Climate Change

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The arid deserts that span the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico are in a state of increasing peril. Many of the towns and cities that have risen up out of this desert landscape are dependent on one resource: water from the Colorado River. As human beings continue to release greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere at a growing rate, the precarious situation facing the desert southwest is becoming increasingly unstable. With climate models predicting continued increases in air temperatures, it is likely that the drought problems plaguing the southwest will only be exasperated by climate change. That is why immediate and lasting changes are needed to help mitigate the increasing pressures put on this watershed by climate change.

Extensive research on the impacts of climate change on the snowpacks of the Colorado River Basin has created a clear vision of the current future that is being witnessed today: lower water flows, more drought. While residents, institutions and governments in California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico race to adapt to these impacts, many headwater communities and state governments refuse to acknowledge the reality of climate change.

Megadrought in the Colorado Basin?

The Colorado River Basin provides water to millions of people in 7 states. Over 80 percent of the Colorado River Basin’s flows come from snowmelt and mostly from the headwater states of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. These headwater states comprise just 1/7th of the watershed but produce 6/7th of the Basin’s water. This is why headwater snowpack is critical to so many Western residents. Unfortunately, increased air temperatures are expected to lower Colorado River streamflows by 9-30 percent in coming years.

Droughts events are more likely to occur in the future as the American Southwest is likely to see a long-term drying period with lower precipitation levels. Many are calling this new era a “megadrought” which could be particularly difficult for the Colorado River Basin where streams are already under great duress during summer months. Low elevation watersheds stand to suffer disproportionately from a “megadrought” because of the reduced volume of snowpacks expected at lower elevations.

Its more than simply refusing to recognize that climate change is real, many headwater policies exacerbate climate change by incentivizing fossil fuel extraction that is dirtier and more energy intensive to produce than traditional oil and gas development. Although opportunities abound for headwater states to invest in renewable energies, states like Utah have worked hard to court dirty energy development regardless of its carbon emissions.

Other states and communities refuse to reduce excessive water use among metropolitan users, regardless of the impacts on downstream communities that are more conscientious of their water use. Some urban residents in Southwestern Utah, for example, use two to three times the water use of Albuquerque residents (per person) even though both communities rely on flows of Colorado River water.

Headwater communities must reduce their municipal water use through basic water conservation programs that downstream communities in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson achieved decades ago.

Read more about climate change impacts in the Colorado Basin at the links below.

In agreement with other large-scale assessments, our findings show that the Southwest and central and southern Great Plains are the more vulnerable areas to future climatic and socio-economic changes. -Vulnerability of U.S. Water Supply to Shortage. Romano Foti, et al., 2012

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