I’ve been hearing about the human-made threat to our climate for my entire life. When I was eight years old there was a lot of talk about acid rain, something which we were all told to be careful about, yet my friends and I made a game out of playing in it. Back then I lived in Jacksonville, FL in a neighborhood that was backed up to the St. Johns River. Seeing alligators sunbathing on the streets was not an infrequent occurrence due to human encroachment on their wetland habitats. Sometimes human effects like that on the environment around us are easy to see. But a lot of times the concept is more nebulous and hard to attribute to specific factors.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and wildfires don’t come clearly marked as “brought to you by climate change”. Natural disasters are, after all, naturally occurring, so maybe events like that would happen no matter what. Sometimes it can seem like the danger is distant and we still have plenty of time to react. We’re told by scientists that the average day is a couple of degrees warmer today than it was a few decades ago, but why is that such a big deal? Maybe this is all just getting blown out of proportion. And why should America be the only one to tackle this global phenomena if other major contributors like China won’t?
There are always excuses, but right now America is facing a looming crisis in the West that is visible to the naked eye and completely attributable to human action. The Great Salt Lake in Utah is drying up. In the 1980s, the surface area of the lake covered about 3,300 square miles. Today, it covers less than 1,000. The salt content is increasing; approaching levels that could soon cause the local ecosystem to collapse. As the lake bed becomes more exposed, winds will erode the top layer of crust and carry harmful contaminants like arsenic, copper, and other heavy metals (residue from mining activity in the region) into the lungs of nearby residents.
Part of the problem is climate change. More of the snowpack from the neighboring Wasatch and Uitina mountains is evaporating instead of melting to feed the rivers that feed the lake. But the other big part of it is population growth that’s diverting water from the rivers before they can even reach the lake. According to data from 2017, residents in Salt Lake City consumed more water than many other desert cities – 96 gallons per person per day, compared with 78 in Tucson, and 77 in Los Angeles. This problem extends all over the state, with Utahans consuming the most domestic water, which includes indoor and outdoor uses, per capita in the Southwest. The water department charges less than $2 for every 1,000 gallons that city residents use to irrigate their yards, even if a household uses tens of thousands of gallons in a month.
Residents aren’t solely to blame here. Businesses with deep pockets continue plans to develop more luxury residential areas and, stupidly enough, water parks and surf lagoons across the Southwest. Policy changes at state and local levels could do a lot to mitigate the problem, such as increasing water rates, discouraging future business development, or requiring water-efficient sinks and showers in new home construction.
These problems are not unprecedented. Owens Lake in California famously dried up in the 1920s when water feeding it was diverted to Los Angeles. The Aral Sea in Central Asia was once the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world until the 1960s when the Soviet Union irrigated much of the surrounding area in an attempt to become a major cotton exporter. With so much water evaporating in fields rather than flowing into the sea, the Aral’s surface area declined by 90% and its ecosystem collapsed.
Still closer to home, Lake Mead, created in the 1930s when the Hoover Dam was built across the Colorado River, is currently lower than at any time in its history. Lake Powell, also on the Colorado and the nation’s second-largest reservoir, is in a similar crisis. The Colorado River itself, a 1,450-mile waterway stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez and serving 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, is endangered due to rapidly-growing demand in the Southwest that exceeds its supply. This adds to the already stressful impacts of climate change-driven droughts and rising temperatures.
Solutions to the crisis are haphazard and patchwork as different city and state governments are scrambling to prevent impacts to their growth and aiming to protect their own interests. In an emergency move in May, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced two measures to boost water levels and continue generating hydropower at Lake Powell, first sending water from upstream to help refill the lake and then reducing the amount of water sent downstream.
However, there’s only so much the federal government can do about these crises. The Supreme Court of the United States recently dealt a crippling blow to the EPA’s authority to regulate power plant emissions and this decision could also spell potential disaster for any meaningful action on all climate-related issues. Any major action will now have to pass through Congress and then the Senate where Democrats don’t have the 60 votes necessary to break a Republican filibuster. Addressing our climate crisis was already headache-inducing enough, but now the coal, oil, and any other industries with profit-first interests, and help from their Republican activist friends, can continue to pollute and destroy the environment with near impunity.
This is our rubber meets the road moment. The environmental problems in the West are on our home turf, they’re visible, immediate, and the solutions are available. If we cannot take measures now to mitigate this crisis, then our nation is surely, as others have put it, “sleepwalking towards disaster.”