Monday, April 19, 2021 | 2 a.m.
For years, scientists have warned that climate change could cause disruptions in agriculture, rendering vast amounts of croplands unfertile and affecting the food-supply chain.
This year in the Southwest, we are seeing the grim accuracy of such predictions and the consequences of ignoring climate change.
In New Mexico and along the Oregon-California border, extreme drought is leaving farmers worried that they won’t receive enough water this year to grow crops. In New Mexico, where the capacity of the state’s largest reservoir has shrunk by 89% with no relief in sight, water officials are warning farmers along the Rio Grande and its major tributary, the Rio Chama, to brace for a short irrigation system and are pleading with hobbyist farmers to forego the growing season.
“If they have an option to not farm, they should consider that option,” one official said.
Meanwhile, farmers who receive irrigation allotments in the federally owned Klamath Project in the Oregon-California region are concerned that for the first time in 20 years, they’ll either get no water or won’t receive enough to make farming pencil out financially. The Bureau of Reclamation is expected to make an announcement soon about how the project’s water will be allotted between agricultural interests and the need to protect an endangered fish species that is vital to two tribes of indigenous peoples in the area.
These situations bring to mind an alarming report two years ago from the United Nations, where 100 experts from 52 nations gathered to assess the dangers of climate change on agriculture, food supply and food distribution. Their conclusions: a half-billion people are living in places that were turning into desert, while crop-producing soil around the globe was being lost at least 10 times faster than it was forming.
The potential chain-reaction effects from these changes would include food shortages and acceleration of mass migrations that are already shaping the socio-political environment in several countries. Such mass migrations often are geopolitically destabilizing and can lead to violent regional conflicts.
“People’s lives will be affected by a massive pressure for migration,” Pete Smith, a professor of plant and soil science at the University of Aberdeen and one of the report’s lead authors, told The New York Times. “People don’t stay and die where they are. People migrate.”
We’re seeing that in the U.S., as the mass migration from Latin America to the U.S.-Mexico border is being caused partly by storms whose intensity has been driven up by climate change.
In the Southwest, the extreme drought serves as a shrieking alarm to address global warming before the effects become more dire.
It’s almost certain that the surface level of Lake Mead will dip below a point where mandated cuts will occur in water allotments to Nevada and other states that draw from the reservoir. Forecasters say snowmelt from the Rockies will be weak and will be largely sucked up by the bone-dry ground, meaning runoff into the Colorado River will be paltry again this year. That’s alarming news considering that 90% of the Southwest is now in drought, with 40% being ranked in the worst two of five categories used to gauge severity — “extreme” or “exceptional.” Southern Nevada is in the “exceptional” category, meaning the driest.
In Nevada, our water conservation efforts have given us a cushion from the potential cuts in allotments this year from Lake Mead. The Southern Nevada Water Authority said that water usage in the Las Vegas Valley fell by 27 billion gallons between 2002 and 2018 despite a population increase of nearly 700,000 people. We’re using 38% less water per-capita today than we were in the early 2000s, which totals about 250,000 acre feet of water per year. That’s well below our allotment of 300,000 acre feet and will allow us to absorb the cuts without taking drastic measures.
Meanwhile, as a global community we need to act promptly to follow the science on reducing the effects of climate change while, on the regional level, redoubling our near-term efforts to conserve. As we noted last week, one short-term step worth considering is a proposed ban on ornamental turf in Nevada — grass in street medians, parking lots, etc., that is stepped on only when it’s mowed. In addition, the worsening drought dials up the urgency for Nevada and other states to fight a proposed pipeline from Lake Powell to southern Utah, a disastrous idea that would drain 86,000 acre-feet of water per year in the name of spurring development and agriculture.
Nevada’s voters care about the environment and continue to show they want leaders to take action, which voters demonstrated by passing a ballot measure last year requiring the state’s power producers to acquire at least 50% of their electricity from renewable resources by 2030. To ease further effects of global warming, we need to keep sprinting in that direction.