From the Left: Addressing the problem of drought


Addressing the problem of drought

By Lance Simmens

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any a drop to drink.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined that phrase in his early 19th-century poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and words could not be more apt than today’s current dilemma as mankind directly confronts climate change.

While some may herald the “atmospheric rivers” that are currently dumping historic rainfall amounts onto our drought-laden shores, such revelry is premature and presents only a short-term remedy to what are long-term problems. Unless we institute far-reaching changes in our policies on water usage and retention, and the underlying infrastructure planning and implementation needed to confront systemic changes in our weather patterns as a result of climate change, there literally will be little water left to drink.

I recall after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, I was asked by an interviewer what lessons could be learned from a hurricane season that has been steadily intensifying over the past several decades and I dryly responded in sarcastic tone, “Don’t build cities below sea level.” Dismiss the sarcasm and focus on the need to rethink our infrastructure decisions. 

Lauren Sommer, who covers climate change for NPR’s Science desk, recently offered in a podcast “climate change is altering the historic weather patterns that infrastructure like reservoirs and waterways were built to accommodate, and we must begin to rethink the underlying assumptions baked into buildings and water systems in order to adapt to the changing climate.”

Climate change is real and requires rethinking a plethora of public policies, period. Weather is and will continue to be more volatile and severe rain events will be followed by severe drought. 

Welcome a new addition to our lexicon, “atmospheric rivers,” which are responsible for as much as 50 percent of precipitation in some parts of California. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “Human-caused warming has increased the risk and severity of drought, leading to water shortages, more wildfire risk, and low streamflows that endanger wildlife.”

There is also an agricultural component to water usage in California that requires careful consideration. A recent UCLA study concluded that the state is suffering the driest period in 1,200 years and while it is estimated that maybe as much as 80 percent of water usage is for agriculture, with one of the fastest growing crops being almonds, which require tremendous amounts of water. 

Another issue that has garnered excitement over the last several decades has been desalination. However, it requires extensive costs and continues to have environmental concerns due to the amount of energy used in production, and brine byproduct. In the end, water conservation is a more promising strategy.

More than two-thirds of the Colorado River begins as snow in Colorado; however, warm temperatures and dry soil are reducing the amount of snowmelt that makes its way into the river, which supplies 40 million people across the Southwest, including California. 

Since 1970 temperatures in the Colorado River Basin have gone up by 3 degrees Fahrenheit and that has caused a 15 percent reduction in streamflows across the region. The ground has become so parched it soaks up snowmelt. According to Brad Udall, a climate researcher at Colorado State University “winters with 90 percent of average snowpack have led to springtimes with only 50 percent runoff because thirsty soil acts like a sponge.” 

The overwhelming complexity of climate change is a fact that cannot be ignored any longer and will force us to make very difficult public policy decisions not in the future but now. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to make the hard decisions that are required.

In 1993, I joined the Clinton administration as deputy director of the federal government’s first Office of Sustainable Development in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. Department of Commerce.  When asked by then Secretary Ron Brown how to define sustainable development, we told him to think of it as a euphemism for long-term planning. Our policies involved environmental, economic, and equity considerations, all of which characterize appropriate decision-making for generations to come. Hoping that the atmosphere will replenish our water needs is not an option. Dealing with the realities before us is imperative. 

Sustainability or resiliency requires careful consideration of what is best for the affected community. Relocating whole communities or managed retreat with respect to sea level rise inevitably will be required in coastal communities, while expansion of flood plains, restoration of riparian buffer zones, and buyouts of property will all be options on the table.

As the old television commercial recounts, you can either pay me now or pay me later. The longer we wait the more expensive it will get, and without equivocation adjustments, to climate change will be expensive. When it rains, it pours.