Climate crisis: Arizona may run out of water in 6 years

I want to couple two climate change–related points to make one point.

First, Bush-era Republican Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson came out recently on the side of climate and against the deniers. His op-ed in the New York Times starts with exactly the right logic (my emphasis throughout):

THERE is a time for weighing evidence and a time for acting. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my work in finance, government and conservation, it is to act before problems become too big to manage.

Or as I’ve been saying, “Hug the monster and act.” The time to stop a disaster is before you’re in it (duh).

Paulson’s piece makes a big deal of comparing the 2008 crash and recession with the coming climate “crash.” It’s an interesting hook, as writing techniques go. You should read the piece to see how well he executes it. But I’m going to just stick to his climate points.

Paulson writes:

We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy. The warning signs are clear and growing more urgent as the risks go unchecked.

This is a crisis we can’t afford to ignore. I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.

We need to act now, even though there is much disagreement, including from members of my own Republican Party, on how to address this issue while remaining economically competitive. They’re right to consider the economic implications. But we must not lose sight of the profound economic risks of doing nothing.

Of course, Paulson wants a “market-based solution.” The good news is, he’s pushing for a carbon tax, one of the stronger ones:

The solution can be a fundamentally conservative one that will empower the marketplace to find the most efficient response. We can do this by putting a price on emissions of carbon dioxide — a carbon tax. Few in the United States now pay to emit this potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere we all share. Putting a price on emissions will create incentives to develop new, cleaner energy technologies.

Especially if the tax is a painful one; that’s incentivizing with purpose. (Our explanation of how a carbon tax works is here.)

Paulson deals with the “but we can’t stop other nations” argument:

It’s true that the United States can’t solve this problem alone. But we’re not going to be able to persuade other big carbon polluters to take the urgent action that’s needed if we’re not doing everything we can do to slow our carbon emissions and mitigate our risks.

True; you can’t ask others to stop until you stop your own self. The time to start stopping is now. Paulson also counters the “it’s too expensive” argument with something that should be painfully obvious — the cost of adapting to climate chaos will be astronomic. He figures the cost to protect New York City from rising seas starts at $20 billion and climbs from there. And as he says, “that’s just one coastal city.” We seem to have several.

Republican Hank Paulson thinks the time to act on climate change is now. What does Republican Arizona think? Let’s check.

Republican Arizona could run out of water in six years, making Paulson’s point

The water supply of the state of Arizona, it seems, is making Hank Paulson’s point, that we need to act now — actual-now, as in “this minute.” From the Smithsonian Magazine:

Arizona Could Be Out of Water in Six Years

Prolonged drought and a rapidly expanding population are pushing Arizona’s water system to its limit

Arizona is bone dry, desiccated by the worst drought ever seen in the state’s 110-year long observational record. The Grand Canyon State has been in drought conditions for a decade, and researchers think the dry spell could hold out for another 20 to 30 yearssays the City of Phoenix.

That people have not been fleeing Arizona in droves, as they did from the plains during the 1930s Dust Bowl, is a miracle of hydrological engineering. But the magic won’t last, and if things don’t start to change Arizona is going to be in trouble fast, says the New York Times.

A quarter of Arizona’s water comes from the Colorado River, and that river is running low. There’s not enough water in the basin to keep Arizona’s crucial Lake Mead reservoirs topped up. If changes aren’t made to the entire multi-state hydrological system, says the Times, things could get bad.

Here’s the New York Times on the same subject:

Lake Mead has begun a sharp decline; the principal upstream reservoir, Lake Powell, now holds only 42 percent of its capacity, and Lake Mead about 45 percent.

If upstream states continue to be unable to make up the shortage, Lake Mead, whose surface is now about 1,085 feet above sea level, will drop to 1,000 feet by 2020. Under present conditions, that would cut off most of Las Vegas’s water supply and much of Arizona’s. Phoenix gets about half its water from Lake Mead, and Tucson nearly all of its.

And here’s a graph of Lake Mead water levels from The lake will soon be too low to pump water from, though they’re building another “intake pipe” as fast as they can.

Lake Mead water levels, comparing the last three years

Lake Mead water levels, comparing the last three years (blue is 2014 to date).

Read through both pieces to see how bad things are in Republican Arizona. (Again, at less than 1000 feet of elevation, the lake level will be lower than the “pump limit.” Think that through. Building new “intake pipes” means digging through mountains. Not trivial; not cheap.)

When will Republicans get the word? When money becomes the issue?

Or maybe that heading should read, “When will Americans get the word?”

Obama is making noise like he cares (though he’s still selling coal off of federal land; shame on him). House Republicans, however, are Denialist Central. That’s why it matters that Hank Paulson, who represents Money and its interests, is a Republican.

And that’s why it helps that Arizona, and especially Phoenix, is (a) seriously right-of-center; and (b) loaded with the wealthy, those who could afford to flee the snows and mosquitos of the East and Midwest. Can the wealthy of Phoenix afford to let themselves run out of water? Can Arizona afford to lose all of its wealthy?

We may soon find out.


Twitter: @Gaius_Publius
Gaius Publi

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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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