RMCO’s Monthly Newsletter
New Evidence on Climate-Change-Driven Droughts
The past month brought yet more evidence that climate change is disrupting water supplies in the Colorado River basin, the Interior West’s most important water supply – and startling new evidence that the Missouri River basin is also being disrupted in a similar way. A severe drought in the American Southwest since 2000, driven largely by climate change, has dried the region’s soils more than all but one of the previous megadroughts of the past 1,200 years, according to a new study. Southwest drought rivals those of centuries ago, thanks to climate change, New York Times, April 16, 2020. Park Williams of Columbia University and his coauthors used tree ring data to estimate soil moisture content in the Colorado River basin and the Great Basin going back to 800 A.D., and found that the region is drier this century than in almost every previous megadrought, even ones lasting twice as long. Using 31 computer climate models, the researchers teased out that climate change contributed nearly half to the severity of the current drought. Commenting on the work by Williams and others, Brad Udall of Colorado State University -also a member of RMCO’s board of directors – tells the Times that the new study aligns with his and others’s recent works also attributing about half of the recent lower flow of the Colorado River to the unnaturally higher temperatures of a changed climate. See also The western U.S. is locked in the grips of the first human-caused megadrought, study finds, Washington Post, April 16, 2020, Study: U.S. West’s megadrought turning into the worst in 1,200 years, Associated Press, April 16, 2020, and Supercharged by climate change, ‘megadrought’ points to drier future in the West, Arizona Republic, May 6, 2020. And please see a new, simple, but visionary suggestion by Bruce Babbitt – former attorney general and governor of Arizona, and eight-year Secretary of the Interior – on what we should do, given the new climate realities: Bruce Babbitt: Here’s how to save the Colorado River, Salt Lake Tribune, May 13, 2020. Many of our readers already know what climate change is doing in the Colorado River basin. (At RMCO, we’ve been beating this drum since our organization’s launch in 2004.) Last month, though, brought new evidence of similar impacts in the Missouri River basin – now measured as the driest in the same 1,200 years, more so than even the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, according to a new study. America’s longest river was recently drier than during the Dust Bowl. And it’s bound to happen again, Washington Post, May 11, 2020. This work used methods similar to previous Colorado River studies, and also used tree ring data from Connie Woodhouse at the University of Arizona, who first pioneered this approach in the Colorado River basin. “I didn’t set out expecting to find that warming temperatures are impacting stream flow in the UMRB [Upper Missouri River Basin] in the same way that they are impacting the Upper Colorado River Basin,” she said, “but we did!” In a commentary accompanying the study, Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, at the University of Michigan, pointed out that the Missouri analysis “mirrors the change occurring in the Southwest, where rivers provide the only large sustainable water supply to the region and over 40 million water users, yet flows have already declined significantly since just the late 20th century.
News about Climate Disruption
The Pandemic and Climate Change
Media coverage on the connections between climate change and the coronavirus pandemic:
- Coronavirus is driving down global carbon dioxide emissions to levels last seen 10 years ago, agency says, Washington Post, April 30, 2020.
- Climate change affects everything – even the coronavirus, Washington Post, April 15, 2020.
- How climate change is contributing to skyrocketing rates of infectious disease, ProPublica, May 7, 2020.
- Extreme drought conditions, coronavirus have Colorado wildfire managers anxious, Colorado Sun, May 8, 2020.
- Here is how Covid is affecting some of the largest wind, solar and energy storage projects, Inside Climate News, April 23, 2020.
Shrinking glaciers could impact life in central Oregon, The Bulletin, April 28, 2020. Oregon’s glaciers are less than half the size today compared to 1900, and their rate of retreat has accelerated in recent decades.
Colorado water roller coaster leads to drought, fire risk and weaker-than-average streamflow, Denver Post, May 11, 2020. As recently as April 20, federal data showed snowpack statewide measuring 104 percent of the norm, but an extremely dry April, particularly in the southwest part of the state, dropped it to 76 percent. Agriculture As snowmelt declines, farmers in western U.S. could be among the hardest hit, Yale Environment 360, April 21, 2020, and Climate warming may hit Colorado River Basin farmers hardest as shrinking snowpack leads to less irrigation water, Denver Post, April 21, 2020. Researchers find (abstract only) a seven-degree spike in global temperatures will reduce the contribution of melting snow from 38 percent to 23 percent of the water available to grow crops in the basin. Another study (abstract only) by a University of Colorado researcher concludes that the ability to predict droughts in the West based on snow will decrease by 69 percent between 2036 and 2065, and by 83 percent by the end of the century, due to precipitation falling less as snow and more as rain. Wildfire
Extreme wildfires are changing Western forests, High Country News, April 17, 2020. Three recent studies show how our ecosystems are being altered by more powerful wildfires. Heat-Trapping Emissions
Super-polluting methane emissions twice federal estimates in Permian Basin, study finds, Inside Climate News, April 22, 2020; Satellite images reveal huge amounts of methane leaking from U.S. oil fields, CBS News, April 25, 2020; and Oil and gas methane emissions in U.S. are at least 15% higher than we thought, Daily Climate, April 24, 2020. A study using satellite-based measurements finds methane pollution from the huge Texas/New Mexico Permian Basin oil fields at more than twice the rate the E.P.A. uses for its calculations. Another study finds that in Pennsylvania, emissions self-reported by oil and gas operators are 15 percent higher than previous estimates.
Methane levels reach an all-time high, Scientific American, April 12, 2020, according to a NOAA preliminary report. Controls on oil and gas operation emissions are identified as an effective way to bring levels down.
News about Climate Action
On dealing with coming extreme heat in the time of coronavirus: Will summer kill coronavirus? Cities fear heat waves will quickly become deadly., Washington Post, April 28, 2020, and Coronavirus makes cooling centers risky, just as scorching weather hits, New York Times, May 6, 2020.
Trump administration agrees to help wind farms with subsidy tweak, Reuters, May 11, 2020. The Treasury Department agrees to extend the tax credits timeframe for wind farm construction stalled by the global coronavirus pandemic. Changes to the solar tax credit would have to be passed by Congress. See also Coronavirus disruption clashes with major renewable energy deadlines, Axios, April 24, 2020, for details on the credits.
Trump administration approves $1B Gemini Solar Project in Nevada desert, GreenTech Media, May 11, 2020. The Department of the Interior signs off on what will be the largest U.S. solar plant.
Renewable energy topped coal in US for 40 days straight, The Hill, May 5, 2020, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.
A California utility announces 770 megawatts of battery storage. That’s a lot., Inside Climate News, May 7, 2020. Southern California Edison plans to build seven storage projects, more than all of the battery storage projects commissioned in the country last year.
Fossil Fuels United Power sues Tri-State claiming ‘civil conspiracy’ to block Colorado jurisdiction over exit fees, Utility Dive, May 6, 2020. The dispute between Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and one of its member utilities heats up, as the co-op files a lawsuit alleging Tri-State acted “fraudulently and in bad faith” in modifying its bylaws to enable it to seek Federal Energy Regulatory Commission oversight while misleading its member cooperatives on the scope of new contract options to allow members to develop more local renewables. Last year the Colorado legislature heightened the state Public Utility Commission’s authority to regulate Tri-State, leading Tri-State to seek FERC jurisdiction – and preemption – over its rates. See also:
- Delta-Montrose cooperative agree to end contract in $62.5 million deal, Denver Post, April 17, 2020, and Colorado cooperative reaches $136.5M agreement to exit Tri-State service, Utility Dive, April 16, 2020.
- Tri-State wants to be greener, Telluride Daily Planet, May 7, 2020, summarizing some of the changes the Tri-State board has made to try to accommodate member co-ops’s renewable energy goals.
TransportationColorado unveils new plan to get more electric vehicles – of all sizes – onto its roads, Colorado Sun, April 24, 2020. The Colorado Energy Office releases its updated 2020 Electric Vehicle Plan, which for the first time includes the electrification of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, and reiterates the state’s 2018 plan goal of having 940,000 light-duty EVs in Colorado by 2030.
National Climate Policies The Trump administration is reversing nearly 100 environmental rules. Here’s the full list., New York Times, May 6, 2020.
Resource of the Month
An Inspiring Profile: Ed Mazria
This month, a different kind of resource – a profile of somebody we all can look up to. New Mexico architect and unusually effective climate champion Ed Mazria – all six feet seven inches of him – is featured in a profile in the Columbia University School of Journalism chronicle. In 2002, Ed shifted his focus to how the energy spent on heating, cooling, and ventilating buildings are a top source of heat-trapping emissions in the United States. In 2006, he launched Architecture 2030, with the bold aim of achieving zero carbon emissions in the built environment. Most of us consider this the greatest challenge in protecting the climate, but Ed says it is a “problem so easy to solve, it’s absurd.” And he’s hard at work to solve it.
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