SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah conservation organization is blasting state leaders, particularly those in charge of managing water supplies, for continuing to ignore the impacts of rising temperatures and how that will shape reality in the years to come.
The report, "Crossroads Utah," is part of an initiative that kicks off Thursday with a meeting hosted by the Utah Rivers Council. The grass-roots, nonprofit organization has spent the past 18 months gathering information from multiple scientific reports that show the state's temperatures are increasing, but government response remains overwhelmingly lukewarm to making any policy change.
"It's undeniable that we've heated as a state in the last 30 years," said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. "What that means is lower snow packs, lower river flows. We're going to have greater pressure on agriculture, reduced opportunities for recreation that is dependent on those resources. There's a whole cascade of impacts."
Frankel said there is ample evidence that points to a changing, warming climate — including studies done locally — that the majority of Utah policymakers continue to ignore because of the polarizing, political debate over "global warming."
Regardless of politics, the state's apathy is appalling, he said.
"It would be risky behavior to not believe the chorus of scientists who are generally unanimous about the fact that the future holds higher temperatures for Utah," Frankel said. "So the first thing we need to do is ask every stage agency to inventory their resources and their constituents to see what the impacts are going to be."
Frankel pointed to a July report released by the Utah Department of Health that details the threats from multiple public health impacts of a warming climate, from increased incidences of wildfires, flooding, outbreaks of insect-borne diseases and risk to local food supplies.
"Some agencies like the state Department of Health are doing a great job," he said, in contrast to the state Division of Water Resources, which he asserts refuses to "officially" consider climate change.
"It's nuts," Frankel said.
Todd Adams, deputy director of the water resources division, disputed Frankel's charge and said he believes the agency is has done "a lot" in response to threats on the horizon, including conducting a drought study.
"We adaptively manage. We find new technologies. We find new solutions," Adams said. "Yeah, I think we're doing good, but I think we could do better."
But Frankel said policymakers continue to ignore the evidence of a changing climate, including research done by respected Utah scientists and then laid at their doorstep.
Such a study was published this summer in the journal of the American Meteorology Society and done by researchers at the Utah State University's Utah Climate Center.
It found that since 1972, satellite images show the extent of ground covered by snow throughout the state has shrunk nearly 29 percent. The trends also show that in the winter from January into March, precipitation that comes as snow has dropped 9 percent statewide over the past 50 years, with even greater reductions coming at lower elevations.
While the intensity of storms may have increased, the type of weather patterns producing precipitation events have decreased, with even sharper declines in storms that actually result in snow. The study shows, too, that early warming brought on by warmer temperatures is generally resulting in declines in the springtime snowpack.
"Our report summarizes their own science," plus that of other studies, Frankel said, adding that Utahns should do their own research as well.
"What we want to do is get out and tell Utahns what the future is likely to be as the result of rising air temperatures," he said. "This is unquestionably the biggest problem facing Utah."
Alan Matheson, Gov. Gary Herbert's environmental adviser, said while the state could perhaps do more to deal with the potential effects of climate variability, "we're certainly not ignoring the situation."
Earlier this year, a national environmental group slammed Utah as one of a dozen states that received a flunking grade in terms of recognizing climate change and its attendant water vulnerabilities.
Frankel's group cites that failing grade as more evidence the state is ignoring the problem. But Herbert's office dismissed the low marks at the time of the report, saying the state doesn't need a New York-based group telling it how to manage its water.
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