Counting the Drops: Climate Change and The Colorado River

In the midst of a prolonged drought, Arizona’s cities have found ways to adapt to low water reserves and put tight water management programs in place, in order to ensure future reserves

Counting the Drops: Climate Change and The Colorado River

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Story Transcript

NARRATOR: Climate change is most likely to impact us in many ways. Giant storms, fire, heat waves, floods, and droughts are some of the most visible threats. Southwestern states like Arizona are hit especially hard. However, city officials are finding ways to address the problem.

Currently, southwest states such as Arizona are in the midst of a prolonged drought. Amid an 18-year drought, the Colorado River’s water level is sinking and can no longer supply major urban areas. 

According to  the U.S. Drought Monitor, which started in the year 2000 as an interagency mandated effort to coordinate all related information into a single system, “Since 2000, Arizona is currently experiencing the longest duration of drought (D1-D4), which as of October 30th, 2018 has lasted 481 weeks beginning on August 18, 2009.”

KATHRYN SORENSEN: The scientists are telling us that because of climate change and rising temperatures, the Colorado basin is aridifying, it is becoming more arid. And we can expect in the future that the flows of the Colorado River will be diminished. That is not good, that is a really dire situation.

NARRATOR: The city of phoenix gets 60 percent of its water from the Salt and Verde rivers, but 40% of the city’s supply comes from the Colorado River. 

KATHRYN SORENSEN: What we are doing now is that we are actually preparing not just for shortages on the Colorado River, because we know that is coming. We are preparing for worst case scenarios on the Colorado River.

NARRATOR: This is a paragraph from an official document from the City of Phoenix:

The Colorado River is overallocated. The Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, as well as the Republic of Mexico, take more water out of Lake Mead than is returned to the system, creating a structural deficit.”

NARRATOR: According to the Bureau of reclamation, up to 40 million people depend on the Colorado River. It is estimated that a collapse of the system would affect almost 1 in every 8 inhabitants of the United States.  This has even created some tension between a number of counties and citiesdue to ever increasing demand, while Lake Powell Dam keeps hitting historic low water marks.

KATHRYN SORENSEN: I want to be clear about this: the Colorado River is in serious trouble. We know it is overallocated. We know we are in year 18 of a drought. We don’t know if it’s year 18 of an 18-year drought, which is what we hope, or if it’s year 18 of a 100-year megadrought, but we have to plan as if we are in it for the long haul.

NARRATOR: According to the City’s report: “The most recent Bureau of Reclamation projections show a 57 percent chance of shortage in 2020, rising to a 70 percent chance by 2022, and a 14 percent chance that Lake Mead will fall below elevation 1,025 feet, the third tier of shortage, by 2023. 

Most alarmingly, the Bureau of Reclamation recently presented a chart that shows Lake Mead could hit 985 feet in elevation within four years. Elevation 985 feet constitutes deadpool in Lake Mead; below this elevation water cannot be released from the dam.”

Rose Davis, spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation, explains the importance of Arizona’s artificial water reserves.

ROSE DAVIS: Well, Hoover Dam was way ahead of its time in the 1930s, and it created Lake Mead. And later, Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell. And between these two reservoirs, they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to in this long drought. They’ve captured the water from the good years before 2000, and this is what we’re living on, basically. If we didn’t have these dams in place, there wouldn’t be any runoff for the last couple of years and river would be a trickle.

NARRATOR: Six U.S. states and the north of Mexico receive water from these dams. A collapse to this system could cause unthinkable consequences.

In Phoenix, a city in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, the pressing need for water conservation defeated all political games long ago.

KATHRYN SORENSEN: You can’t live through one summer here in Phoenix without understanding at a very personal level how important water is. It is literally a matter of life and death. People who live in the desert value water, so it has been relatively easy for us to ensure that people take the steps they need to take.

NARRATOR: Among all the cement and the asphalt you still see green areas, green golf courses and parks, which are very hard to maintain at extreme temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Having a grass area can turn into a luxury. Not only that, but KATR News reported that out of the top 7 cities with most pools nationwide, six are cities that are part of Phoenix Metropolitan area. 

BILL TURNER: In the Phoenix Metropolitan area, vegetation has a cooling effect, especially during the daytime.

NARRATOR: Professor Bill Turner II is an American geographer, member of the National Academy of Sciences, and scholar at ASU.

BILL TURNER: For each individual household in the city, on average 70 percent is for outdoor usage, so that is to water your vegetation, or a swimming pool, or some combination thereof. It is using a great preponderance of water on average per residence in the metropolitan area.

NARRATOR: The City of Phoenix started working in the ‘80s on two main fronts. The first includes education, and the second is an economic negative incentive in the form of higher prices in the summer. 

The City’s numbers show that back in 1970 grass was very common, in up to 75 percent of family homes. Today, according to the City’s Water Management Office, that number is close to 14 percent–a significant trend apace with the steady drought experienced by the state. 

KATHRYN SORENSEN: Before we can allow growth, we have to prove to the state that we have a hundred years worth of water that is physically, legally, and financially available to us.

We cannot mine our groundwater supply. We have to find renewable water supplies, reuse our waste water, conserve.

NARRATOR: Phoenix has learned a lot about how to manage their water resources and preparing for future droughts, and can be a learning lesson for other cities that sooner rather than later will have to cope with the effects of climate change.

KATHRYN SORENSEN: Other cities that don’t have this kind of outlook are relatively less prepared for extreme events. Here in the desert we have long understood the value of water, we have long understood what it means to go without, so we have taken preparation after preparation, plan after plan to guard against that.

It would be easier and less expensive to move a relatively small amount of water from were it is today to where it needs to go in the future to meet demands in a desert city than it would be to move unbelievable vast amounts of water from places on the coast and river systems, were [flood water] has insidiously invaded.

NARRATOR: Just a few days after the recording of Ms. Sorensen’s interview, Hurricane Florence devastated many counties, pushing dams and water reservoirs to the brink.

Maggie Sauerhage, Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson, reported that during the crisis in North Carolina, 16 community water systems completely shut down, in addition to several publicly owned treatment plants that were nonoperational due to the floods.

In addition to the economic and infrastructure loss, in many cases the victims of the megastorm had no access to tap water.

KATHRYN SORENSEN: Other cities need to start looking at climate change in these terms. What are some of the worst things that can happen? What do we need to be prepared for? How can we make sure that we are building the right infrastructure? The right mindset, the right culture of conservation?

NARRATOR: It is clear that planning and resource management can get results, as evidenced by the desert city of Arizona, which is restricting water use by price and also culture, has reduced or controlled demands that would normally would be far greater.

This is a testimony to the effective management of underground water, imposed by these cities in their area of influence. It is also a testimony that with effective management and planning we can counter some of the scheduled climate-caused damage we seem to be heading towards.