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A water shortage at a major U.S. reservoir and wildfire evacuations in Utah and California are signals that the dire predictions in the United Nations’ climate report are already unfolding.
On August 16, the U.S. federal government declared an official water shortage at Lake Mead, a key reservoir on the Colorado River, The New York Times reports. And the situation is only expected to get worse.
“Once we’re on that train, it’s not clear where it stops,” said Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society.
The water shortage declaration—the first ever for the reservoir—initiated mandatory restrictions known as Tier 1 reductions, the first step in a contingency plan approved in 2019 by the seven states drawing from the Colorado River.
“The declaration triggers cuts in water supply that, for now, mostly will affect Arizona farmers. Beginning next year they will be cut off from much of the water they have relied on for decades,” writes the Times.
The 40 million residents who also depend on the reservoir—located primarily in Arizona but also reaching as far as Wyoming and Mexico—will not experience significant restrictions from Tier 1, though rates will go up in response to the limited supply, writes Bloomberg News. Farmers, who make up 1% of Arizona’s economy, but use 74% of its water, are responding by fallowing fields, switching to water-thrifty crops, or drawing from groundwater. They will need to take more dramatic measures if the region’s drought continues, as forecast, into future years.
The extended drought has raised questions about the future of water access in the western U.S., the Times writes. “The big question is, what’s going to happen in 2022?” asked Ted Cooke, general manager for the Central Arizona Project. “One thing that we don’t have is the resiliency in the reservoirs, because they’re so low, to withstand the type of year that we had this year back to back.”
While Tier 1 restrictions are a dramatic change from the status quo, more severe shifts are expected if conditions persist, writes Joanna Allhands in an op-ed for AZ Central. The U.S. government is expected to implement Tier 2 restrictions in 2023 and may reach Tier 3 by 2025.
“The plan gets progressively more painful, especially once we hit a Tier 3 shortage that will impact even the largest cities in metro Phoenix,” Allhands says.
The American West’s parched conditions are also forcing thousands to leave their homes to escape wildfires. Six thousand households evacuated in response to the Parleys Canyon Fire in Utah, and California’s Dixie Fire has destroyed 1,120 structures and threatens more than 14,000 more, reports the Times. The fires also prompted California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, to shut power for 51,000 consumers last week to reduce fire risk, reports NBC.
And this summer’s prolonged heat waves are making wildfires more frequent and intense. In a recent media briefing, an incident commander for the California firefighting efforts said that “the fuels conditions are worse than we’ve ever seen, the fire behaviour is worse than we’ve ever seen,” reports The Washington Post.
But “it’s not unprecedented anymore, it’s the norm,” he added.
Droughts and wildfires are not the only climate events affecting Americans, writes The Hill. Miami officials are developing plans to prepare for rising sea levels, and residents in some parts of Alaska are considering relocating their dwellings to avoid major flooding events.
As people experience climate impacts in their daily lives, many feel that “the bleak predictions laid out in [the] new United Nations climate change report are more a reflection of the present and not just what’s to come.”