COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

Ladies and gentlemen, water is served

Cast your mind forward. In a few decades from now, at expensive parties in the Southwest U.S., a servant may well loudly announce the highlight of the evening: “Ladies and gentlemen, water is served.” This, of course, will be only at the very best homes and most expensive parties, those that actually have water.

Fanciful? Maybe, unless one reviews the Feb. 27 report, “Vulnerability of U.S. water supply to shortage: a technical document supporting the Forest Service 2010 RPA Assessment,” written by Romano Foti, Jorge Ramirez, and Thomas Brown with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

First, the setup. An overall summary says that “expected increases in population and economic activity do not by themselves pose a serious threat of large-scale water shortages.”

Now for some bad news: “However, climate change can increase water demand and decrease water supply to the extent that, barring major adaptation efforts, substantial future water shortages are likely, especially in the larger Southwest. Because further global temperature increases are probably unavoidable, adaptation will be essential in the areas of greatest increase in projected probability of shortage.”

The authors make clear that “it was the purpose of this assessment to point to those locations where adaptation will be most needed” within the 98 assessment sub-regions of the United States.

Among the concluding observations: “A traditional option for avoiding (water) shortages is to increase (water) reservoir storage. However, our simulations at the (assessment sub-region) scale show that only a few areas in the West would benefit from additional storage. In other locations storage levels either do not drop to zero or, if reservoirs do empty, they never recover.”

Now for one of the astonishingly bad-news punch lines. “This latter situation (of reservoirs emptying and never recovering) is most dramatically demonstrated along the Colorado River, where storage levels in the (assessment sub-region) containing Lakes Powell (behind the Glen Canyon Dam) and Mead (behind the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas) are projected to drop to zero and only occasionally thereafter add rather small amounts of storage before emptying again. Thus, major increases in reservoir storage capacity do not appear to be a successful adaptation strategy in many of the most vulnerable regions.”

San Diego, are you listening? Note: Consider also the associated long-term loss of electricity from hydro-generators at those two dams.

Experience teaches there is hardly a thing in this world as forlorn, desolate, barren and dusty as an empty water reservoir. The bigger, the sadder.

The tendrils of global warming -- with local roasting -- are everywhere, tightening against every surface of our society, restricting access to the most basic needs of water, food and shelter.

This technical report about water is a blunt message that adaption by human society is needed to avoid the realities spelled out in otherwise harsh relief. OK, what kind of action shall we take?

It’s time to stop playing at responding to this “global warming thing” as if it is worthy of only a little amateur-hour treatment. We must get serious and urgently focus on the root cause of global warming – greenhouse gas emissions adding to those already in the atmosphere -- not merely attempting to adapt to one or another of its many expanding consequences.

We need to decarbonize electricity production and electrify transportation to the maximum extent and as rapidly as possible. This can only be done by quickly and massively deploying large-scale wind, solar PV and geothermal renewable energy technologies, along with some solar-on-rooftops (SOR) and conservation. To be clear, SOR and conservation will help, but alone are not nearly enough.

Through endless angling, politicking, debates and expert delay tactics centered on blocking one group or another of those who are seeking to rapidly address global warming by transforming energy and transportation technology, we are making things incalculably worse. I cannot stress enough: We will not get a second chance to head off further global warming.

Peaking from beneath the pages of this report, hidden and unacknowledged, is another world, a wild world, which cannot lobby and whose fate is entirely entwined with Earth’s great cycles.

What such studies cannot properly convey is that an absence of water affects the wild world earliest, as the creatures and plants whose lives depend upon the natural rains are deprived first. A few weeks without water spell agonizing death for many animals; certainly a few months without water will eliminate all but the few most adapted to heat and drought.

Can a fish ask for some consideration? Can an Aspen tree receive a little thought? Can a parched lizard or tortoise hope for some solace? Through inaction, we are not just making choices for ourselves, we are inexpertly toying with the entire, vulnerable, wild world. Can a bear get a break? Can a bear get a glass of water?

Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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