Western States’ Drought Brings Calls for Quick Action From Congress
WASHINGTON — Calls to protect forests and farmland as fresh water supplies dwindle were repeated Tuesday in Congress and internationally amid increasingly dire predictions about climate change.
“The West has not been this dry in 1,200 years,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry and Natural Resources.
Meanwhile in Bonn, Germany, representatives of most of the world’s 193 nations met last week to negotiate a new environmental strategy for the first time since the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement.
Climatologists are predicting the Paris Agreement’s goal of holding average global temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels will slip away in the next 10 years without drastic policy changes.
“We must move these negotiations along more quickly. The world expects it,” said Patricia Espinosa, the United Nations’ climate change delegate, on the opening day of the Framework Convention on Climate Change.
“They know that while nations made a commitment to meeting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees goal, that commitment entailed accelerated action and increased climate ambition. It is not acceptable to say that we are in challenging times. They know that climate change is not an agenda we can afford to push back on our global schedule,” she said.
The same requests for quick action came from lawmakers and conservationists who testified before the Senate panel about drought that is increasing wildfires and draining the Colorado River.
The Colorado River irrigates about 5 million acres of farmland from the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado southwest into southern California. Water evaporation from rising temperatures means just over half as much water remains in the river compared with the turn of the century.
Across the state line from Colorado in Kansas, farmers are projecting that drought will decrease their wheat production by 30% this year, resulting in a $1 billion drop in income for the state’s agricultural industry.
Part of their irrigation water comes from the Arkansas River, which in some sections has become a dry gulch for part of the year.
Rather than water in the Arkansas River year-round, “Unfortunately for Kansas, it’s literally a four-wheeler drive for us,” said Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan.
Any response from lawmakers is likely to be reflected in the 2023 Farm Bill. They already have said they are crafting it as perhaps the largest climate bill of the next Congress.
The proposals include incentives for new technologies to conserve water, cut greenhouse gas emissions and to capture methane from livestock for recycling as a fuel.
Another proposal would consolidate agriculture away from areas newly plagued by drought or floods. Those areas would be turned over to trees and other wilderness to make them more resilient to climate change.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told lawmakers, “This drought is threatening our local, regional and national food supply.”
The spring snow melt that provides much of the water for the Colorado River is only 60% of its normal levels, he said. At the same time, cities and farms are taking more water from the river than nature is replenishing.
As water becomes more scarce, the price of using it for irrigation will wipe away any profits for farmers, endangering their entire industry in the Colorado River Basin, Mueller said.
“We simply cannot see that disappear over the next 30 years,” he said.
Courtney Schultz, a natural resource policy associate professor at Colorado State University, said an accompanying threat comes from wildfires. Colorado saw three of the worst in its history in 2020.
As the forests burn throughout western states, there is minimal plant life to absorb rainwater, meaning floods and mudslides are more likely.
“In some places, forests are also not growing back,” Schultz said.
In addition to the farm bill, environmentalists are pinning their hopes on the National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy Act pending in Congress.
It would appoint a White House–level chief resilience officer to develop a government-wide climate resiliency strategy. The strategy then would guide all other U.S. climate change efforts.
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