Home > adler, climate change, water rights > Bad news and needed institutional change: Climate change, water and water rights

Bad news and needed institutional change: Climate change, water and water rights

Climate change is having a significant impact on water supplies in the US Southwest and elsewhere.  Scientists increasingly that these impacts can be attributed to human influences on climate – but that is to some degree besides the point.  Presently, water is very poorly used and allocated in many places, due to poorly working markets and politicized government ownership of catchment and regional and municipal distribution networks and other interference.  Consumers do not face marginal costs of water acquisition. 

Not merely to ease the impact of future climate change but also to deal with existing problems, a concerted move to clearer water rights and competition in water supply is needed.  This will necessarily be a sticky process, but one that needs addressing.

Some relevant links and summaries are below.

“climate change has dramatically altered the water flow over the past 50 years in several Western states.

“These changes, which include more winter precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, an earlier snow melt, and new river patterns, combined with a general warming of the region, could cause a “crisis in water supply” for the Western United States, said the authors.

“‘Our results are not good news for those living in the western United States,’ wrote the researchers, led by Tim P. Barnett, a research marine geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, adding that his findings make “modifications to the water infrastructure of the western U.S. a virtual necessity.”

More on the same story here:  Decline in Snowpack Is Blamed On Warming:

“The persistent and dramatic decline in the snowpack of many mountains in the West is caused primarily by human-induced global warming and is not the result of natural variability in weather patterns, researchers reported yesterday.

“Using data collected over the past 50 years, the scientists confirmed that the mountains are getting more rain and less snow, that the snowpack is breaking up faster and that more rivers are running dry by summer.

“The study, published online yesterday by the journal Science, looked at possible causes of the changes — including natural variability in temperatures and precipitation, volcanic activity around the globe and climate change driven by the release of greenhouse gases. The researchers’ computer models showed that climate change is clearly the explanation that best fits the data.

“We’ve known for decades that the hydrology of the West is changing, but for much of that time people said it was because of Mother Nature and that she would return to the old patterns in the future,” said lead author Tim Barnett of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego. “But we have found very clearly that global warming has done it, that it is the mechanism that explains the change and that things will be getting worse.”

“There is a 50 percent chance Lake Mead, a key source of water for millions of people in the southwestern United States, will be dry by 2021 if climate changes as expected and future water usage is not curtailed, according to a pair of researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

“Without Lake Mead and neighboring Lake Powell, the Colorado River system has no buffer to sustain the population of the Southwest through an unusually dry year, or worse, a sustained drought.  In such an event, water deliveries would become highly unstable and variable, said research marine physicist Tim Barnett and climate scientist David Pierce.

“Barnett and Pierce concluded that human demand, natural forces like evaporation, and human-induced climate change are creating a net deficit of nearly 1 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River system that includes Lake Mead and Lake Powell. This amount of water can supply roughly 8 million people. Their analysis of Federal Bureau of Reclamation records of past water demand and calculations of scheduled water allocations and climate conditions indicate that the system could run dry even if mitigation measures now being proposed are implemented.

“We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was coming at us,” said Barnett. “Make no mistake, this water problem is not a scientific abstraction, but rather one that will impact each and every one of us that live in the Southwest.”

The underlying paper has been published by the American Geophysical UnionLake Mead could be dry by 2021

A research team, led by a group at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) in Palisades, N.Y., reveal in this week’s Science that southwestern North America will likely be saddled with increasingly arid conditions during the next century. This drying effect, the researchers say, is directly related to man-made climate change and will demand new methods for managing water resources in the region. …

In fact, the researchers believe the current six-to-seven-year drought in the region is the beginning of this drying trend. “The current drought is related to the warming due to the greenhouse gases,” says Ting. “In the past, El niño [would] disappate the drought, but now it’s not able to stop the drought.”

Normally, the El Niño and La Niña weather systems are largely responsible for cyclical precipitation and drought in the Southwest. El Niño brings in moisture from the tropics (by the warming of the ocean, which condenses water into the lower atmosphere that is then shuttled into the subtropical regions), whereas La Niña essentially does the opposite, causing cold ocean temperatures in the equatorial eastern Pacific. The latter phenomenon is believed to be the culprit behind both the 1930s dust bowl and a widespread drought in the Southwest during the 1950s.  

“The drought that we’re taking about is not La Niña,” Ting explains, referring to the current dry system. “That is associated with the greenhouse gas warming.” While the consequences are similar, the actual effect on the oceans is very different, she says. Instead of a cooling in the tropics, there will be a uniform warming of the ocean, which will push the Pacific jet stream farther north. As a result, “Canada does get quite a lot more rain,” Ting notes, whereas “the whole state of California, for example, will be much drier.”

 More on the same study here: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=37239

  • Forbes, May 14, 2008:  The Water-Industrial Complex

     In 2001, a water shortage in America’s Pacific Northwest wiped out nearly a third of the U.S. aluminum industry. Low precipitation levels in the Cascade Mountains during the preceding winter robbed local reservoirs of the water needed to turn the massive turbines inside the region’s main hydroelectric power plant, the Bonneville Power Administration. Electricity prices skyrocketed. Over the course of a few months, roughly a dozen aluminum plants closed. Nearly a decade later, only one has reopened.

  • Jonathan Adler, The Volokh Conspiracy, March 12, 2008:  Climate Change and Water

Abstract of law review article:  “Demographic changes and existing water use patterns have placed tremendous pressures upon water supplies, particularly in the West. Global climate change will exacerbate pressures on water resources. The gradual warming of the atmosphere is certain to change the distribution and availability of water supplies, with potentially severe consequences for freshwater supplies. While climate change will have a significant impact on water resources through changes in the timing and volume of precipitation, altered evaporation rates, and the like, the precise nature, magnitude, timing, and distribution of such climate-induced changes are unknown. This uncertainty complicates the task of water managers who are already faced with escalating demands. This article argues that climate change, and its projected effects on water use and supply, calls for a fundamental reexamination of water institutions. In particular, this article suggests that market-based institutions are well suited to address the additional pressures on water supplies due to climate change. Many aspects of water markets, including their flexibility, decentralized nature, and ability to create and harness economic incentives, make them particularly well suited to address the uncertain water forecast. A gradual shift toward water marketing and market pricing will improve the management of water supplies, ensure more efficient allocation of available water supplies and encourage cost-effective conservation measures.

“The basic point of the article is that insofar as climate change will disrupt existing water supplies in somewhat uncertain and unpredictable ways, we need water institutions that are flexible and adaptive, and that encourage greater efficiency in water use and allocation. In this way, climate change strengthens the already-strong case for water markets. Market-driven transfer and pricing of water resources will not eliminate the consequences of warming-induced changes in water supplies, but they will make these changes more manageable.”

Like oil, water is an essential part of doing business in almost every industry, and unexpected shortages can trigger potentially catastrophic consequences. The trouble for investors: Companies disclose very little if any information about their exposure to water-related risks.

“This is not an area that companies like to discuss quite frankly,” says Carl Levinson, an economist at J.P. Morgan and the principal author of the recent report Watching Water: A Guide to Corporate Risk in a Thirsty World. “They don’t want to call attention to a vulnerability and that applies very much to the water scarcity issue. Investors in general know very little about what is going on in companies’ supply chains.” …

“Sooner or later, the way in which the world adapts to shortages is with price,” says Levinson. “So my expectation is that water is going to become increasingly costly as an input for all kinds of purposes, and when that happens you’ll see a lot more interest in conserving water.”

Categories: adler, climate change, water rights Tags:
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.