Published on Tuesday, March 10, 2009 by Reuters
Climate Change Accelerates Water Hunt in US West
by Peter Henderson
SAN FRANCISCO - It's hard to visualize a water crisis while driving the lush boulevards of Los Angeles, golfing
So look Down Under. A decade into its worst drought in a hundred years
Bush fires are killing people and obliterating towns. Rice exports collapsed last year and the wheat crop was halved two years running. Water rationing is part of daily life.
"Think of that as California's future," said Heather Cooley of California water think tank the Pacific Institute.
Water raised leafy green
But those methods are near their end. There is very little water left untapped and global warming, the gradual increase of temperature as carbon dioxide and other gases retain more of the sun's heat, has created new uncertainties.
Global warming pushes extremes. It prolongs drought while sometimes bringing deluges the parched earth cannot absorb. California Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow says two things keep him up at night: drought and flood.
"It isn't that drought is the new norm," said Snow. "Climate change is bringing us higher highs and lower lows in terms of water supplies."
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a drought emergency last month, and
Nick Tatarakis sank his life savings into the fertile
"Every year it seems like this water thing is getting rougher and rougher," he said. "I took everything I had saved over the last three or four years, put it into farming almonds, developed this orchard. Now it is coming into its fifth year and probably won't make it through this year."
SWINGING TEMPERATURES, PRICES
In the global economy, a little trouble goes a long way when supplies are tight, said
The essence of climate change is greater swings in precipitation -- and thus food production. At times of peak demand, prices can skyrocket, he said, as happened to food prices last year.
"There's no slack any more. The rope is tight, and if you give it a tug, it yanks on something," he said.
While farmers suffer, cities continue to grow. The sunny, warm American West remains a magnet.
"Add water and you have the instant good life," said James Powell, author of "Dead Pool," a book about global warming and water in the
"For the last few years, the driest states,
Some 80 percent is used by farms, growing organic lettuce on the temperate coast; rice and citrus inland. Almost anything will grow in the ideal climate -- if there is water.
All of the scenarios show agricultural output dropping -- it is just a question of how much.
Businesses, too, have much to fear. Semiconductor manufacturers and beverage companies are high on a list of at-risk sectors in a report on corporate water by Pacific Institute and investor group Ceres.
Change is happening too slowly, nearly all water planners say, but they disagree about what to do and which options are financially viable, especially the expensive dam projects favored by agricultural interests.
Climate change's challenge to traditional water supplies starts in the mountains. The snow-capped Sierras in eastern
The Sierras will have 25 percent to 40 percent less snow by 2050 as rising global concentrations of greenhouses gases raise the temperature,
"There is no one silver bullet," the water department's Snow said.
But the Natural Resources Defense Council and a
"The dams are an expensive detour that I don't think will ever be built," said Lee Harringon, executive director of the
A study by his group put the price of new dams at up to $1,400 per acre foot. Current supplies cost about $700 for one acre foot -- a year's supply for two houses. Urban water conservation costs $210, local stormwater $350 and desalination of ocean water or contaminated groundwater about $750 to $1,200 an acre foot.
The NRDC estimates that
Even energy-intensive desalination is cheaper than dams, the group argues. "People always used to think that desal was the lunatic fringe of water supply. (Now) desal is the mainstream, and dams are exiting the mainstream," said policy analyst Barry Nelson.
But so far water is the cheapest utility in most homes and businesses, and it's treated that way.
"As long as you are undervaluing a resource, you are going to be perpetually short," said Robert Wilkinson, director of the Water Policy Program at the
Many see water's pricing future following that of electricity. Despite the energy crisis of the early 2000s,
But the simple conclusion is that the West must secure a water supply, even at a high price, says business advocate Harrington.
"While these options are expensive, the options of not having the water makes them all viable at the end of the day," he said.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)
© 2009 Reuters
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