The third U.S. National Climate Assessment gets quickly to the point. “Climate change is already affecting the American people,” the opening sentence of the draft report declares. More critically, the report states that current U.S. actions that have reduced greenhouse gas emissions – the shift from coal to natural gas, and various state, local and federal policies – are “are not close to sufficient” to avoid the most serious consequences posed by a warming world.
Compared to the second assessment, this report puts more emphasis on ocean acidification, the interaction between geophysical, economic and social changes, and how human choices affect resources. Comments are being accepted on the draft through April 12.
State of Climate
Federal data show that 2012 was hot, dry and filled with energy shifts. The National Climate Data Center revealed that last year was the hottest in the 118-year historical record for the Lower 48 states, a full degree Fahrenheit hotter than 1998, the former standard-bearer. Two states, Nebraska and Wyoming, set records for lowest amount of precipitation.
Hit the Ground Panting
Last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated five out of every six counties as disaster areas because of the drought. Not even two weeks into 2013, the U.S.D.A. is already announcing new drought disaster areas. As of last Wednesday, some 28 percent of counties had been granted the designation.
Groundwater Study Delay
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has extended the public comment period for a study of hydraulic fracturing’s effect on groundwater near Pavillion, Wyoming. The comment period began December 14, 2011 and has been extended several times, now until September 30, 2013. A peer review of the study, which found a link between natural gas drilling and groundwater contamination, will not go forward until the public comment period closes.
Water Court: Los Angeles
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District in a case to establish when a “discharge of a pollutant” has occurred. As in a previous case, the court declared that moving water from a segment of river lined with concrete to a natural segment does not constitute a discharge and thus the district did not violate its permit. The court did not touch the question of whether the district is liable for pollution that entered its system upstream.
Water Court: Rio Grande
Texas filed a complaint with the U.S. Supreme Court, alleging that New Mexico is not delivering all the water from the Rio Grande that Texas is entitled to under an interstate treaty. The complaint also alleges that New Mexico’s groundwater withdrawals are affecting river flows.
New Mexico Attorney General Gary King said in a statement that Texas is “trying to rustle New Mexico’s water.”
Coal in the Desert
Three federal agencies – the Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, and Interior Department – will form a working group to guide clean-energy goals at Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in northeastern Arizona that provides most of the energy to pump the state’s share of the Colorado River to cities 540 kilometers (336 miles) inland. The EPA is considering air pollution controls for the plant that would reduce haze in the Grand Canyon but could prompt its owners to shutter the plant because of the cost.
Improving Water Management
For water managers to be effective, existing water monitoring stations – for streamflow, precipitation and snowpack – need to be preserved while forecasting tools need to be more reliable and incorporate new variables such as soil moisture and evaporation. Those are primary assessment tools required in the next five years, according to a water management report from three federal agencies in the Climate Change and Water working group. A 2011 report looked at long-term needs.
Corn yields fell 16 percent but rice had a record year, according to the U.S.D.A.’s annual crop production report. Winter winter is off to a bad start. As of December 30, the share of winter wheat in “poor” or “very poor” condition, according to the department’s statistics agency, is 61 percent in Oklahoma, 49 percent in Nebraska, and 31 percent in Kansas, all key wheat states. And hay stocks are at their lowest levels since 1957, having fallen by 16 percent from December 2011.
The first snowpack maps for the western U.S. are out. According to National Water and Climate Center data, the Cascades are heavy with snow, but the Colorado Rockies and the Rio Grande basin are leaner than normal.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton