National report highlights climate change risk of drought, water shortages for Southwest

Published: Tuesday, May 6 2014 3:54 p.m. MDT

This photo of the Great Salt Lake was taken on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. The nation's most comprehensive climate change report released Tuesday predicts prolonged, severe drought, risk of water shortages, greater air pollution and even more wildfires in Utah and the Southwest. It urges the nation to get off fossil fuels.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Called a scare tactic by some but heralded by others, the comprehensive National Climate Assessment released Tuesday predicts a hot, dry future for Utah marked by more wildfires, drought, greater air pollution and scarcity of water due to climate change.

In other words, a business-as-usual approach for fossil fuel emissions will drive scary developments in the state, of which the entire western half is projected to be at "high risk" for having enough water by 2050, according to the report.

The 840-page assessment was reviewed by federal agencies, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences and crafted by 300 experts. It is part of President Obama's Climate Action Plan to cut carbon pollution and as such is viewed by critics as an effort that is more about mining fear than showcasing science.

For many, however, the report fortified their call to action — both on a national level and on a local front, with groups asserting its grim focus spells a need to end society's dependence on traditional energy sources.

"The science is clear: We need to act now if we're going to ward off the drought, forest fires and reduced snowpack that will become increasingly huge problems for Utah," said Christopher Thomas, HEAL Utah's executive director. "We need to start by pushing our utility, Rocky Mountain Power, to move away from polluting coal power and toward the renewable energy sources that its customers actually want."

Echoed the Sierra Club's Tim Wagner: "This report clearly lays out the threats to our health and economic security that Utahns are facing from climate disruption, whether it be to the ski industry and lack of snow or the loss of water for agriculture."

Alternatively, the Institute for Energy Research criticized the report as an excuse for greater federal regulation into the everyday lives of U.S. citizens.

"This is their project to put Washington in charge of our energy supplies and our economy," the institute said. "This document is less a look into the climate than it is a scare tactic designed to excuse the president’s agenda of centralizing power in Washington and making energy more expensive and jobs harder to find."

The report was met with scorn by the conservative Heartland Institute promoting "free market solutions," to problems.

“This laughably misleading report is the predictable result when hard-core environmental activists are chosen to write up a climate assessment for, and subject to the approval and revisions of, the Obama administration," it said. "It is like the punch line to a bad joke: ‘How many environmental activists does it take to put together an alarmist global warming report?’

Specifically, the region-by-region report pointed to a series of events that are already playing out to make a case for climate change. In the Southwest, of which Utah is part, it noted drought, protracted high temperatures, decreased stream flows and earlier snowmelt.

"In the Southwest, climate change is water change," said Dr. Gregg Garfin, professor at the University of Arizona and convening lead author of the report's Southwest chapter.

Garfin was one handful of researchers and scientists associated with the report to give a blow-by-blow synopsis of some the regional impacts during a Tuesday teleconference.

"Water affects everything in the Southwest," he said.

Garfin pointed to California's extreme drought it is suffering this year, with 800,000 acres fallowed inflicting a $7.5 billion loss to the economy.

"When California sneezes, the entire nation catches a cold and the fever of higher prices," he said.

The report said "severe and sustained" drought conditions for the Southwest will present a huge challenge for the regional management of water resources and response to natural hazards such as wildfire.

It pointed to 2001-2010 as the warmest in a 110-year period in the region, with fewer cold air outbreaks and more heat waves.

"Future droughts are projected to be substantially hotter," it stated, "and for major river basins such as the Colorado River Basin, drought is expected to become more frequent, intense and longer lasting than in the historical record."

As an example of what is already happening, the assessment pointed to stream flows from four river basins, including the Colorado River, that were anywhere from 5 percent to 37 percent lower between 2001-2010 than the average 20th century flows.

Garfin said the prolonged dryness is leading to cataclysmic fires.

"A 25,000-acre fire was unheard of two decades ago," and now mega fires are commonplace, he said.

"They burn everything, cauterise the soil."

Again, the report pointed to history, observing that between 1970 and 2003, warmer and drier conditions increased burned area in the Western mid-elevation conifer forests by 650 percent.

The report notes that the climate change impacts "already here" can be tempered through reducing carbon emissions.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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