Will an Empty Lake Mead Sell Skeptics on the Reality of Climate Change?

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is reported to have said in a talk this morning (Thurs. 2/24) in Washington D.C. that he believes the ongoing drought on the Colorado River could be the spark to shift conservative political opinion on climate change. From the Las Vegas Sun:

In comments he delivered at a symposium hosted by the progressive Center for American Progress Thursday morning, Salazar said the worsening situation with the Colorado River — where the water level has dropped about 20 percent in the last decade — is serving as a powerful wake-up call to conservatives to do something about climate change.

“The seven states … are a bastion of conservatism. They recognize … that the water supplies of the Colorado River are directly related to the changing of the climate,” Salazar said. “You further reduce that by 20 percent, what’s that going to mean for the cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas?”

“They get it,” Salazar continued. “And so what they’re saying to us is ‘we support, understand, the changes climate change is going to bring to our communities and our states, and we want to get ahead of it.’ ”

I gotta say I don’t see it from where I sit in a Colorado Basin state. What about where you are?


  1. You can’t get water out of a stone. With real estate tanked in Arizona and Nevada what happens if Mead does go dry, Phoenix and Las Vegas will look like the Anasazi dwellings.

  2. Not a chance. It would be far easier and less of a gamble to pipe in water from somewhere else than it would to ‘do something’ about climate change. I’m not even sure that the Colorado drainage would get drier with climate change – Arizona and NM are expected to, but it’s a big drainage and further north should be getting more water. If this were to happen, the cause and effect would be too disjointed to effect any policy change on ‘climate change’ mitigation. Climate engineering perhaps.

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  4. Even if the best they could do is bringing in water by truck from the Columbia river in Washington it wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable (financially) for household use. Far more likely is taking the water rights from farmers – and when push comes to shove that’s what will happen.

    But my point was that a politician can take money, build a pipeline or distribution system and say “I brought water to the city when times were dark”. They can’t really take money and blow it on something like anti-carbon nonsense and claim that “I may have possibly changed the climate in such a way as to prevent our childrens childrens children from having to build a pipeline.” One would be cause for re-election, the other would not.

  5. Or to answer the title: Will an Empty Lake Mead Sell Skeptics on the Reality of Climate Change?

    It wouldn’t for me. Climate change may be related, but I’d point to the overuse of both ground and surface water that’s been going on for the last 40 years and which will only get worse until wells start to go dry.

  6. Yes, just like those folks in Louisiana who didn’t put hurricane straps on their houses because they needed the money and something might not happen in the future.

    OTOH, what makes you think the folks in Oregon and Washington will sell you any water? They have a desert too.

    Climate change is an issue with huge procrastination penalties. You appear willing to pay.

  7. I agree that water managers (at least) in the west have accepted and are preparing for the effects of climate change, regardless of what the politicians think. But the reality, for me, is that the current level of Lake Mead is probably unrelated to climate change. It’s related to a multi-year drought (which happens in the SW whether climate change exists or not) and the ramp-up to full utilization of lower basin supplies in the last 20 years. That said – if we need to perpetuate a myth to get buy-in from politicians, who am I to say no. But there are risks in that strategy.

  8. Short answer: No.

    Longer answer: If the nice farmers down in Imperial Valley (southeast corner of California, for those who don’t know) don’t appreciate that they’re staring straight into a multi-state shotgun and the guy behind the trigger really wants their water allocation, then they need better lobbyists.

    Yes, CR (Colorado River) rights are as complex as they come, but at the end of the day California still has only two senators. If Phoenix is really running out of water and it can get the votes from the other CR senators, it will break the Law of the River long before the residents of Arizona start to admit that AGW may play a role in their lack of water.

  9. Jimbo, no one is moving water from the Columbia River or the Great Lakes into the Colorado. Not going to happen. The cost, environmental impact and political opposition to doing so are astronomical.

  10. I mostly agree with Francis that moving water south from the Columbia Basin looks like a technical and political impossibility at present. But, I also think that could change. The 1968 legislation that authorized the CAP also authorized BOR to find ways to augment the flow of the river. Many think that promise has yet to be fulfilled (cloud seeding? really?). I think the compact is likely to be changed before large trans-basin diversions occur, but I can also envision a perfect storm of major supply constraints in the SWP and Colo R that could motivate political deal-making that would enable some form of Columbia diversion.

  11. My prediction: When IID does get the shiv, it will be a transaction internal to California, and I expect will be accompanied by a major water law reform. Push will come to shove re the Colorado somewhat later.

    Anyway, Salazar is entirely wrong. The SW can and will lose an awful lot of agriculture before the urban areas really begin feeling the pain. Even come the Big Dry, it would probably be decades before people really face up to the new reality.

    In the meantime, the descending branch of the northern Hadley Cell moves inexorably poleward, pushing the storm track as it goes. Don’t tell Jimbo.

  12. Does anybody on this thread know what the population increase has been over the past few decades in areas currently served by the Colorado Compact?

  13. Will an Empty Lake Mead Sell Skeptics on the Reality of Climate Change?

    No, absolutely not. Disbelieving climate change is now a tribal identification thing for conservatives. As long as liberals believe it, conservatives won’t.

  14. I don’t know anyone who doubts the reality of climate change. This is a straw dog.

    The only thing constant about climate is change. The only meaningful argument is about the cause of observed climate change and whether or not humans can do anything about it.

  15. Will decline of Lake Mead change the minds of skeptics? Probably not, but the broad changes underway already will discourage those thinking of the Southwest as a place to live, work, and invest. Arguably, it’s happening already:


    Michael Oppenheimer hinted to me that his next study will look at migration in the U.S. away from areas impacted by heat and drought — sounds like the Southwest, doesn’t it?

  16. Kit –

    Thanks for the link to your piece, that’s interesting. And I look forward to Oppenheimer’s new work.

    I remain skeptical of the SW out-migration hypothesis, based on my understanding of our existing settlement patterns. Phoenix is ungodly hot and unlivable relative to, for example, Albuquerque. Yet it’s seen far more population growth over the last half century. Despite an amazing increase in temperatures there, thanks to both climate change and the heat island, people keep moving to Phoenix.

  17. Kit –

    See also Detroit. By which I mean that the peculiarities of the recent economic downturn tell us little about climate-related in- and out-migration.

  18. It is widely accepted that the Colorado River is over allocated. The blogger reports that the lower basin routinely has used more than its collective allocation. But if the Lake goes dry it’s due to climate change? How much change could have occurred since the Lake was last full?

    Mr. Lewis’s comment makes sense, but I’d add one more thing: how much the climate will change is not known. As I understand it, most of the “expected” change is based on models that are programmed to include positive feedbacks related to increased carbon dioxide and not just the carbon dioxide itself.

  19. mahtso –

    In answer to your question regarding how much change could have occurred since the Lake was last full…

    Annual naturalized* flow at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado in the 1990s, the decade leading up to the last time Lake Mead was full, averaged ~ 15 million acre feet per year.

    Annual naturalized average flow at Lee’s Ferry has been 12 million acre feet per year since that time.

    Flow over the time Lake Mead was dropping declined 20 percent.

    Average demand over that period has been relatively stable at a little more than 15 million acre feet per year. In fact, it’s declined ever so slightly because of water management changes in California, though not enough to matter for purposes of this discussion.

    * naturalized flow is the USBR’s calculation of what the flow would have been at Lee’s Ferry absent upstream dams, diversions, and consumptive use:


    Updates from that data are provided in the Bureau’s Annual Operating Plan:


  20. Thanks for answering my question. Unfortunately, what I meant to ask is: how much climate change could there have been since the Lake was last full? And, since I have the chance, I’ll add a follow-up: how much of that climate change is man-made?

    The figures you gave appear to be within the range of natural variability, based on what little I know of the tree-ring studies. And I believe that my questions are foolish because the time frame is too short. So I’ll ask another: how does the 12 MAF compare to the long-term historic record (i.e., have there been other decade-long periods when the flow was at or below 12 MAF)?

  21. mahtso –

    The 12 maf is the worst decadal-scale drought in the instrumental record, meaning in the last century.

    Tim Barnett at Scripps has published a series of attribution studies arguing that you can fingerprint anthropogenic climate change in the observed climate changes in the southwest, especially mountain snowpack runoff timing, etc. Classic attribution fingerprinting.

    Richard Seager and Gabriel Vecchi, in PNAS last fall, is sort of orthogonal to Barnett’s argument, but to simplify you could say that S&V say the current drought is consistent with climate change projections, but is still sufficiently within the range of natural variability that we can’t tell for sure.

    Connie Woodhouse, who does tree ring records, had a paper last fall in PNAS alongide S&V arguing that the current drought is, by one measure, worse than any in the tree ring record not because of precipitation shortfall, but because of warmer temperatures, which are unprecedented now compared to the other worst-case droughts she studied. So on this dimension, Woodhouse argues the current drought is outside the range of natural variability as seen in the tree ring record.

    The temperature piece is important because, for a given amount of precip, warmer temperatures mean less human-usable water in the rivers. Paul Miller (UNLV/USBR) has done some nice work dialing in the increased temperatures to streamflow forecasting, in terms of evapotranspiration. It supports the high temps->less water linkage.

    Sorry to not be able to give you a crisp answer, but this is the sort of question that good science can’t answer crisply.

  22. Thanks for answering my questions. It appears that the answer to “Will an Empty Lake Mead Sell Skeptics on the Reality of Climate Change?” should be: “ask them yourself, but there is insufficient data to know whether Climate Change is responsible for the empty lake because ‘this is the sort of question that good science can’t answer crisply.’”

  23. mahtso – Thanks.

    In fact, the question of the post was an empirical one – not what people *should* believe based on the science, but what’s actually happening out on the ground around the west. Salazar had made what seemed to be a testable assertion. As I noted, I don’t see the sort of thing Salazar is talking about here in New Mexico. I hoped Inkstain readers with their ears to the ground elsewhere in the west would tell me whether it was happening in their neck of the woods. Sadly, that did not happen. It spun off in a fascinating direction, but my readers are not herdable.

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