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Slow clap for inaction: Lake Mead cuts means climate change is real & forcing Arizona's hand

What the Devil won't tell you

Slow clap for inaction: Lake Mead cuts means climate change is real & forcing Arizona's hand

  • Arizona is losing 21 percent of our Colorado River water allocation as a multi-decade drought is emptying Lake Mead. The state is now being forced to do something about climate change.
    Jeffrey Hayes|CC BY 2.0Arizona is losing 21 percent of our Colorado River water allocation as a multi-decade drought is emptying Lake Mead. The state is now being forced to do something about climate change.

Slow clap for the state leaders who have refused to do a thing about climate change.. Clap ... clap ... clap ... very good.  Now Arizona is losing 21 percent of our share of Colorado River water.

It's starrrrttingggg.

For decades, everyone who knew anything about basic science warned us the day would come when Planet Earth would be in the grips of catastrophic climate change — unless we took action to reduce green house gas emissions. 

Those who knew nothing about science insisted that governments should nothing about climate change. It's a Chinese hoax, they say. No one knows why Venus is hotter than Mercury or Florida stays hotter at night than Arizona. Greenhouses are fake. The sun is heating up. The weather just cooled down. A senator can make a snowball. The Bible says nothing about climate events (pay no attention to the old man with the ark). 

What they were really saying (and I won't name names) was that any action to prevent climate change would cost too much. It would require big government.

Folks, get ready to spend, because climate change is here for real. 

Yeah, well, how small is the state of Arizona's government? The governor and Legislature recently authorized $1 billion dollars to go look for – and conserve – water because they can't trust the Central Arizona Project's capacity to deliver the state's hydrated future. That's one state doing one thing about one problem caused by climate change.

And this week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that it would begin withholding 592,000 acre feet per year from our state's share of Lake Mead water. 

The lake's depth is around 1,045 feet. That's less than 25 percent full and is dangerously close to becoming a dead pool at 900 feet deep. That happens when the water level dips below the penstocks that allow water to flow past the Hoover Dam and on down the river. That means the dam stops producing power.

Thankfully, Congress just passed and Joe Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $369 billion in climate action. All it took, was the nation bending to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's insistence that hedge fund managers continue to enjoy their fat tax loophole. I mean some things are important.

Sinema did secure $4 billion for drought relief in Arizona, though.

Humanity is long past the chance to avoid the effects of climate change. Still, how bad those effects will become remain in human control – barely.

Avoiding climate action is impossible. We pay now. We pay later. More accurately, we didn't pay for prevention in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s or 2010s. The bill is now due for the cure. What we do now will determine what the price is in 2045 or 2050.

In Arizona, the effect of climate change is manifesting itself in some of the fastest-rising temperatures in the United States, and a persistent drought.

Or is it a drought?

Drought and drying

Kathy Jacobs, director of the University of Arizona's Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions, doesn't like using the word "drought" to describe Arizona's current water crisis.

"Drought implies that you are going to come back to equilibrium," Jacobs said. "We are not looking at drought. We are looking at long-term drying."

Climate change means we are on a long-term trajectory, not returning to "normal," she said.

Jacobs knows of what she speaks. She ran the Arizona Department of Water Resources' Tucson Active Management Area, worked for the President Barack Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy and was director of the third National Climate Assessment, published in 2014.

People can listen to her, or lend an ear the cousin who saw something on YouTube once.

The "drought" is exacerbated by climate change. One study concluded 40 percent of the drought is the result of global warming. What scientists like Jacobs don't like to say is that the Colorado River cuts to Arizona are because of climate change. 

I get it. The math doesn't make that leap. However, it took a climate event exactly like this long-term drying to create the conditions that lead to the federal government's decision. If the drought/drying/whatever were 40 percent less severe, it strains reason to argue Lake Mead would be as low as it is today.

So what do we do now? We have to do something.  

What's required right now in Arizona is skillful leadership, Jacobs said.

The state has groundwater resources to support a workable future and it has a history of dealing effectively with the inevitable water crunch that coincided with 7 million humanoids living in a desert.

The state needs to properly enforce the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, work towards a "transformational change" in long-term management of the Colorado River and have an honest and respectful conversation with the state's farmers, who use 70 percent of the water.

Oh, and stop pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

When asked about ideas to build a canal or pipeline to pump Mississippi River water into Arizona, she rather diplomatically replied, "That's not the direction I'd go."

Steal from the past

The good news is Arizona has a history of dealing aggressively and effectively with our water.

The Groundwater Management Act was the result of two years of intense negotiations lead by Gov. Bruce Babbitt and some snazzy lawmaking by the Arizona Legislature.

At the time, the Groundwater Act established four active management areas of particular focus: Tucson, Phoenix, Nogales and Prescott. (A fifth AMA, Santa Cruz, was created in the 1990s).

The act required proof of 100-year water supplies for new developments, safe yield that weaned cities off groundwater with an eye toward recharging aquifers within those active management areas.

A lot of rural communities lobbied to avoid this kind of government foolery and now are feeling it.

"They are now finding themselves in a very difficult situation," Jacobs said.

In fact, Cochise County residents have put two initiatives on the November ballot to create active management areas in the Willcox and Douglas basins. This is a bottom-up movement of petition-passers who had to gather signatures to put the measures on the ballot. Their effort has run into opposition, trying to kick the Douglas AMA question off the ballot, challenging the validity of the signatures turned into the County Recorder's Office.

In weening themselves off of groundwater, the populated areas would become more reliant on CAP water. Now that the Colorado River water supplies are in doubt, a conflict resurfaces that's been somewhat avoided throughout Arizona's boom times. The farmers have the water the cities may need.

So agriculture will be front and center in future water debates.

No, it doesn't mean that the future of Arizona is farm-free, Jacobs said.

"There's no chance we will eliminate agriculture in Arizona," she said. "I think it is possible to negotiate arrangements that are economically advantageous to farmers."

Farmers may have to change the way they do things. At the risk of venturing into one area where I'm less of an expert than I am in water, farmers have always changed the way they do things.

One Mississippi ... two Mississippi ... 1,200 Misssissippi

As with all things academic, I must now inform the world of science and water study that we are departing Jacobs' insights and entering the Blake Zone.

It appears to this columnist that the $1 billion the state is spending is part of an effort to avoid having difficult conversations about the state's water future. The giant cash payout is how Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature (both parties, mind you) avoid reality.

They want to look for new sources of water. A favorite idea that's been around for decades is to import Mississippi River water to Arizona. 

The Bureau of Reclamation looked into this (I imagine very briefly) back in 2012 and figure the cost would run up to $14 billion and the project would take 30 years.

In today's dollars, the cost is $18 billion and I think that's low, given the project would have to cut through Texas, which is almost entirely privately owned. The right of way costs would be sick, twisted and wrong. I don't buy that building a 1,200-to-1,500 mile aqueduct will take just five years longer than the CAP, which runs 336 miles.

It's a logistical, political and environmental nightmare. The Central Arizona Project is the number one power user in Arizona, meaning it's one of the leading contributors to climate change. 

Why not just better manage the water we have now? Oh, I know. Big government! Big government! Big spending! Big spending! Chinese hoax!

That billion dollars is a billion that's not going into education, helping address homelessness, cutting taxes or putting more cops on the streets. The right and the left are having to forego their political priorities to deal with the climate issue.

Tucson is not OK

Tucson? Tucson is fine for now. In fact, last year the City Council agreed to give back a chunk of its CAP allotment. 

City policy for more than 20 years has been to recharge much of our Colorado River water. Councilman Steve Kozachik said Tucson Water's 700,000 customers are set for up to seven years.

If Jacobs and others who agree with her are right, pre-drought times aren't coming back and climate change will get worse before it gets better (if it gets better).

Any desert city or civilization will have to make water management a top priority because if something goes wrong with the supply, it will be the only priority.

Everything being fine for six or seven years fails to meet the standard of "everything is fine." It's not fine. 

The state can do something. It's not helpless. We have a history of water management so progressive that California stole some of our ideas in 2014. 

What isn't an option is doing nothing. That false calm has passed.

Jacobs sums it up using the words of her former White House boss. Presidential science advisor John Holdren put the climate challenge simply: 

"You have three choices: adaptation, mitigation or suffering." 

I would hope we choose not to suffer but the time. Climate change is here and the bill is due. Tucson and Arizona have no choice but to deal with it.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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