the expected major players at the 2021 Glasgow Climate Summit are already signaling that they don’t expect to resolve these unresolved issues from Paris 2015.
For nearly a century, the U.S. government and the traditional Colorado River Basin “stakeholders” have made the ultimate habit of denying how much water we actually have available. Ever since the “stakeholders” and the federal government negotiated the original Colorado River Compact, they already had access to evidence showing that the Colorado River could not support 15 million acre feet of annual appropriation and use indefinitely. Now that climate change may very well be causing some permanent aridification of the American West, 15 million acre feet of annual water appropriation seems even more unrealistic than ever.
As we like to say around these parts – actions have consequences, and denial can be quite deadly. For far too long, we’ve been in denial over how much carbon pollution we can handle and how much water we can take out. In both realms, the ultimate moment of reckoning is fast approaching.
What happens next? What must we do?
Deep down, we know what we need to do. We need to develop and grow in a way that’s more in harmony with the natural landscape we call home. It makes sense both economically and environmentally to build up instead of the usual default setting of building out.
While we are making some incremental progress here in Nevada on switching to a more renewable energy powered economy and conserving more of our limited water resources, there’s far more we can do – especially in switching to a more sustainable development and growth model. Ultimately, there’s only so much we can accomplish as a state absent sufficient national and international climate action to prevent this tragically preventable crisis from escalating further.
As frightening as the latest Colorado River water shortage projections appear, the future will only continue to take scarier turns if we fail to act. On the flip side, we can choose not to resign ourselves to the fate of extinction. We can just create our own shortage of the will to build a better future, or we can choose that better future. It’s ultimately up to us.
The cover photo was taken by me.