The Wild Waterless West

...And What We Can Do About Wild Weather Everywhere

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Is it just me or does the news feel more and more like a post-apocalyptic, dystopian thriller? We keep seeing signs of peril, all the warning signs are present, and yet it feels like we keep walking toward that dark alley.

To recap: July was the hottest month ever recorded on the planet.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists brought together by the United Nations to review more than 14,000 studies on climate change, released a new report saying that some of the devastating impacts of global warming are unavoidable at this point.  

Just days after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, Tropical Depression Grace passed through the island causing flooding and more devastation to the area, as families left homeless from the quake spent the night in the pouring rain. At least 1,941 people have died and more than 9,900 others are injured, and many people are struggling to access clean water and health care.

It’s not looking good at all. The signs are everywhere. Extreme weather is here.

No Water, No Cry

We reported on megadroughts and heat back in June. And now these historic drought conditions are impacting the entire Colorado River Basin. For the first time ever, the federal government has declared a water shortage at Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir by volume.

The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the Interior Department, declared the shortage and with it, mandatory water allocation cuts to Arizona and Nevada. In the coming year, Arizona will lose about 18 percent of its share, Nevada will lose about 7 percent, and Mexico will also see a reduction of about 5 percent.  

Lake Mead is at record low levels, having dropped to about 40 percent of its capacity. California is also seeing more than 1,500 of its reservoirs drop to 50 percent lower than they should be at this time of year.

“Like much of the West, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo in a statement. “The only way to address these challenges and climate change is to utilize the best available science and to work cooperatively across the landscapes and communities that rely on the Colorado River.”

It’s a perfect storm and the science is clear. Hotter temperatures and less snowmelt have contributed. Increasing populations and agricultural pursuits have upped the water needs in the region. Phoenix grew at a faster rate than any other major city in the last decade, according to new data from the 2020 census. Building cities in the desert has always seemed like a short-lived vision, and we are now closing in on that reality.

If you need any more motivation to act now, these are not the first headlines about the Colorado River.

A study published in February 2020 confirmed the dire water situation in the West. It’s not news that for years drought and warming temperatures have taken a toll on the river’s flow. But computer simulations and historical data helped piece together that about 1.5 billion tons of water from the river has been lost, thanks to an ever-shrinking snowpack, according to researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey. That amount of water is equivalent to the annual water consumption of about 10 million Americans.

The Colorado River is the largest and most vital body of water in the Southwest, supplying drinking water to 40 million people, supporting $1 trillion in economic activity each year, and irrigating millions of acres of farmland.

While these numbers sound alarming, evaporation is not new. Scientists have been monitoring and warning us about these problems for years.

In 2015, researchers called evaporation “a large and continuing problem in the Colorado River basin, including Lake Mead and Lake Powell where about 500 billion gallons of water evaporate annually.” These are the two largest man-made water reservoirs in the country. Once this water is gone, it’s gone. Here’s a study looking at water loss in Lake Powell from 1986.

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going

With water reserves shrinking and pollution intensifying, the time to find new water management strategies is here. We need strong, forward-thinking leadership and infrastructure that can withstand these extreme changes.

And you all know my rallying cry: Superman’s Not Coming. What are WE THE PEOPLE going to do?

Global warming can seem distant, theoretical, and impossible to solve. But as you’ve seen with water pollution and the threat posed by toxins to our communities, there’s always something that can be done. I am, and have always been, a big believer in the idea that no problem caused by people can’t be fixed by people. Global warming is no different. If I’ve learned one thing in my career, it’s that each of us can change the world.

So, let’s get going.

We need to explore and push for both individual and collective actions and systemic changes. We’ve got to stop with either-or scenarios. Each person can do something and influence others to take action.

Personal and collective actions include things like cutting down your food waste, composting and learning more about soil health, investing in energy-efficient appliances, turning off lights, biking and walking more, donating time or money to organizations that are working on solutions for climate change. (This list is not exhaustive and of course, depends on your own resources, as I know not everyone has the luxury of time or money).

If you want to get involved at a bigger level and beyond consumerism, consider switching careers to work in the green sector, running for office, or working on campaigns with politicians that support the environment. As with any advocacy work, your unique skills matter. We need graphic designers, marketing experts, lawyers, students, corporate managers, landlords, scientists, and everyone else to get involved.

Can you help get your neighbors, friends, and family to care about climate? That’s a great step. Host a book a club or a letter writing campaign or offer to watch someone’s kids so they can attend a lecture or a rally. Choose a documentary about climate change for family movie night.

We can attend city council meetings and call our elected officials often. We can let corporations know that we want them to invest in more sustainable products and offerings. We can volunteer for local or state sustainability committees or start one, if you don’t have one in your area.

Stay loud!

We can’t keep watching the scary movie that is our lives and not at least try to fight the bad guys. Let’s remember that we have each other and we can make change.

Keep the conversation going in the comments below. Got something good to share? Let us know!