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This item was posted on October 16, 2010, and it was categorized as Climate Change, Colorado River, drought.
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Eleven years of low flows and growing consumption are draining the reservoir. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the West is slowly aridifying too.

UPDATE, SUNDAY 10/17/10: AS OF ABOUT 11 a.m. (MST) TODAY, LAKE MEAD HAD DROPPED TO A RECORD LOW LEVEL. AS I WRITE THIS AT 7 P.M., THE LAKE STANDS AT 1083.15 FT, FOUR TENTHS OF AN INCH LOWER THAN THE PREVIOUS RECORD LOW, SET IN 1956. (I’ve updated the headline to reflect this. But I’ve left the original lede to the story as is.) Also, please check out John Fleck’s excellent post about this. He was there today when it happened and got some interesting reactions from tourists.

Lake Mead shimmers in this photo shot by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, with thirsty Las Vegas sprawled across the desert at upper right.

In as little as the next few days, Lake Mead, the giant reservoir on the Colorado River that serves millions of water users, will drop to record low levels.

To be more precise, it is all but inevitable that its elevation above sea level will drop below 1,083.19 feet, the historic low reached in 1956. And when that happens, the reservoir will be at a level that has not been seen since the reservoir was filling up in the 1930s. (For the current level of Lake Mead, click here.)

Lake Mead is, in essence, a giant hydrological bank account from which California, Nevada and Arizona — the “lower basin” states of the Colorado River — make withdrawals to slake the thirst of cities like Las Vegas, and millions of acres of farmland. But 11 years of dry conditions, combined with ever growing demand, have steadily drained Lake Mead.

Click for larger image

If it continues to drop below a crucial trigger point of 1,075 feet, Bureau of Reclamation managers have plans to release extra water from Lake Powell — the reservoir upstream on the Colorado created by the Glenn Canyon Dam. They hope this will tide the lower basin states over until wetter conditions return to the Colorado Basin. (For a map of the basin, click on the image at left.)

But will wetter conditions return? Climate scientists caution that droughts are likely to become even more intense and longer lasting as concentrations of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continue to rise. In fact, it’s possible that water levels will never recover.

“My hydrology friends in the Southwest tell me that they don’t expect Lake Mead or Lake Powell ever to fill again,” says Steve Running, an ecologist at the University of Montana who studies the impacts of climate change on ecosystems. “And that’s the good news.” (For more on this issue, check out the second half of this post.)

Las Vegas is now hedging its bets by tunneling beneath Lake Mead to install a new intake system. This would allow southern Nevada to continue drawing water from the reservoir even if the lake drops below the level of existing intakes.

Meanwhile, a drop below 1,075 would trigger a series of actions aimed at conserving water.

“There are many people who think we could hit 1075 quite easily next year,” says Brad Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado. “Arizona would take most of the shortage. Nevada a little.”

What would that mean for residents of those states? “No one is going to dry up, not be able take showers or drink water. But we’re going to have to think long and hard about 19th century water law, which in some sense is what’s at work here, 20th century infrastructure, and 21st century population and climate change.”

Over the past few weeks I’ve interviewed a number experts about the significance of what’s happening in the Colorado Basin — and in The West generally. My longest and most detailed interview was with Udall. The full interview with him ran on “How On Earth,” KGNU FM’s weekly science show, earlier this week. To listen to the interview, click here and skip forward in the audio to about 12 minutes.

Below are some experts from that interview, as well as comments and information from Steve Running.

To start the interview with Udall, I asked what significance he placed on the record low Lake Mead is about to hit.

. . . what you’re really seeing here is a combination of drought and an overuse problem amongst the three three lower basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona. And that overuse problem historically has been covered up by a little extra water that flows down from Colorado and the upper basin states. But over the last 11 years, with the most serious drought on record, that water hasn’t been there, and so the overuse problem has become readily apparent.

To what degree is climate change implicated in the 11 years of drought that has left Lake Mead so low?

The way science and statistics work is that there’s a really high bar set to say, ‘Okay, this particular event is actually climate change and not just natural variability.’ In fact that bar is so high, frequently all you can say is, hey, this is consistent with what we think climate change will bring. I think this is in many ways where we are in the Colorado River. Although there have been some attribution studies suggesting that things like timing of runoff, which is occurring earlier, temperatures we’re seeing, some reductions in snow pack, are statistically significant.

But I think these are very early studies, and its a little hard to say with certainty that . . . what we’ve seen over the last 11 years — which is the worst historical drought on record by far — is due to climate change. What you can say is that over the last 11 years, temperatures [have been] 1.6 degrees higher than normal . . . And while that doesn’t sound like a lot, it actually is a lot when you measure it over the whole basin. And I think it’s pretty easy to say that those higher temperatures have to be related to less water we’ve seen in the system.

During the current drought, we’ve seen a roughly 20 percent reduction in flow in the lower Colorado River. The next worst drought was in the 1950s, which saw a 17 percent decline in flow. That difference in flows between the present and the 1950s may not seem like a lot, Udall says, but over 11 years it amounts to the loss of about 5 million acre feet — “or roughly one third of the flow that occurs in a year.”

Nature is perfectly capable of producing even worse droughts. In fact, tree ring studies show that droughts of the intensity we’re experiencing now lasted for as many as 60 years back in the 11oo’s, according to Udall.

A 60-year period is an enormously long period of time relative to the 11-year period we’ve been in. So the historical droughts … are far worse than what we’ve seen, and I think there is reason to believe they could occur again either under climate change, or obviously without climate change. But I guess the bottom line is this is a very serious drought . . . [and] if it were to continue, there would be some very serious consequences for the Lower Basin with regard to their water use.

What has happened to flows along the Colorado is reflective of what’s happening in the interior West generally.

“Throughout the West we are slowly arridifying,” says Steve Running of the University of Montana. “We are heading toward a more arid climate overall.”

Monitoring of the flow of streams and rivers in Running’s own state, Montana, shows that the steadily drying climate is having an impact, particularly in August, when flow is at its lowest at the end of summer. “The trend for every single river studied is down on order of 30 to 40 percent,” he says. “We are dewatering our rivers right now at a very alarming rate.”

Update 10/18/10, 8 a.m.: A new paper in the Journal Science finds that reductions in flows of the world’s rivers is shortening food chains by eliminating top predators like many large-bodied fish. Click here for the abstract, and here for a Eurekalert press release about the research.

What can we expect moving forward? With climate change, might we be at significant risk of more drought like the one that has dropped Lake Mead’s level so low?

“We think you could lose 10 to 20 percent of flow on Colorado by 2050 . . . so 40 years from now,” Udall says. (Other estimates suggests flows could drop even more. See the map below.) Those reductions in flows are likely to come from increases in temperature and some decreases in precipitation. He notes that the Colorado headwaters happen to sit in an area of world that is particularly prone to drought. And climate change modeling suggest that with continued increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, dry areas are likely to get still drier.

As a result, many regions of the world will probably have to cope with increased aridity, as the map below shows. The map is from the IPCC report “Climate Change and Water,” and it depicts projected changes in annual runoff in river basins around the world, based on the output of an ensemble of 12 climate models:

These projections are predicated on the IPCC’s A1B scenario, which features very rapid economic growth, a global population that peaks in mid-century and declines thereafter, and rapid introduction of new and more efficient technologies. (White areas show areas of significant disagreement on the sign of change between models; hatched areas indicate where more than 90% of models agree on the sign of change.)

As the map suggests, even if the world manages to rapidly introduce energy technologies that help us get off carbon-based energy, many areas of the world are likely to get drier by 40 percent or more.

“When you look around the planet with regard to water, places like India and China are particularly at risk given growing population and use of water for food and all these competing uses,” Udall says.

During the next century,  one of the most pressing environmental issues we’ll face will be “the intersection of carbon and climate change with all these other problems. And water is one of the first ones that’s arising. The Colorado River Basin is the classic case in the United States.”

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This thing has 35 Comments

  1. John Zulauf
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Watching the massive growth of LA and Phoenix I’ve pondered the (in)sanity of building cities in the desert. The economist in me shrieks, “water is clearly underpriced.”

    On the climate side I find it very interesting that the PDO today looks a lot like it did during the other drought you note (the mid ’50s). I’d be interest in Dr. Trenberth’s thoughts on the correlation with the various short and long term oceanic oscillations.

  2. Pat Moffitt
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Tom- Can you define drought as its used in this post– it can be measured in many different ways.

  3. Posted October 16, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Pat: I can do that in some detail, but not now. If I don’t grade student papers they will kill me when I see them on Monday! But you’re right — there is meteorological drought and hydrological drought. In this case, we’ve had both.

  4. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    PDO dreams.

    Pat, that last paragraph could have been written for you. In the end, there is very little in the environment that will be unaffected by climate change.

  5. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Tom, it sounds as if this interview may have been done prior to release of a couple of important hydrology papers that came out in the last couple of weeks. One was on evapotranspiration (Running was one of many co-authors) and the other on river flow. Obviously I’m no expert, but it starts to look as if A1B1 is being exceeded. It would be good to get an overview on all of this, noting in particular that the second paper seems to fill in a critical gap in observations noted iun the first paper.

  6. Pat Moffitt
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    John-
    Your comment on water pricing is the heart of the issue for me. It is actually more complicated than simple underpricing– All the incentives are irrational from a public resource perspective (allocation, use it or lose it, subsidies etc). Its why tax payers pay people to grow rice in a desert and then must pay others to fix the consequences with the end result being in 5 or so decades- soil that will be too salty for agriculture.

    Adding the AMO to your PDO comment according to a PNAS paper explains 52% of the spatial and temporal variance in multi-decadadal droughts. http://www.pnas.org/content/101/12/4136.abstract.

    What concerns me is not whether we can handle some future climate change– but natural variability – a return to 1930s conditions or worse a 1600s drought scenario. Climate to me is the least of our water problems given western water law, politics and practices– a climate-centric focus to this problem just delays the day we have to face these difficult and complicated issues. The bottom line– even if we de-carbonize our country– this problem and the larger risks posed by natural variability do not go away.

  7. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Oh yeah, Tom, remember also Running’s August paper finding a drought-driven net reduction in global plant productivity. This was primarily in the Southern Hemisphere, which meshes neatly with the results of the evapotranspiration paper. Also, yet another new paper (press release) shows that the recent increase in droughts is not at all good for river ecologies. The hits just keep on comin’, although the capacity of some to ignore such things appears limitless.

  8. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Gee, Pat, that paper isn’t current. Do you care? You might want to read up on this stuff. It’s pretty funny considering how you claimed to be all about the science in the previous thread. FYI, scientists who actually know something about this subject do not seem to share your perspective about risks.

    Let me sum things up for you: The entire climate system is shifting. This is already having bad consequences, and they’re only going to get worse. Past extremes are just a hint of what we’re in for if we keep on doing what we’re doing.

  9. Posted October 16, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Steve: Running spoke at the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting here in Missoula, so I used material from his presentation and a question I asked the panel. The other papers you mention are certainly very important, but I had to keep my post from sprawling even more than it did. I think I’ve written about some of that other material, although I’m so fried after five days of non-stop conference stuff I can’t remember.

  10. Posted October 16, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Pat: Your observations vis a vis vulnerability to drought are certainly very relevant. And we can extend that to things like vulnerability to extreme weather events, flooding, etc.

    But I also take very seriously Wally Broecker’s caution years ago: “The climate is an angry beast, and we’re poking it with sticks.”

    A truly conservative approach to the environment would heed those words.

    Lastly, I frequently hear skeptics make what I regard to be a silly argument: Natural variability has resulted in droughts far worse than what we are experiencing now, with the implication that we therefore needn’t worry about our own actions. (Perhaps on the rather dubious logic that “we’re screwed anyway?”)

    But if there is good chance that Wally Broecker is correct — and I think the scientific evidence suggests very strongly that it is — then we could bring a return of a mega drought. Yes, it might happen all by itself, and therefore we should deal with our vulnerability to such an event. But shouldn’t we also do all that we can to reduce the odds of that outcome coming to pass?

    And actually, there are undeniable facts on the ground right now. As I write this, Lake Mead is just two tenths of an inch from dropping to historic lows — and there is no end in sight. Moreover, as I wrote in the post, the observational evidence shows convincingly that the West is slowly aridifying. Snowpacks are declining. Melt is happening much earlier. Stream flows are getting progressively lower. Wildfire has jumped considerably. Etc., etc. All of these changes are a clear prediction of climate science.

    Do you feel comfortable continuing this experiment?

  11. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Tom, you may well have done something previously on the productivity work, since IIRC Running has at least one prior paper on the subject, but the evapotranspiration one seems to be breaking new ground. In any case I wasn’t asking you to cover them now, since all they do is underline the material in the post.

    Thinking about the medieval drought, if the present developing pattern is substantially different (in a synoptic sense) then it seems safe to say that we *won’t* see a repeat of the medieval one. Unfortunately we don’t know that it’s different, or different enough I should say, and even if it is we’re faced with uncertainty as to exactly how bad the current trend can get (or how long it can go on for, probably more to the point). That leaves the possibility that the present trend could result in something even worse. We live in interesting times.

  12. Pat Moffitt
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Tom-
    Lets say next year the world decides on a non-carbon energy infrastucture. It will certainly take decades of design, construction and CO2 working its way through the climate system for us to be in a non-carbon impacted planet. My concern is what happens between now and then?

    Our current water policies are unsustainable with or without climate change and with or without natural variability. We have allocated more water than we have, we continue to need more, we continue to take it from wildlife requirements and the shell game as currently played cannot go on much longer. There are workable and in some cases inexpensive partial solutions to this complicated issue. But there will be no solution short of crisis unless the Public understands (too strong a word- conceptualizes perhaps) the water issues and their context.

    So is water a climate issue or is water an issue impacted by climate? The answer to the question determines our plan of action.

  13. Pat Moffitt
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Tom-

    You say “Lastly, I frequently hear skeptics make what I regard to be a silly argument: Natural variability has resulted in droughts far worse than what we are experiencing now, with the implication that we therefore needn’t worry about our own actions.”

    You would never here that from me. I strongly advocate an immediate program of hardening our water related infrastructure and rationalizing our management policies. NOW!
    What I regard as silly is to assume by fixing climate our water problems disappear or our wetlands heal. What I consider silly is telling the world that we have passed a tipping point where we will see more floods and droughts and yet never seem to think of developing an infrastructure plan. We just spent nearly a trillion in stimulus $ without a climate hardening infrastructure component. Why?

    You are mistaken believing I do not view climate and energy as critical issues. But I start to go off the rails when climate frames or down right skews what we know about wet land loss, turtles, shellfish and water resources etc in an attempt to work a simplisitc environmental narrative that says all we need to do is fix the climate and all these others issues resolve themselves in the glow of a non carbon world. Such tactics prevent attention, understanding and resources necessary to address these issues. Its triage where climate gets the doctor and the other issues get toe tags.I’m very close to some of those being sized for toe tags.

  14. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Given that we’re already seeing climate impacts on water and that it’s going to get worse before it gets better, the public had better understand both.

    Re the length of time it’ll take, a lot of experts think it’s a matter of making a start and being serious about getting the job done. For a plan to (mostly) eliminate U.S. CO2 emissions in 20 years using current technology, without resorting to nukes or carbon sequestration, see here. If that’s possible for the U.S., the world shouldn’t take much longer (and much less for a lot of it).

  15. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    (…) a simplisitc environmental narrative that says all we need to do is fix the climate and all these others issues resolve themselves in the glow of a non carbon world.

    That’s quite the strawman in the last paragraph, Pat. Who in the world thinks that?

  16. Pat Moffitt
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Tom,
    The Colorado once nourished a rich and diverse estuary at the start of the 20th century. 50 years later water diversions from the Colorado had bled away the estuary’s life leaving behind a dried wasteland.

    The river in 1903 delivered some 22,000 ft3/s of water to the head of it’s estuary. By 1934 water diversions already sucked out over 80% of the river’s flows. In 1996 0, nada, zip, zilch cu.ft/sec flow was recorded ON ANY DAY at the point the Colorado River enters Mexico (SIB) Your post cautions about drier conditions in a warming world. The cynic in me asks drier than what- ZERO?

    So is this a climate problem-or is climate just another nail in the coffin?

  17. spyder
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I see Lake Mead, and the greater Colorado River basin (essentially the Great Basin), as the North American version of the Aral Sea. It is one place where all of the implied factors of “civilization” meet face-to-face with all of the factors of climate change, and the short & long term weather patterns. For example, CA is asking for more of its water to cool the vast desert large-array solar systems they are building on the western lands of the basin. Aquifers are drying up in the region, less precipitation is falling, the climate change suggests drier long-term weather patterns; and yet we continue to demand more water, albeit allegedly for green technology. Yeesh..

  18. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    You should check your facts, spyder. Solar doesn’t require cooling water. On a much smaller scale, there is an issue with water needed to keep the dust off the panels/mirrors, but IIRC there are methods being developed to reduce that. In any case we’re talking about a tiny fraction of CA’s water use.

  19. Pat Moffitt
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Spyder-
    Our water consumption clearly has a component associated with increasing population and lifestyle. But within this there is much we can do– allow price incentives to operate, resolve water rights issues, promulgate efficiency and transfer incentives and remove abusive subsidies on both water and high water demanding/low value crops. The problem is that it is much easier to design construct and operate the most sophisticated water system the world has ever seen than it is to politically resolve the above issues.

    An example of a ground zero problem:
    Rice production consumes 2.23 million acre feet of water in California (an acre foot is 326000 gallons–some 2.5% of CA water use). Rice would not be grown in the California’s arid conditions unless taxpayers subsidized both the rice crop and the water used to grow the rice. The practice of flooded irrigation sees some 60% of the water evapotranspirate. This leaves behind the residual dissolved solids making the soil more saline. On our current track the Central Valley rice fields have perhaps 50-100 years left before the soil salt buildup reaches a point where it is no longer fit for agriculture. The rice is largely dumped on 3rd world markets.

    My strategy – attack first those problems that cost you money to create.

  20. spyder
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I am pretty sure of my facts actually; most of these projects require large cooling towers and arrays.

    http://www.energy.ca.gov/siting/solar/index.html

  21. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I double-checked, spyder, and I think you’re correct about some earlier projects and a few still in the pipeline. I couldn’t find an up-to-date comprehensive assessment, but the air cooling technology I was thinking of does seem to be on the way to becoming standard in the desert southwest at least. See this Climate Progress article for details. The BrightSource Ivanpah project e.g. has already switched to this technology. Note that air cooling isn’t at all a new technology, but has been in use for years outside the U.S.

    In the larger picture, with thin-film prices having just dropped to $.70/watt, my expectation is that PV probably will be displacing CSP in the not-too-distant furture.

  22. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Note: Air cooling requires cooling towers. They’re optional for water cooling since forced cooling can be used instead.

  23. Pat Moffitt
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    It seems the rapid decline in the level of Lake Meade has little to do with the drought. The controlled inflow to Meade has been quite stable since the 90s at approx. 9 million acre feet per year from upstream Lake Powell releases. Consumption from Meade however has increased some 1+ million acre feet per year as a result of the Central Arizona Project causing the drastic decline in lake levels. (See Kenney et al “Rethinking Vulnerability on the Colorado River” Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education Issue 144, pages 5-10, March 2010) I’m surprised the experts cited above did not point out this rather vital piece of information– and if my understanding is incorrect I would like to know.

    We should as a rule be very cautious about ANY making claim about a complex water system without first presenting a full water mass balance- showing changes in withdrawals (surface and groundwater), return flows, precipitation runoff etc.

    My first rule in reviewing environmental claims— if a simple, supportable mass balance is not presented– dig deeper– either the system is not understood or the data doesn’t fit the narrative.

  24. Posted October 18, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Pat: I’ll get back to you about this. For a change, I think I will go to sleep!

  25. Posted October 18, 2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Pat: Ok, forget sleep…

    You failed to mention a few things. Brad Udall, my main source on this post, was a co-author on the paper you cite. And Doug Kenney is his colleague (and mine) here at the University of Colorado. Somehow, I don’t think they are operating at cross purposes here.

    Much more important, maybe you didn’t mean to, but you seem to be minimizing or even denying the drought that has existed in the Colorado Basin for the last 11 years. It has been the worst drought in the historical record, period.

    And for the record, here’s what the paper you cite actually says:

    Since the beginning of the new millennium, “an ongoing series of dry years lowered natural inflows into the basin: 62 percent of the 30-year average in 2000, 59 percent in 2001, 25 percent in 2002, 51 percent in 2003, 49 percent in 2004, 105 percent in 2005, 73 percent in 2006, 68 percent in 2007, and 102 percent in 2008.”

    And this pattern has not yet broken.

    It almost always takes two to tango. In this case, demands have been growing just as flows have been declining. That’s what I quote Udall as saying, and there is absolutely nothing in the paper you cite that contradicts that.

    That said, I have emailed Brad to ask him for his thoughts. But here’s what I suspect he will say (although not in quite in my Brooklynese style…): Lake Powell has been saving Lake Mead’s stupid ass during the drought. But this can’t possibly go on forever, and the day of reckoning is getting closer and closer.

    So Pat, what is your point? That there has been no drought? (Yes there has been!) That there has been no reduction in flow on the Colorado? (Ditto!) That we don’t have to worry about drought? (Oh yes we do!) That drought has nothing to do with the situation the Lower Basin states find themselves in? (Oh yes it does!) That continued drought doesn’t threaten the Lower Basin states? (Sheesh…)

  26. Posted October 18, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Pat: Brad got back to me very quickly, and unlike me, he didn’t go Brooklyn on you. But essentially, I think he said what I thought he would.

    Here’s what Brad wrote in an email, responding to your comment:

    “So, Tom, he’s definitely on to something.

    I like to say that the Lake Mead problem is one of overuse, and the Lake Powell problem is one of drought.

    The truth is there’s a little of both in both reservoirs.

    Mead gets 9maf/year by the compact. They let out 10.3. Hence the negative has been about 1.3maf/year. This is in fact a long term structural problem with overuse in the lower basin. They get away with it becuase the Upper basin is not using all their water, and occasionally Powell sends down extra water.

    The drought has meant that Mead has not gotten any extra water for over 10 years.”

    The key point here is that the Lower Basin states could get away with their gluttony because we in the Upper Basin had a little extra water to give (from Lake Powell). But with 11 years of drought, that is simply not the case any longer. California, Nevada and Arizona have needed to go on a diet, but since they’ve kept on gorging, Mead has gotten skinnier and skinnier.

    We can hope that the situation will change. But if you want to bet that it will, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you!

  27. Pat Moffitt
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Tom
    Absolutely not. I said the historic decline in Lake Meade was not the result of the drought. I didn’t say there wasn’t a drought. The inflows to Meade have been rather static coming from Powell as I said. Here is the quote from the paper “For Lake Powell, 2000-2004 looks very different than 1990-1994 because of reduced drought inflows, but for Lake Mead, the difference is mostly explained by the growth of Lower Basin demands.”

    The title of the post is Lake Meade at lowest level in history. The reason for this lake level is the Central Arizona Project. I’m not sure why this is not a critical piece of info. The Colorado as a whole is being hit by drought – but we need to have the definition to know what drought means.A large role for climate and increasing aridity was made in the post. Unless we know what the changes in withdrawals, returns and runoff are we can’t determine whether the difference between now and 1956 is simply withdrawal, precipitation or aridity.

    Simple question would Lake Meade be at its lowest levels since the 50s if over a million acre feet of water was not being drawn off?

    And as I wrote earlier– there was no flow during any day at the SIB in 1996. We don’t need to worry about increasing aridity when the flow is zero. The problem we face at the moment is not climate change (nothing seen says current drought has a unique signal not seen also in 30s or 50s).

    My point does not seem to register this is a serious water use problem that may be exacerbated in the future by climate. The loss of the Colorado estuary however had nothing to do with climate. The Colorado River is not a climate problem at present but it is a problem. We do not solve the water use problems by clean energy. You may think I am being retentive on this issue but how and if these problems are solved will in large part be a function of how the problem is framed.

  28. Pat Moffitt
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Tom-
    Brad’s Email is spot onto what I am trying to say. Colorado river problems stem from overuse and political abuse that has become institutionalized. (Like Brad I wrote above the difficulty navigating the associated political-special interest minefield) While climate may be a future compounding problem the current management issues (or mismanagement) are critical and needs public attention/focus. There can be none without journalists turning a spotlight on it and a climate context diminishes the light.

    It is in keeping with my concern in a previous reply that the Sierra Club turned the vanishing barrier islands and wetland in LA into a global warming problem. Is there an AGW component maybe but if there is it is insignificant at present compared to the disruption of sediment flow out of the Mississippi River. If we don’t solve it soon climate change will have little left to impact. Just like the Colorado.
    So my point every once in a while let some of these issues out from the climate shadow and into the light where they can be recognized as resource issues with their own distinct needs.

  29. Pat Moffitt
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Tom You from Brooklyn? I’m from Newark.
    I’m friends with the Roebling family– they told me NYC paid them to build the bridge and Billy thinks they still owns it.

  30. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    Your argument is nonsense, Pat. Ignoring climate, the expectation would be that the present shortfall is temporary. Accounting for climate makes the problem urgent.

  31. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    “It is in keeping with my concern in a previous reply that the Sierra Club turned the vanishing barrier islands and wetland in LA into a global warming problem.”

    *sigh*

    Absolute sea level is rising on the LA coast, compounding the subsidence problem, and it’s going to get a lot worse. Your carelessness with the facts is really on display. Again.

    Oh, look, the powerful Sierra Club had Reagan’s EPA suborned on this issue in 1987:

    “Recent studies by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (Charney 1979; Smagorinsky 1982; Nierenberg et al. 1983) and international meetings of atmospheric scientists (e.g., UNEP/WMO/ICSU 1985) suggest that the rate of wetland loss may further accelerate in the future. Increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other gases are expected to cause a global warming that could raise sea level one meter (three feet) or more in the next century (Revelle 1983; Hoffman et al. 1983 and 1986; Meier et al. 1985). Such a rise would represent a major acceleration of the historical trend of 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 6 inches) per century, and could eventually double or triple the rate of wetland loss. Figures 6a and 6b illustrate projections of the state’s shoreline for current sea level trends and a 55-centimeter rise by the year 2033.

    “Many of the panel members initially recommended that this report place less emphasis on the issue of accelerated sea level rise. Not because it is not a serious possibility, but because a one-meter rise could have implications so profound as to cast doubt upon the wisdom of undertaking major efforts to protect Louisiana’s wetlands, and might thereby lead to a delay in several pending projects. Moreover, the predictions of future sea level rise are still very uncertain. However, the panel concluded that the possibility of an accelerated rise in sea level implies that these projects would be even more essential to buy time, while a long-range strategy is formulated.” (emphasis added)

    The Sierra Club must have bribed the authors of this recent paper (title/abstract):

    “Drowning of the Mississippi Delta due to insufficient
    sediment supply and global sea-level rise

    “Over the past few centuries, 25% of the deltaic wetlands associated with the Mississippi Delta have been lost to the ocean. Plans to protect and restore the coast call for diversions of the Mississippi River, and its associated sediment, to sustain and build new land. However, the sediment load of the Mississippi River has been reduced by 50% through dam construction in the Mississippi Basin, which could affect the effectiveness of diversion plans. Here we calculate the amount of sediment stored on the delta plain for the past 12,000 years, and find that mean storage rates necessary to construct the flood plain and delta over this period exceed modern Mississippi River sediment loads. We estimate that, in the absence of sediment input, an additional 10,000–13,500 km2 will be submerged by the year 2100 owing to subsidence and sea-level rise. Sustaining existing delta surface area would require 18–24 billion tons of sediment, which is significantly more than can be drawn from the Mississippi River in its current state. We conclude that drowning is inevitable, even if sediment loads are restored, because sea level is now rising at least three times faster than during delta-plain construction.” (emphasis added)

    Oops.

  32. Pat Moffitt
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Tom,
    While we may disagree on interpretation on issues I must say I respect the checking and questioning by you of challenging information as evidenced by the above and allowing my post on malaria. I had hoped to find a site where different viewpoints could be presented by people that cared about the environment. However the incessant snarling and barking of a troubled and obviously untrained pit bull on this site makes rational dialog impossible.

    I wish you well on your site. If you have any questions in the future where I may be of some help– you have my E-mail.

  33. Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Pat: Perhaps I missed something while I was in Missoula (at the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting) and was too busy to keep up with all the back and forth. But for the most part, I don’t believe I’ve heard snarling. I think I’ve mostly seen rational — if at times very heated — dialog. So I sincerely hope you will come back.

    My approach is to let people have at it as long as they stay within reasonable bounds. Heated discussion is fine by me. But there is certainly a fine line between that and unproductive shouting. If anyone feels that we’ve degenerated into that, please let me know and I will try harder to keep things on track.

  34. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    New paper today:

    “Climate change: Drought may threaten much of globe within decades”

    Included is the western two-thirds of the U.S. Note that the data in this paper aren’t new, but the synthesis is.

    What’s interesting is that this is happening notwithstanding a substantial (~4% in the last thirty years) increase in atmospheric water vapor and a concomitant acceleration in the hyydrological cycle. The two papers I linked above provide further corroboration.

    Now, can we take a hint?

  35. Steve Bloom
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Re the desert solar plant water use issue, this news makes it clear that air cooling is what we’ll be seeing going forward, at least in California.

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