Water Supply In the Colorado River Basin

Many of the people objecting to my challenge say it should be about why we need to worry about global warming, or even about what to do. They clearly have not paid attention to what the challenge is all about.

But, they are correct in one thing, we need to discuss the effects of global warming more. Is global warming good for us? Bad for us? Or, does it even make a difference? I will be spending more time addressing this issue in the future once I am done with the challenge (come on July 31st!).

In that vein, here is a NASA news release about a study of water in the Colorado River Basin. It paints a pretty bleak picture about what is going on with water in the Southwestern U.S. Using data from the GRACE satellite, scientist have been able to identify the amount of mass the basin area has lost since 2004 and determined it has lost about 53 million acre-feet of water. That is almost twice the total volume of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S. What is really scary is that 41 million acre-feet of that amount came from ground water. Imagine you lost 75% of your income and you then started depleting your savings to maintain the same standard of living. Eventually, your savings are going to run out and you will be faced with a bad situation. That is where the Southwest is today in regards to water. The area has lost its water supply and has been relying on ground water to keep things going the same way instead of changing the way they do business. But, as they say in the new release, we don’t know how much ground water there is, so we have no idea how long it will last. If it starts to run out, then there will be a very bad situation in the Southwest.

So, what does this have to do with global warming? Well, there is growing evidence the on-going drought is the result of global warming, and there is growing evidence that the effects of droughts are made worse by global warming. Basically, rainy areas will see more rain while dry areas will see less. Additionally, precipitation that falls as snow on the mountains melts slowly over time and provides water into the summer. As the temperature goes up, it gets too warm for snow and the precipitation falls as rain, which runs off and is no longer available when the dry months of summer come along. To make it worse, the higher temperatures mean there is more evaporation and the area loses even more water. None of these scenarios are good for the future of anyone depending on the water of the Colorado River Basin.

Read this article on the effects of global warming on the area. Richard Seager, a climate scientist who studies water issues at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York does not believe the drought is caused by global warming, but he goes on to point out that the Southwest has suffered drought conditions in some form for 15 years, and warmer climates have resulted in winter precipitation tending to fall as rain rather than snow. With less snow melting during the spring there is a lack of water during the hot summer months.

“It all adds up across the Southwest to an increasingly stressed water system,” he said. “That’s what they might as well get ready for.”

So, even someone who doesn’t believe the drought is caused by global warming believes it has been made worse by global warming. He also believes this is the new normal for the area.
This is not good news. 
In regards to the debate on if global warming is good or bad for us, I think we can put a very firm check mark in the “Bad for us” column on this one.

Study Shows a Decrease in California Winter Tule Fog

Winter tule fog is a dense fog that forms on cool, still nights in California’s central San Joaquin Valley. For many people, it is most well known for the frequent automobile accidents that result when people drive normal speeds with the reduced visibility. But, it has a much more important impact on agriculture.

Many of the crops grown in the valley require a long dormant season in order to produce a quality crop. Tule fog is critically important to inducing the plants to go dormant. It not only chills the plants in the winter, but it also shades them from the sunlight. Both of these actions cause the plants to go dormant. As a result, they store energy and are ready for vigorous growth  in the spring time. Without the long dormant period, they won’t have as much energy for growth and the crop yield will suffer. Among the crops that are dependent on this process are almonds, pistachios, cherries, apricots and peaches. As much as 95% of American production of some of these crops come from this area.

Now, a new study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters has shown that the amount of winter tule fog has decreased by as much as 46% over the last 30 years due to climate change. This is having an impact on the crop yield. Farmers are trying to deal with the problem by attempting to identify hybrids that can do well without the fog. Another idea is to relocate orchards. 

Lower yields and expensive treatments mean higher prices at the supermarket for our food.

One more example of how climate change is costing us money right now.

What about that expanded harvest?

So, to recap, deniers first said there was no global warming. Then, they said any warming was so small that we didn’t need to worry about it. Then, they said it was all just a natural cycle. Now, they are saying it is actually good for us. Do you see a trend here?

One of the things they are now claiming is that global warming will increase the zone where we can grow crops and increase the length of the growing season. In this way, it is actually  good for us. So, how is this turning out?

I have always been very skeptical of this claim, mainly because I grew up in agricultural areas and have always followed agriculture. I do some work in the local vineyards with some friends in this area. Growing a crop is about a lot more than planting seeds and then kicking back until harvest time. You have to worry about weeds, disease, insects, watering and weather – just to name a few things.

Droughts and heat waves have a devastating effect on crops. Just take a look at what is happening to the farms in California right now. They are having to plow their crops under because they don’t have enough water. On the other hand, too much water can be just as bad. A flooding rain can wash a whole farm out in a matter of a few hours. The evidence shows that overall, droughts and floods have been about the same so far, but dry areas are getting drier and wet areas are getting wetter. So, areas with droughts are getting worse and areas with floods are also getting worse.

Another weather event that farmers fear is the hail storm. A severe hail storm can pound a crop into the dirt in just minutes.

Of course, the obvious point is it doesn’t matter how long the growing season is if you don’t have a crop.

And, a warmer climate will also result in better conditions for insects and diseases that destroy crops.

None of this takes into account the fact that grain crops such as corn and wheat are very sensitive to heat. The yield goes down once the temperature gets higher than a certain point.

I had all of this in mind when I read an article in the May 13 issue of Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical UnionClimate change, water rights, and agriculture: A case study in Idaho reports on an investigation into the effects of climate change on agriculture. Their findings?

“They found that if climate change increases the volatility of the temperature and the water supply, irrigated agriculture in the region could face significant damages. In fact, crop revenue losses could be up to 32%.”

This is just one study for one particular region, but the point is pretty clear. Just because more land is available for growing crops and the length of the growing season is longer, it doesn’t mean there will be a larger harvest. Climate change will make certain things better for crops, but it will also make a lot of things worse at the same time.

Again, we see that all of us at the bottom will have to foot the bill for all of this. This time, in the form of higher food prices.