As fewer and fewer Americans and Europeans view climate change as an immediate threat, evidence continues to confirm what scientists have been cautioning for decades: The effects of climate change are real, and they are imminent.
According to a new report released by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), climate-change risks have the serious potential to threaten water supplies in the western U.S. The study used projections of temperature and precipitation based on multiple Global Circulation Models, as well as projections of greenhouse-gas emissions, technological advancements and global population estimates to estimate future water supplies across eight major river basins, including the Colorado, Rio Grande and Missouri river basins.
The report found that changes in temperature and precipitation are likely to impact the timing and quantity of stream flows in all western basins, which could limit the water supplies to farms and cities, as well as impact hydropower generation and fish and wildlife.
Specifically, the forecasts predict a staggering temperature increase of five to seven degrees Fahrenheit. Moreover, the report projects a precipitation increase in the northwestern and north central portions of the western U.S. and a decrease over the southwestern and south central areas of the country, as well as a decrease for almost all of the April 1 snowpack, which is a measurement used to project river-basin runoff. Major river basins are also forecasted to experience an 8% to 20% decrease in average annual stream flow.
What’s being done about it
The DOI’s Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) has launched several initiatives in response to the water-supply projections. Some of these efforts will be carried out through the bureau’s WaterSMART Basin Studies Program, which was first established in February 2010 to foster the cooperation among the DOI, states, tribes, local governments and nongovernmental organizations to support water conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources. Through the WaterSMART program, the BOR will research the options for meeting future water demands in river basins where water supply and demand imbalances exist or are projected.
The DOI also says it is taking actions to “mitigate and adapt to the changing climate,” such as constructing head range turbines at the Hoover Dam that will allow more efficient power generation over a wider range of lake levels.
While these efforts are commendable, they are reactive — rather than proactive — measures. To prevent issues such as water scarcity, we must attack the root cause — which is, of course, climate change. “Adapting” to climate change is the admission of failure — in effect, accepting and approving of destructive behavior. While we cannot undo the mistakes of the past, we can focus more of our efforts on curing the disease, rather than treating its symptoms.
Admittedly, preventing further climate change is a tall task. But by taking a proactive approach, rather than a reactive one, at least we — as a country, as a generation, as a species — will know we did the best we could.