Rivers and climate change: A BOR report sees the future

Posted: Dec 9, 2019

Reading the recently-released Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) report—on the impacts of climate change on western water resources— is like watching Waterworld, that futuristic flop in which Kevin Costner sails around a post-apocalyptic globe that’s been completely inundated by melted polar ice caps, in search of dry land.

Waterworld gushed with doomsday imagery and environmentalist innuendo (the villain’s boat was, after all, named the Valdez) but critics’ eyes glazed over as the characters sail on for hours, talking about their plight but getting nowhere fast.

In its own way, the BOR report is a vision of the world gone to hell. In the west, of course, too little water will be our fate. The report’s colorful maps, charts and graphs illustrate how our eight river basins including the Colorado, Rio Grande and Missouri, will respond to climate change. It predicts that the average annual flow in some basins could drop as much 20 percent in this century.

This is of particular concern to BOR, which supplies water to over 31 million people, and to one out of five western farmers (to irrigate 10 million acres of farmland that produce 60 percent of the nation’s vegetables and 25 percent of its fruits and nuts). It also relies on current rivers to fuel 58 powerplants which, per year, generate nearly a billion dollars in power revenues and produce enough electricity for 3.5 million homes.

While disturbing, these predicted shortfalls come as no surprise. If we stacked up all the reports on western water released over the past couple of decades, we could dam the Colorado. Western rivers have been studied ad naseum, summits have been held and task forces have been formed. As the Reclamation report says, “It is widely accepted that water demand changes will occur due to increased air temperatures, increased greenhouse gas concentrations, and changes in precipitation, winds, humidity, and atmospheric aerosol and ozone levels.”

Reclamation’s repetitive predictions are “ringing alarm bells,” says Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Yet, as if we’re stuck in the plot of Waterworld, we just keep sailing along, talking about our plight while making little progress.

The only suggestion approaching useful in the report is its discussion of the WaterSMART Program, which aims to “secure and stretch fresh water supplies for use by existing and future generations to benefit people, the economy, and the environment.” The program’s target is to increase available water for agriculture, industry, cities and natural uses, through conservation, by 490,000 acre-feet by the end of next year. (One acre-foot is 325,861 gallons, or enough water to supply two families of four for roughly one year.)

This gels with some of the thinking of Colorado River Basin leaders, in particular. Albeit another report, “Thinking Like a River Basin,” released recently by the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the University of Montana and non-profit Carpe Diem West, reflects some practical recommendations expressed by decisions makers.

Conversations with these leaders confirmed that, “Conservation and efficiency are viewed as important tools for stretching limited Colorado River water supplies.” Some interviewees said that more aggressive conservation and efficiency measures were needed.

They suggested some common-sense projects that could be implemented now in the Colorado River Basin—like the Title XVI Water Reclamation and Reuse Program, a federal project which offers incentives to water providers to adapt infrastructure to encourage water conservation and, thus, to mitigate the consequences of climate change. Another recommendation to charge water users’ a small fee, which would go into a basin-wide fund dedicated to conservation improvements, would force all of us to share some of the costs of living in a changing landscape.

Spoiler alert: At the end of Waterworld, Costner finally locates the one wedge of remaining dry land on earth (the summit of Everest, as it turns out). As we, in the west, grope around to adapt to our shifting conditions, the sooner we stop sailing along and take control of our destiny, the better. Our refuge - if we ever get there - will be in strong leadership, aggressive conservation (much effective technology for insatiable agriculture already exists) and compromise. 

-Heather Hansen

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