Water worries: Climate change in the desert Southwest

Doyle Rice, USA TODAY 5:56 p.m. EDT July 9, 2013
Special report: USA TODAY will explore how climate change is affecting Americans in a series of stories this year.

The Central Arizona Project Canal is east of Scottsdale, Ariz.(Photo: Tom Tingle, The Arizona Republic)
Story Highlights

  • Phoenix gets less rain each year than any other major U.S. city
  • One climate scientist says drought is “monumental”
  • Nighttime temperatures aren’t cooling off and present another threat

PHOENIX — The canal, its blue water sparkling in the morning Arizona sunshine, has been there in some form for more than a thousand years.
More than 10 centuries ago, Native Americans dug canals to bring water — the desert’s most precious resource — into their farms and communities in the harsh climate of what’s now Phoenix.
Today, the 56 million Americans in the fast-growing desert Southwest — including those in the megacities of Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Diego — are faced with a challenge beyond the region’s natural dryness: coping with an uncertain future of man-made climate change and how it will impact their life-sustaining supply of water.
And while worries about water lead the list of climate change concerns in the Southwest, other issues, such as extreme heat waves and furious wildfires, are also high on the list.
Climate change is a special concern in the Southwest, as the region continues to lead the nation in population growth, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
USA TODAY traveled to Arizona as another stop in a year-long series to explore places where climate change is already affecting America.

The series will look at different regions of the country.(Photo: USA TODAY)
“Water is our biggest issue,” says Arizona state climatologist Nancy Selover from her office on the campus of Arizona State University. In the desert, “you can never have enough water.”
How dry is Phoenix? By far, Arizona’s capital city gets less rain each year than any other major U.S. city. For instance, Phoenix receives about 7.5 inches of rain a year, which is close to what Mobile, Ala., receives in an average July, according to National Weather Service data.
Also, climate change isn’t just a worry for the future: Several direct effects of climate change are already impacting the water supply in the Southwest, according to a report released this year as part of the draft of the third federal National Climate Assessment.
“Recent drought has been unusually severe, relative to the droughts of the last century,” the report states, “but some droughts in the paleoclimate record were much more severe.”
Paleoclimatology is the study of past climates using data from sources such as tree rings, rocks, and sediments. Some paleoclimate records go back as far as 2,000 years, notes Gregg Garfin, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona and one of the editors of the assessment.
Additionally, “recent flows in the four major drainage basins of the Southwest have been lower than their 20th-century average,” the report states.
The current drought is “monumental,” Garfin says.
Water flow in the Colorado River — which supplies water to more than 30 million people in the Southwest including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas — is declining, along with the spring snowpack in the mountains that feed the river due to increased warmth.
Temperatures in the Southwest are also rising more quickly than in other regions of the nation as a result of climate change, according to a recent climate change paper prepared by the White House. Specifically, Arizona is the fastest-warming state in the nation, based on data from 1970 to 2011, warming at a rate of 0.6 degrees per decade, a Climate Central report found.
“I don’t believe we can sustain the status quo” when it comes to water use and management in the Southwest, Garfin says.
Other future impacts of water use in the Southwest due to climate change include: decreases in average precipitation and in late-season snowpack, and declines in river flow and soil moisture. Droughts are expected to become hotter, more severe, and more frequent, the federal assessment reports.
Flying over the harsh but gorgeous desert landscape of Arizona in a helicopter in late-May provides a bird’s-eye view of the system in place to bring water to the thirsty people of Phoenix, the nation’s fifth-largest city. A massive series of reservoirs, dams and canals from the Salt and Verde Rivers are in some of the same locations as those that the Hokokam Native American tribe built centuries ago.
“We’ve planned for drought and built for drought,” says Charlie Ester, the manager of water resource operations for the Salt River Project, which supplies much of the water and energy for Phoenix. “We’re ideally situated to deal with climate change in the Phoenix area,” he says.
Charlie Ester, water resources operations manager for the Salt River Project in Phoenix, talks about how climate change may affect water and water usage in Arizona.(Photo: Tom Tingle, The Arizona Republic)
“Arizona and New Mexico have extreme natural variability, and we expect climate change to exacerbate those extremes,” Ester says. He predicts that Phoenix “can get through any drought in the historical record.”
Garfin says that Phoenix’s ability to deliver water successfully is due mainly to its three separate sources of water: the Colorado River; the Salt and Verde Rivers and their reservoirs; and their underground water supply.
So even though the supply from the Colorado River might be dwindling, Garfin says that Phoenix may very well be able to continue to deliver water in the decades to come due to their other two well-stocked sources of water.
Also, water management agencies in Arizona say they believe they have been very progressive in how they manage their future water supply: Any new development must prove that there will be enough water for the residents for 100 years.
“If water supplies are not adequate for 100 years, then development won’t get approved,” says Kathleen Ferris, executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. “There’s no other state that’s required to prove a 100-year water supply for new homes.”
But is it enough? “They’ve got their eye on the ball in Phoenix, and have made big changes in planning,” Garfin says. “They’ve paid attention to the science and are taking it seriously.
But do they really know what climate change will throw at them?” he asks. “What about abrupt change, or a 50-year drought? Can they sustain water supply for the longest droughts that we’ve known in the Colorado River basin?”
While Phoenix may be able to withstand a future with climate change due to its three water sources, other locations in the Southwest may not: Garfin says that the most vulnerable areas for water in the Southwest are New Mexico, California, the Colorado Front Range, and Las Vegas.
Extreme heat waves and devastating wildfires are also expected to worsen in the U.S. Southwest because of climate change, according to the federal assessment.
“We are concerned about heat,” Selover says. “Out here, heat is the biggest weather killer,” she says. Indeed, heat-related deaths in Arizona are the highest of any state, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, summer heat waves, such as the one that baked the Southwest this month, are forecast to become longer and hotter, the assessment reports.
What’s most concerning, Selover says, is that nighttime temperatures are not cooling off: “Nighttime temperatures have increased especially rapidly,” according to a report from Climate Nexus, a climate communications group. “It makes heat waves more miserable and dangerous for humans, who get no break from the heat.”
In fact, the period since 1950 in the Southwest has been hotter than any comparably long period in at least 600 years, the federal draft assessment reports.
Additionally, wildfires will be a significant issue in the Southwest in the decades to come. “We’re seeing that with the drought conditions and more warmth, there is more potential for wildfires,” Selover says. While there may be a reduction in the number, the ones that do form are much larger, according to a report from the Arizona Department of Forestry.
“There is a very clear, intuitively sound relationship between climate and fire,” notes Jennifer Marlon, a research scientist at Yale University. “With warmer, dry conditions you tend to get a lot more forest fires, and the opposite is true for cold and wet conditions. We found that fires are very sensitive to temperature changes; when you increase the temperature, you get more fires.”


Rising Mississippi River threatening towns – CBS News


Rising Mississippi River threatening towns

Updated at 3:57 p.m. Eastern

ST. LOUIS Mississippi River communities scrambling Tuesday to fend off the rain-engorged waterway got discouraging news: More rains looming across much of the nation’s midsection threatened to slow the potential retreat of the renegade river.

Such an outlook may not be welcomed in the northeast Missouri town of West Alton, where a makeshift levee’s breach Monday fanned worries that the 570-resident town — which was mostly swept away by a flood in 1993 — would be inundated again. A voluntary evacuation advisory before the breach was fixed was heeded by just 15 percent of the town’s residents, but “everyone else is ready to go at a moment’s notice” if the hastily shored-up barrier shows signs of gives way, Fire Chief Rick Pender said Tuesday.

For now, he said, “everything is stable,” with much of the flooding corralled in a railroad bed acting as a town-protecting channel.

“There are some spots not looking pretty (as defenses), but they’re still holding the water back,” Pender told The Associated Press by telephone. “Everyone is just monitoring the sandbags and barriers, waiting for this water to come down.”

CBS News affiliate KMOV reports the waterway reached its sixth-highest level on record in St. Louis.

The latest National Weather Service forecasts suggest that was to happen later Tuesday. But more rains expected in coming days, from St. Louis north to Minnesota and westward across some of the Great Plains, stood to drop another inch of precipitation here and there, adding more water to the Missouri River and the Mississippi River into which it feeds, National Weather Service hydrologist Mark Fuchs said.

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Mississippi River levee breach threatens St. Louis

“We’re not talking about huge amounts, but any amount when the soil already is wet is going to slow the rivers’ retreat,” Fuchs said from his St. Louis-area office. “If you take that into account, there’s not going to be a big drop in the river levels any time soon.”

Across the river in Illinois, in the 28,000-resident town of Alton, north of St. Louis, floodwaters already forced the closure of the local casino and the scenic “Great River Road” leading out of it to the north. By late Monday, floodwaters had swamped some of the Clark Bridge linking the city to West Alton, halting traffic from making it into Missouri.

The worst was yet to come south of St. Louis near Cape Girardeau, Mo., where the river raced past the 32-foot flood stage and as of Tuesday morning was at 41.95 feet, two days ahead of an expected crest of 45 feet.

That rapid rise has produced a feverish sandbagging effort in nearby Dutchtown, where the river threatened to send water into about a third of the homes in the tiny town of about 100 people. It also was threatening to make another nearby community — Allenville, population 117 — an island. In Dutchtown, dozens of prison inmates bussed in were working shoulder to shoulder with other volunteers Tuesday, working to bolster the makeshift barrier.

“So far, the levees are doing fine,” Dutchtown Alderwoman Shirley Moss said. “We still have a lot of water coming this way, and we’re still all out here working. It’s very treacherous, and you just don’t know how much you need to do to prevent this water from coming into town.

“We’re doing all we can, with all the help we can get.”

Rising Mississippi River threatening towns – CBS News

Iowa rivers can’t hold incessant rainfall

DES MOINES — Rain forecast to fall this week over Iowa’s already swollen river basins has residents bracing for the first significant floods in three years.


The Iowa River spilled out of its banks in Marshalltown and spilled over Iowa 14, closing down a main entry point to the city. Waters crested at a record level Monday night.

Jens Manuel Krogstad, USA TODAY12:53 p.m. EDT May 29, 2013

More flooding expected as soggy month continues across the state.

iowa flooding 052813

A truck sits partially submerged Tuesday in the Iowa River near a flooded home along Iowa 30 between Tama and Marshalltown (Photo: Mary Chind, The Des Moines Register)

Story Highlights
  • River levels aren’t expected to top heights seen in 1993, 2008
  • Governor already has issued disaster proclamation for 13 of 99 Iowa counties
  • One man is presumed dead after his SUV was swept away

DES MOINES — Rain forecast to fall this week over Iowa’s already swollen river basins has residents bracing for the first significant floods in three years.

The National Weather Service expects minor and moderate flooding across Iowa, including in major population centers near here and Cedar Rapids. Water levels in the next week are not expected to approach heights seen during historic floods in 1993 and 2008.

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Floods are blamed for one death. Howard R. Hodson Sr., 71, of Ackley is presumed dead after rushing water swept away his SUV Monday near Parkersburg, Butler County sheriff’s officials said.

Steady May showers mean the soil can’t absorb more moisture, forcing water to run off into rivers already at or near flood stage. In response, Iowans in some parts of the state heaved sandbags as officials closed beaches, parks and roads.

Gov. Terry Branstad issued a disaster proclamation for 13 northwest and central Iowa counties, authorizing state resources to help recovery efforts.

Thunderstorms rushed through southern Iowa for hours Tuesday evening, dropping heavy rain along with brief spurts of hail.

A storm spotter said all the streets in tiny Melrose, with a population of a little more than 100, were under water. Flash flooding was also reported near Ottumwa.

The National Weather Service said Chariton received 2.14 inches in just a few hours. Ottumwa got 1.98 inches.

Sandbags were piled high at Iowa State University in Ames and the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Iowa State officials placed floodgates to protect Hilton Coliseum and nearby buildings, including three residence halls, officials said.

At UofI, officials relocated 84 students at the Mayflower residence hall.

052813 iowa flood prep 2

Burlington, Iowa, workers Jamey Sweeden, left, and Mark Runnells, right, prepare temporary barriers May 28, 2013, for potential flooding later this week. (Photo: Brenna Norman, AP)

Chris Bolden was one of just a few students in his dorm Tuesday in the nearly vacant Mayflower.

The University of Southern Mississippi senior arrived Sunday in Iowa City for the university’s summer program in microbiology but was told Tuesday he has to relocate by Wednesday night.

Bolden said he doesn’t mind that the university is taking precautionary measures against flooding, and it helps that he has a truck to haul his things.

“I understand,” he said. “I used to work in a residence hall, so I understand the need to move everyone to safety.”

Rod Lehnertz, UofI’s director of planning, design and construction, said university officials will meet daily with city and county officials to keep abreast of the situation and coordinate efforts, which could include sandbags and flood barriers in more areas if necessary.

Numerous UofI buildings were severely damaged or destroyed in the 2008 floods; some are still being rebuilt.

The Des Moines area could see 1 to 3 inches of rain through Friday, much of it falling Wednesday night into Thursday. This area already has seen 6.7 inches of rain in May this year. That’s more than double last May’s total, said Jeff Johnson, a National Weather Service meteorologist here.

The good news: Cities hit hardest in historic floods in 1993 and 2008 are expected, for now, to avoid severe damage, he said.

“It’s been bad,” Johnson said of floods in pockets of the state. “But when we compare to these historical major floods, it’s not there yet. I’m not saying it won’t be there eventually, but right now it’s not there.”

In central Iowa, minor to moderate flooding is expected for the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers from north of Fort Dodge to south of Des Moines, the weather service said.

With the Des Moines River filling Saylorville Lake north of Des Moines, the lake is expected to rise about 30 feet in the next few days.

The lake, created by the Saylorville Dam, is expected to crest nearly 14 feet below an emergency spillway.

The Cedar River in eastern Iowa is expected to cause minor flooding in Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, and moderate flooding in Cedar Falls, the weather service said.

Meanwhile, the city of Iowa City began moving its amusement park rides Tuesday out of flood-prone Lower City Park.

Officials in Johnson County received good news Tuesday when projections showed the Iowa River during the next week will stay below the Coralville Dam spillway. Any flooding should be relatively minor because the lake is expected to crest about a foot under the spillway, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projections.

Officials across the state emphasized a change in the forecast could cause flood risks to rapidly change.

“Do I think it’s going to change? Absolutely. Do I know what it’s going to change to? I do not,” said Dave Wilson, coordinator for Johnson County Emergency Management. “We’re crossing our fingers and hoping we can get some storage capacity at the lake and the rain takes it easy on the Iowa watershed.”

More reasons to create a American Canal project!