governance, adaptation, and climate change

Much of the “cultural cognition” problem around our climate politics and discourse derives from the politics of “mitigation” – the fact that the tools needed to reduce greenhouse gases are politically (culturally?) abhorrent to some, who in response dismiss the underlying science of climate change.

This has the effect of foreclosing the second crucial climate change response, which involved the role of government, politics, policy, and community in taking the steps needed to adapt to the change that’s clearly already upon us.

OtPR does a terrific job outlining the problems in a discussion of Devin Nunes, a congressman from California’s Central Valley:

There is a whole suite of reasonable preparations and solutions that the southern San Joaquin Valley will need desperately.  Some of those are best done by government. When the governmental representative is denying the entire concept, I’m pretty sure that he’s not allocating more money to researching tree strains that require less chilling hours.  Governments were needed to manage the thousands of cow carcasses; this is foreseeable, and a good representative could have been working on getting plans in place.  Researching Valley Fever and asthma, planting urban trees, fighting fires, cutting down dead trees in the Sierras to protect communities.  An elected representative that is watching reality closely, with a scientific understanding of the phenomenon, would be bringing money and plans home to the district.

New Mexico’s dysfunctional water rights administration

The Albuquerque Journal’s Mark Oswald notes a remarkable milestone that passed today:

SANTA FE — A water-rights lawsuit that is said to be the nation’s longest-running piece of litigation reached a crucial milestone here Friday, with a judge’s final decree that added only five pages to the thousands upon thousands generated since the proceedings known as the “Aamodt Case” started in 1966.

In what U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson and lawyers called a momentous occasion, the judge’s decree adjudicates water rights among four Indian pueblos and non-Indian residents in northern Santa Fe County.

It took 51 years to sort out who is entitled to how much water in the Pojoaque Basin north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. 51 years. It is not a very large basin.

In a paper published a few years back, my University of New Mexico colleague Reed Benson had this to say about the “doctrine of prior appropriation”, the legal tool by which we are supposed to be determining water rights in New Mexico and across much of the western United States:

As a legal doctrine, PA has lost its force. Like the centenarian who founded the company but now has only an honorific title, Prior Appropriation has more symbolic importance than practical influence.

So we slog through “settlements” like Aamodt, and we wrestle poorly with what we here in New Mexico call “Active Water Resource Management“, a sort of alternative administration scheme that we pronounce “A-worm” without a trace of irony and we muddle along. Because chrissakes 51 years? For one of the smaller, easier basins?

birds and water in a changing West

Audubon has an excellent new report on risks to birds, and all that go with them, along the rivers and arid landscape lakes across western North America. Lots there, but I think this bit is especially important:

Without reform, today’s water management framework could lead to severe water shortages to large numbers of people and economic production, likely resulting in political crisis. In that circumstance, it will grow increasingly difficult to advocate successfully that water should remain or be restored in rivers for nature’s sake. An important step in protecting the birds of the Colorado River Basin is thus to improve the reliability and resiliency of the water supply for people as well as nature.

This is a critical point in thinking about contemporary water/environmental politics. It’s not enough to simply say “But the birds!” Environmentalists’ greatest chance for success requires helping ensure reliable supplies for the people, because without that the environment will always take the hit.

Will an informal norm work here, or do I need a city permit for my amplified event?

Wandering the neighborhood on this morning’s bike ride, I ran across this sign:

city permit needed for amplified events

I’m reading Robert Ellickson’s 1991 book Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes. It’s a fascinating bit of legal scholarship about how residents of Shasta County, in California, manage the problems posed by cattle wandering off the ranch and onto other folks’ ranchettes, or alfalfa pastures.

The legal structures, distinctions between “open range” and “closed range” and related rules about fencing requirements and liability, are byzantine. So what Ellickson found was that, rather than resort to courts and laws, residents just kinda sorted things out in practical ways that tended to respect cultural norms of neighborliness. Framed in the context of the economist Ronald Coase, the “transaction costs” of taking the lawyerly path are just too damned high. Framed in terms of game theory, repeated interactions with your neighbors make the lawyerly path awkward and unproductive.

This seems not to be working in the Fair West neighborhood.

water (or lack thereof) in Indian Country

Native American lands have some of the poorest water infrastructure in the country: 13 percent of homes on reservations lack access to clean water or sanitation, a significant number compared to 0.6 percent for non-Native Americans. On the Navajo Nation, home to 250,000 people, 40 percent of people lack access to running water and depend on water deliveries or wells contaminated by radioactive industrial waste. In Alaska, some native villages lack any water infrastructure, and traditional fisheries are being threatened by water contamination. Geographic isolation, extreme temperatures, and lack of funding make infrastructure in these villages prohibitively expensive. Across the country, Native American lands are often subject to environmental injustices like dumping and pollution, as well as hazardous sites and high-risk facilities such as mines and pipelines.

That’s from “An Equitable Water Future”, a new white paper from the US Water Alliance (pdf). It raises important questions about equity in both water quantity and quality in the United States. While, as the report points out, broad availability of safe and reliable water is one of the Unites States’ great achievements, water challenges in terms of obtaining safe water, or water at all, remain “a daily reality for some communities”.

This is a classically “wicked” problem in the sense that the definition of the problem itself fundamentally constrains the kind of solutions on offer, sometimes poorly. This is what was so brilliant about journalist Laura Bliss’s great work two years ago on East Porterville, the poster child for the impact of drought in California’s Central Valley. The East Porterville story was often used to frame a narrative of evil farmers going deep to pump groundwater, leaving East Porterville’s poor Latino residents’ shallow wells dry. Bliss’s story instead catalogues a history of disenfranchisement of poor communities like East Porterville that left them out of incorporated cities that were able to continue to provide reliable water even in the drought. Bliss quotes Stanford’s Michelle Anderson:

Neglect by white officials, often compounded by community need to keep housing costs low, resulted in a lack of rudimentary infrastructure, including paved streets, sewers, utilities, and water.

As such, this water problem is best viewed as being nested as much within the set of problems associated with equity in the provision of societal services – health care, education, safe transportation – as it is in the “water policy” domain, where we think about things like regulation of groundwater withdrawals and river diversions.


Salton Sea fish, birds, in jeopardy even with more mitigation water

One suggested short term tool to deal with the shrinking Salton Sea is to continue putting in more water. New research suggests that, for fish and birds, it won’t help.

changes in Salton Sea elevation (blue line) and salinity (red line) under current policy, courtesy Pacific Institute

“Mitigation water” is jargon for extra water currently diverted to the Salton Sea to make up for reduced agricultural runoff as efficiency improvements. (It’s hairy and I won’t try to explain the whole mess here, read my book or, if you don’t have as much time, read the Desert Sun’s recent opus, which actually does a better job on this than my book, but you should still read my book.)

As the mitigation water goes away, the sea shrinks and bad things happen, including to birds and fish. One suggestion has been to continue the flow of mitigation water past next year, when it’s scheduled to turn off. But a new analysis by a pair of Army Corps of Engineers researchers suggests that, for the birds and fish, this won’t help much, delaying but not eliminating risk to the critters as salinity in the sea keeps rising:

If no restoration action is taken in stabilizing the Sea elevation and reducing salinity but continuing QSA water transfers (at 2017 levels), i.e., scenario 2; results indicate that Salton Sea avian and fish population dynamics will be negatively impacted, although somewhat delayed.

Kjelland, Michael E., and Todd M. Swannack. “Salton Sea days of future past: Modeling impacts of alternative water transfer scenarios on fish and bird population dynamics.” Ecological Informatics (2017).

Brad Udall’s western water climate change bibliography

Speaking earlier this month at the University of Colorado’s Martz Conference, Brad Udall offered what amounted to a bibliography, both helpful and deeply unnerving, of recent scientific literature documenting what we have learned in recent years about climate change and water in the Western United States, and what it tells us about our future prospects.

With Brad’s permission and help, here it is:

Perspectives on the causes of exceptionally low 2015 snowpack in the western United States

Mote, Philip W., et al. “Perspectives on the causes of exceptionally low 2015 snowpack in the western United States.” Geophysical Research Letters 43.20 (2016).

….both human influence and sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies contributed strongly to the risk of snow drought in Oregon and Washington: the contribution of SST anomalies was about twice that of human influence. By contrast, SSTs and humans appear to have played a smaller role in creating California’s snow drought. In all three states, the anthropogenic effect on temperature exacerbated the snow drought.

Climate change and California drought in the 21st century

Mann, Michael E., and Peter H. Gleick. “Climate change and California drought in the 21st century.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.13 (2015): 3858-3859.

….the increasing co-occurrence of dry years with warm years raises the risk of drought despite limited evidence of a trend in precipitation itself, highlighting the critical role of elevated temperatures in altering water availability and increasing overall drought intensity and impact.

Assessing recent declines in Upper Rio Grande runoff efficiency from a paleoclimate perspective

Lehner, Flavio, et al. “Assessing recent declines in Upper Rio Grande runoff efficiency from a paleoclimate perspective.” Geophysical Research Letters 44.9 (2017): 4124-4133.

In years of low precipitation, very low runoff ratios are made 2.5–3 times more likely by high temperatures. This temperature sensitivity appears to have strengthened in recent decades, implying future water management vulnerability should recent warming trends in the region continue.

Comparison of CMIP3 and CMIP5 projected hydrologic conditions over the Upper Colorado River Basin

Ayers, Jessica, et al. “Comparison of CMIP3 and CMIP5 projected hydrologic conditions over the Upper Colorado River Basin.” International Journal of Climatology 36.11 (2016): 3807-3818.

Even with projected increases in precipitation, snowmelt is projected to decrease dramatically throughout the (Upper Colorado River Basin)

Large near-term projected snowpack loss over the western United States

Fyfe, John C., et al. “Large near-term projected snowpack loss over the western United States.” Nature Communications 8 (2017).

Observations and reanalyses indicate that between the 1980s and 2000s, there was a 10–20% loss in the annual maximum amount of water contained in the region’s snowpack. Here we show that this loss is consistent with results from a large ensemble of climate simulations forced with natural and anthropogenic changes, but is inconsistent with simulations forced by natural changes alone. A further loss of up to 60% is projected within the next 30 years.

Increasing influence of air temperature on upper Colorado River streamflow

Woodhouse, Connie A., et al. “Increasing influence of air temperature on upper Colorado River streamflow.” Geophysical Research Letters 43.5 (2016): 2174-2181.

….recent droughts have been amplified by warmer temperatures that exacerbate the effects of relatively modest precipitation deficits. Since 1988, a marked increase in the frequency of warm years with lower flows than expected, given precipitation, suggests continued warming temperatures will be an increasingly important influence in reducing future UCRB water supplies.

Mountain runoff vulnerability to increased evapotranspiration with vegetation expansion

Goulden, Michael L., and Roger C. Bales. “Mountain runoff vulnerability to increased evapotranspiration with vegetation expansion.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.39 (2014): 14071-14075.

….we found a consistent relationship between watershed ET and temperature across the Sierra Nevada; this consistency implies a potential widespread reduction in water supply with warming, with important implications for California’s economy and environment.

Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains

Cook, Benjamin I., Toby R. Ault, and Jason E. Smerdon. “Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains.” Science Advances 1.1 (2015): e1400082.

….desiccation is consistent across most of the models and moisture balance variables, indicating a coherent and robust drying response to warming despite the diversity of models and metrics analyzed. Notably, future drought risk will likely exceed even the driest centuries of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (1100–1300 CE) in both moderate (RCP 4.5) and high (RCP 8.5) future emissions scenarios, leading to unprecedented drought conditions during the last millennium.

and of course….

The twenty?first century Colorado River hot drought and implications for the future

Udall, Bradley, and Jonathan Overpeck. “The twenty?first century Colorado River hot drought and implications for the future.” Water Resources Research 53.3 (2017): 2404-2418.

….future climate change impacts on the Colorado River flows will be much more serious than currently assumed, especially if substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions do not occur.