Barlow was one of my heroes from back in the day when folks using the Internet overcame the monopoly power centered in Redmond, Washington. The Electronic Freedom Foundation served to get the word out about the importance of keeping the Internet free of commercial control.
Here’s the EFF obit (Cindy Cohn):
With a broken heart I have to announce that EFF’s founder, visionary, and our ongoing inspiration, John Perry Barlow, passed away quietly in his sleep this morning. We will miss Barlow and his wisdom for decades to come, and he will always be an integral part of EFF.
It is no exaggeration to say that major parts of the Internet we all know and love today exist and thrive because of Barlow’s vision and leadership. He always saw the Internet as a fundamental place of freedom, where voices long silenced can find an audience and people can connect with others regardless of physical distance.
Barlow was sometimes held up as a straw man for a kind of naive techno-utopianism that believed that the Internet could solve all of humanity’s problems without causing any more. As someone who spent the past 27 years working with him at EFF, I can say that nothing could be further from the truth. Barlow knew that new technology could create and empower evil as much as it could create and empower good. He made a conscious decision to focus on the latter: “I knew it’s also true that a good way to invent the future is to predict it. So I predicted Utopia, hoping to give Liberty a running start before the laws of Moore and Metcalfe delivered up what Ed Snowden now correctly calls ‘turn-key totalitarianism.’”
Barlow’s lasting legacy is that he devoted his life to making the Internet into “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth . . . a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
In the days and weeks to come, we will be talking and writing more about what an extraordinary role Barlow played for the Internet and the world. And as always, we will continue the work to fulfill his dream.
Below is JPB’s “A list of 25 Principles of Adult Behavior” posted by Jason Kottke, Feb 08, 2018:
Silicon Valley visionary John Perry Barlow died last night at the age of 70. When he was 30, the EFF founder (and sometime Grateful Dead lyricist) drew up a list of what he called Principles of Adult Behavior. They are:
1. Be patient. No matter what.
2. Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing of another you wouldn’t say to him.
3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
4. Expand your sense of the possible.
5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
6. Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself.
7. Tolerate ambiguity.
8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
11. Give up blood sports.
12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously.
13. Never lie to anyone for any reason. (Lies of omission are sometimes exempt.)
14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.
18. Admit your errors freely and soon.
19. Become less suspicious of joy.
20. Understand humility.
21. Remember that love forgives everything.
22. Foster dignity.
23. Live memorably.
24. Love yourself.
Here’s what these principles meant to Barlow: “I don’t expect the perfect attainment of these principles. However, I post them as a standard for my conduct as an adult. Should any of my friends or colleagues catch me violating one of them, bust me.”
Cassidy lyrics by John Perry Barlow
I have seen where the wolf has slept by the
I can tell by the mark he left you were in his
Ah, child of countless trees
Ah, child of boundless seas
What you are, what you’re meant to be
Speaks his name, though you were born to me
Born to me
Lost now on the country miles in his cadillac
I can tell by the way you smile he’s rolling back
Come wash the nighttime clean
Come grow this scorched ground green
Blow the horn, tap the tambourine
Close the gap of the dark years in between
You and me
Quick beats in an icy heart
Catch-colt draws a coffin cart
There he goes now, here she starts:
Hear her cry
Flight of the seabirds, scattered like lost words
Wheel to the storm and fly
Faring thee well now
Let your life proceed by its own design
Nothing to tell now
Let the words be yours, I’m done with mine
During January, the sea surface temperature in the Niño3.4 region of the tropical Pacific—our primary measurement for ENSO’s ocean component—was close to 1.0°C cooler than the long-term average. This places it comfortably in La Niña territory.
The November–January temperature in the Niño3.4 region was also 1.0°C cooler than the long-term average. Our double-dip La Niña’s second year has been stronger than the first, as the greatest departure from average during 2016–17 was -0.7°C. As Nat showed in his excellent post last week, this is somewhat unusual for a double-dip La Niña, as the second year tends to be a bit weaker than the first. However, as he discussed, the impacts on North American temperature and precipitation tend to be stronger in La Niña’s second year… if you haven’t read Nat’s post, go do it now! I’ll wait.
Carrying the tune
The atmosphere continues to respond to the cooler-than-average surface waters in the tropical Pacific, showing all the signs of a strengthened Walker Circulation. Those cooler-than-average waters lead to less rising air and cloud formation in the central Pacific than average, with more rising air and storms forming over the far western Pacific and Indonesia.
More evidence of the strengthened Walker Circulation during January was provided by stronger-than-average near-surface winds (the trade winds), as well as stronger west-to-east winds in the upper atmosphere. The stronger trade winds help to keep the surface cooler, and to keep warmer water piled up in the far western Pacific—part of the critical feedback processes that make up ENSO. However, this feedback doesn’t go on forever, and we’re seeing signs that La Niña’s swan song is imminent.
We keep track of what’s going on under the surface of the tropical Pacific, too, as significant temperature changes in the subsurface waters can provide a valuable clue about the evolution of ENSO events. From early December to late January, an area of warmer-than-average water centered between about 50 and 200 meters (~160–650 feet) under the surface traveled from the western Pacific to the east-central Pacific. This downwelling Kelvin wave chased away most of the cooler-than-average subsurface waters, leaving La Niña without it’s steady supply of cooler waters.
This movement toward more neutral subsurface temperatures is one of the factors forecasters are looking at as we anticipate the decline of La Niña. Most of the computer models also foresee this transition, and overall forecasters have come to the consensus of a 55% chance that La Niña conditions will dissipate by March–May, as the tropical Pacific transitions to neutral conditions.
World music… or, a little off-key?
While this La Niña’s effect on precipitation and temperature has been generally in-line with expectations over North America, especially regarding the dry conditions across the southern half of the US, global impacts haven’t been entirely as expected during the past few months.
La Niña during November–January is associated with more rain than average in eastern Australia, northern South America, and southern Africa. On the other hand, La Niña ordinarily tends toward drier conditions in southern Brazil/northern Argentina/Uruguay, as well as southeastern China. (These maps show the expected patterns, but the colors are reversed, since they’re showing El Niño… sorry!) November 2017–January 2018, however, did not conform well to the expected patterns.
La Niña’s global effects on temperature have historically been associated with cooler temperatures in Australia, southern Africa, and much of South America, but, due to human-caused global warming, it’s increasingly rare to see a lot of cooler-than-average areas over the globe.
This doesn’t mean ENSO is useless as a forecasting tool, but it does further illustrate the complexity of the global climate system, and why forecasts are probabilistic. Over the past few months, La Niña just wasn’t the loudest voice in much of the world’s climate acapella group. (Check out Angel Munoz’s post about La Niña’s effects in South America for a much more effective musical analogy!)
Regarding other voices—stay tuned for Michelle’s later February post on the Madden-Julian Oscillation, who’s been outperforming himself over the past few weeks, likely affecting global weather and climate. Also, the MJO is currently substantially weakening the trade winds, potentially hastening La Niña’s curtain call. Don’t touch that dial! There’s more to come on Radio ENSO, after this message from our sponsors.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put a two-year suspension on the rule, also known as Waters of the United States (WOTUS), which protects large water bodies like lakes and rivers but also listed smaller waterways such as streams, ponds and wetlands for federal protection.
The decision to withdraw and replace WOTUS was advocated by industry groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Petroleum Institute, as well as Republican politicians and farmers, ranchers and real estate developers who viewed the rule as an infringement on property rights.
WOTUS was supposed to take effect in the coming weeks after the Supreme Court decided last month that cases regarding the matter should be heard by district courts. However, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s action halted the rule from implementation to come up with a more industry-friendly alternative.
But environmentalists say the suspension will allow uncontrolled pollution and destruction of our nation’s rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is leading a coalition of 11 Democratic attorneys general from California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia to block the move.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
During the 7-day period (ending Tuesday morning), near- to above-normal precipitation was observed from the interior Southeast into New England, while dryness intensified across the southern half of the Plains and much of the southwestern quarter of the nation. Drought continued to expand on the southern Plans, while a reduction in drought intensity and coverage was noted in parts of the south and east where rain and snow were heaviest. The situation across the western U.S. presented sharply diverging scenarios, with good season-to-date moisture supplies across the northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest in sharp contrast to intensifying drought and a lack of vital snowpacks across central and southern portions of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada…
Rain in eastern portions of the region contrasted with intensifying drought across the southern Plans and environs. Rain totaled 1 to 3 inches (locally more) over central and eastern Mississippi, while two-week totals of 2 to 6 inches extended from southeastern Texas into central Mississippi. Despite the much-needed moisture, considerable longer-term deficits persisted in the Delta’s core Moderate and Severe Drought (D1 and D2) areas, with 90-day precipitation at or below 50 percent of normal (D2 equivalent or worse). Farther west, Extreme Drought (D3) expanded across much of northern Texas and western Oklahoma, with subsequent increases in D2 noted in central Texas and eastern Oklahoma. From Lubbock, Texas, northward into Oklahoma, little — if any — rain or snow has fallen over the past 90 days; the four-month Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) was well below D4 levels (-2.0 or lower) in these locales. Despite the cooler season with minimal agricultural activity on the Plains, impacts were beginning to appear. In Oklahoma, the percent of winter wheat rated poor to very poor jumped from 10 percent at the end of November to 79 percent by the end of January, with 93 percent of the state’s topsoil moisture rated short to very short. In Texas, the lack of precipitation is reaching historic levels. According to the National Weather Service, February 7, 2018, marked the 117th consecutive day without measurable precipitation for Amarillo, shattering the previous mark of 75 days (records date back to 1892). In Lubbock, February 7 marked the 91st consecutive day without measurable precipitation, just 7 days shy of the 98-day benchmark. The situation on the southern Plains is rapidly becoming dire, and precipitation will be needed soon to prevent further expansion or intensification of drought…
Additional snow in the north and west contrasted with increasingly dry conditions in southern and eastern portions of the region. A continuation of the recent unsettled weather pattern in northeastern Colorado (30-day surplus of 1-2 inches, liquid equivalent) supported the reduction of Moderate Drought (D1). Conversely, a lack of precipitation over the past 90 days coupled with input from experts in the field led to an expansion of D1 in northeastern South Dakota and southeastern North Dakota. Of particular concern is this winter’s subpar snowfall to date; winter snowfall is important for agriculture (providing runoff to refill stock ponds, protects winter wheat from temperature extremes, provides topsoil moisture) and serves as early spring water supply for ecosystems as the snowmelt season approaches…
Favorable conditions in the north contrasted sharply with dry, warm weather in central and southern portions of the region. From the Pacific Northwest into the northern Rockies, the favorable start to the current Water Year continued, with additional rain and mountain snow (1-4 inches liquid equivalent, locally more) reported during the 7-day period. As of Tuesday, February 6, the Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) of mountain snowpacks was well above normal (50-100th percentile) from Washington into the northern Rockies, with surpluses extending southward into the east-central Rockies (just west of Denver, Colorado). Conversely, the SWE was approaching or at historical lows (25th percentile or lower, with many stations reporting no snow at all) from western Colorado and much of Utah southward into Arizona and New Mexico. Likewise, the lack of snow — due in part to unseasonable warmth — has raised the specter of re-intensifying western drought in the Sierra Nevada, southern Cascades, and Blue Mountains. The lack of snow is having an immediate impact, forcing some ski areas to close historically early. Furthermore, a significant portion of the western water supply is contingent on snowmelt, and the poor spring runoff prospects will place a higher-than-normal burden on reservoirs. Currently, reservoir supplies are mostly in good shape due to last year’s abundant rain and snow. Nevertheless, the overall lack of precipitation since the beginning of the current Water Year (October 1) is compounding the effects of very low SWE, with season-to-date precipitation tallying a meager 25 percent of normal or less from southern California into the Four Corners region. In many of the aforementioned areas, drought will rapidly expand and intensify if precipitation does not return soon…
A wintry mix will depart the East Coast at the beginning of the period, with this system having already provided much-needed rain and snow to many drought areas of the southern and eastern U.S. On this storm’s heels, a frontal boundary initially draped over the northern Plains and Corn Belt will be the focus for another round of rain and snow. As the front pushes south, a wave of low pressure will develop and move northeastward across the Atlantic Coast States during the weekend. As a result, moderate to heavy precipitation (1-2 inches, locally more) will provide additional drought relief from the Delta into the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, with lighter showers expected over the Southeast. Despite the active weather pattern, dry weather will linger from the southern Plains into the Southwest. The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for February 13 – 17 calls for warmer- and wetter-than-normal weather across the eastern third of the nation. Likewise, near- to above-normal temperatures are anticipated from the Plains to the Pacific Coast — save for chilly weather on the northern Plains — but unfavorable dryness will persist from the western Corn Belt and central Plains to the Pacific Coast States.
Martha Gomez-Sapiens, a monitoring team member and postdoctoral research associate in the UA Department of Geosciences, stands on a riverbank next to willows and cottonwoods that germinated as a result of the pulse flow. (Photo: Karl W. Flessa/UA Department of Geosciences)
Young girl enjoying the river restored temporarily by the pulse flow March 2014 via National Geographic
Photo via the National Geographic
Pulse flow tongue upstream of San Luis Rio Colorado
Landsat view of Colorado River pulse flow in Mexico April 2014
Colorado River pulse flow (Minute 319) reaches the Sea of Cortez for the first time since 1998 on May 15, 2014 via the Sonoran Institute
In 2014, the Colorado River did something it hadn’t done in decades. For a few short weeks that spring, the overdrawn, overallocated river reached the Pacific Ocean.
Instead of diverting the river’s last bit of water toward farm fields, the final dam on the Colorado River at the Mexican border lifted, and water inundated nearly 100 miles of the dry riverbed. It was called the pulse flow, meant to mimic a spring flood.
In 2010, an earthquake in northern Mexico set in motion a big change in how people think about the lowest reaches of the Colorado River. The quake destroyed irrigation canals, leaving farmers unable to use all of their water. As the result of an emergency agreement, Mexico began storing its share in U.S. reservoirs. After another international agreement, Mexican and American officials decided that, as an experiment, the surplus water should temporarily flow into the river’s driest reaches.
The water’s life-giving effects spilled beyond the river’s banks. Kids who’d never seen it in its natural channel, splashed and played. Spontaneous festivals came to life. Birds returned, and trees and marshes greened up.
But the moment was fleeting. Within a few months, the majority of the delta was dry once again.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
January was wetter than previous months in Colorado’s mountains, but still saw precipitation that was just 70 percent of average, which pretty much sums up the atrocious state of affairs when it comes to current snowpack levels.
Statewide snowpack was at 64 percent of median Wednesday, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service data.
That’s up from 54 percent of normal Jan. 1, but the wetter January “can hardly be viewed as a reprieve from the tenacious pattern of dry weather,” the NRCS said in a news release Wednesday…
Brian Domonkos, Colorado snow survey supervisor for NRCS, said in the release, “Nearly one-quarter of the almost 200 snow monitoring sites across our network recorded snowpack at the lowest or second-lowest levels on record.”
Current snowpack levels range from 93 percent of median in the South Platte River Basin to just 33 percent in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. The Upper Colorado Basin is at 79 percent of median, and the Gunnison Basin is at just 49 percent, reflecting the sharp divide in moisture levels between northern and southern Colorado thanks to a La Niña weather pattern that typically brings more snow to the northern part of the state.
Domonkos said areas such as Wolf Creek Pass and Red Mountain Pass in the San Juan Mountains currently have just two or three feet of snow, compared to a typical five to six feet of snow in early February.
“What’s more concerning is the considerable number of mid- to lower-elevation monitoring sites that have little to no snow,” he said.
Some streams in the Upper Colorado and South Platte basins are forecast to have near-average streamflows this summer, but the Gunnison Basin forecasts range from 72 percent of average for the Slate River near Crested Butte to 27 percent for Surface Creek at Cedaredge.
The current streamflow forecast for the Plateau Creek drainage is 39 percent of average, another reflection of poor snowpack levels in the Grand Mesa area. Powderhorn Mountain Resort on Grand Mesa recently announced it was returning to a reduced, Thursday through Sunday operating schedule to help preserve snowpack higher on the mountain as the drought continues…
A saving grace for the state’s water outlook in coming months is reservoir storage, which the NRCS says is at the highest January level in many years, at 115 percent of normal. Gunnison Basin storage is at 104 percent of normal, and Colorado River Basin storage is at 116 percent.
As of Feb. 1, the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center was projecting that inflows into Lake Powell will be 47 percent of average during the runoff season. The reservoir, viewed by Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin as their bank account for meeting downstream water-delivery obligations, is 56 percent full.
Snowpack for the two basins that provide water to northern Colorado — the upper Colorado and South Platte River basins — still are cause for concern, despite the fact they are in a better spot than other basins around the state, said Brian Werner of Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
As of Wednesday, the upper Colorado was 79 percent of average while the South Platte was 93 percent of average. Statewide, snowpack is at 64 percent of average, now halfway through the season.
“Our biggest water-related months are March and April,” Werner said. “That’s where we get the wet, heavy spring snows that provide a lot of water to us. Our biggest months are still ahead of us.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, January’s statewide snowpack measured at 69 percent; that sank 5 percentage points by Wednesday. For January, a quarter of the state’s 200 snow monitoring sites across the state showed the lowest or second lowest levels on record, Brian Domonkos, Colorado Snow Survey supervisor, reported in a news release…
Northern Water on Wednesday had just conducted its first streamflow forecast for the year, as well. Based on that check, officials forecast that runoff — the amount of water that will flow through the rivers into local water supplies — will be at 80 percent to 90 percent of average come May and June. But that number can change every month.
The rest of the state may not be so lucky.
“While some streamflow forecasts in the South Platte and Upper Colorado River basins are projected to produce runoff within the range of normal, far more rivers and streams throughout the rest of Colorado are forecasted to provide below normal to well below normal runoff this spring,” the release stated.
Northern Colorado’s water supply is especially important to the agriculture industry throughout Weld County. The season has been dry and windy, and cause for concern. Soil moisture conditions were threatened due to a dry November, December and January, as well as heavy winds that tended to dry out the soil.
“That’s a concern with farmers, so some of the wet snows ahead could help us,” Werner said.
FromThe Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Loveland Reporter-Herald:
In southern Colorado river basins, the federal data through Feb. 7 showed snowpack in the Rio Grande River basin measured 33 percent of normal. In the combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins, snowpack measured 35 percent of normal.
Northern Colorado fared wetter. Survey crews measured snow depths in the South Platte River basin that serves as a main source for metro Denver and northeastern farm fields at 93 percent of normal, and in the North Platte River basin at 88 percent of normal. The snowpack in the upper Colorado River basin that also is a key source of water for booming Front Range cities measured 79 percent of normal.
At this point with traditional winter passing, recovery to near-normal snowpack would require a major shift in ocean-driven weather patterns.
Temperatures also play a role. On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a bulletin noting that the average U.S. temperature in January was 2.1 degrees higher than the 20th Century average. Colorado ranked among nine western states where temperatures in January were much warmer than average.
The low mountain snowpack means water flows in streams this spring likely will fall far below normal.
However, Denver Water officials who supply water to 1.4 million people, said recent storms in mountains above its reservoirs brought snowpack at those locations to normal or better for this time of year.
“Denver Water is cautiously optimistic regarding snowpack,” spokeswoman Stacy Chesney said. “The next few months will determine the water available to us during spring runoff. It’s still too early to speculate on snow totals for the year because we often see good snow accumulation in March and April.”
Northern Water officials echoed that assessment.
“Obviously, we would rather be above average heading into February,” Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner said. “However, our two biggest water-producing snowpack months are ahead of us in March and April. The next three months will prove critical. We’ve seen years turn around completely in the spring with those good, heavy, wet snows that add to water supplies once they melt.
“Is there concern? Yes, especially for those in southwestern Colorado where the numbers are much worse,” he said. We like to see snow everywhere in the mountains this time of year.”
A few years ago when mountain snow stayed at record-low levels in California and Nevada, water shortages and droughts hit hard. California officials ordered urban water use restrictions. Here in Colorado, state officials leave water supply planning and drought response largely to the discretion of local governments and utilities.
Hydrologist Greg Smith of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday Lake Powell is expected to get 47 percent of its average inflow because of scant snow in the mountains that feed the Colorado River.
Smith says there’s only a 10 percent chance that enough mountain snow will fall during the rest of the winter to bring inflows back to average.
If you drive over Red Mountain Pass near Silverton, Colorado, north of Durango this weekend, you’ll see lots of snow, like every winter. But you’ll also see rocks and trees poking through the snow that you don’t normally see this time of year.
Those rocks and trees symbolize Rocky Mountain snowpack stuck at record-tying low levels for midwinter. These levels spell potential trouble for the spring-summer runoff that supplies much of Tucson and Phoenix’s drinking water, both for now and for the future.
The Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack in places like Red Mountain Pass, elevation 11,500 feet, feeds the river’s tributaries that drain into the main Colorado River, which supplies the Central Arizona Project serving Tucson, Phoenix and Pinal County cities and farmers.
Normally by now, Red Mountain Pass has had 12 winter snowstorms, said Jeff Derry, director of the nonprofit Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton. This winter, it’s had four. Farther north, 2 feet of snow are piled in the mountain passes near Glenwood Springs in western Colorado, compared with 6 to 8 feet a year ago.
Overall, the Upper Basin’s snowpack recently has ranged from 63 to 65 percent of normal, says the federal Colorado River Basin Forecast Center. That ties with 1990 for the lowest snowpack on record for this time of year, the forecast center says.
The center predicts that April-July runoff into Lake Powell will be 47 percent of normal. That doesn’t make a CAP shortage likely next year. As of now, the federal government says the chance of such a shortage is only 17 percent for 2019.
But the risk rises to 49 percent in 2020, 58 percent in 2021 and 63 percent in 2022, say current U.S. Bureau of Reclamation forecasts based on computer models.
And Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, is concerned that under the worst case scenario, Lake Mead could dip a half-foot below 1,075 feet by the end of 2018 and drop an additional 4.5 feet by 2020. A shortage is supposed to be declared if the lake drops below 1,075 feet, although he says additional water conservation could probably prevent that.
Arizona and the rest of the river basin have been through such worries before and came through unscathed. In winter and spring 2015, snowpack levels and runoff forecasts were grim through April. Authorities in Arizona were gearing up for the first-ever cutback in CAP deliveries in the following year.
Instead, Colorado was pounded by record rainfall the next month, which has since been dubbed “Miracle May,” and no 2016 shortage occurred.
Today’s long-range forecasts for the Colorado Basin don’t see miracles ahead. They predict a dry spring in areas of the Upper Basin south of Interstate 70, which covers the majority of Colorado and a good part of Utah.
There’s no way to predict a Miracle May because it didn’t happen in 2015 “until it was right on top of you,” said Eric Kuhn, retired general manager of the Colorado River District that manages water in western Colorado.
The immediate cause of this low snowpack is a combination of two extremely strong weather systems hanging over the region since November that have refused to move.
First, an Arctic-spawned low-pressure system — which Arizona water officials have dubbed “the Blob” — is centered over Canada’s Hudson Bay. It has held temperatures well below normal for much of the winter across the eastern and midwestern U.S.
Below that is a high-pressure system hanging over the eastern Pacific and the Southwest that has driven the jet stream northward and left much of the West warm and dry, including not only the Colorado River Basin but the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.
“We unfortunately are dominated by this high-pressure ridge over the West, and it works in tandem with the really strong low pressure ridge to the east,” said Greg Smith, a hydrologist for the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center. “When these features are very strong, they can be persistent. These features have been persistent over much of the winter.”
Another potential, and probably likely factor, is climate change.
Studies have shown significant snowpack declines across most of the western U.S. since the 1950s, the Environmental Protection Agency has said. Human factors, including climate change, ozone depletion and land use, accounted for 20 percent of the loss in annual Western mountain snowpack since the 1980s, said an April 2017 study from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Berkeley, California.
Peak runoff in streams and rivers of the West is strongly influenced by melting of accumulated mountain snowpack.
Based on the current state of the snowpack, the researchers predict a further loss of up to 60 percent within the next 30 years.
“The projected losses have serious implications for the hydropower, municipal and agricultural sectors in the region,” said John Fyfe, a research scientist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, and lead author of the study, published in the journal Nature Communications.
Brad Udall, a prominent Colorado State University water researcher, acknowledged there’s no way to be certain without additional study that this year’s poor snowpack is directly related to climate change caused by greenhouse-gas emissions.
But many of the weather patterns that are linked with this year’s poor snowpack “look like our future,” based on what other researchers have predicted will happen because of climate change, Udall said.
First, this year saw a late start to winter weather across the entire river basin and in California, he said.
Second, record-warm Colorado weather from October through December meant that a lot of snowpack evaporated and became water vapor instead of becoming stream runoff. Finally, this winter’s pattern of extremely dry weather south of Interstate 70 and the less dry weather north of I-70, is also what climate models have predicted, Udall said.
Over the past 18 years ending in 2017, only four years saw even average runoff down the Colorado, Udall said.
“That’s less than half of the big flow years on average that we used to get,” he said.
After more than three years of severe drought, Cape Town, a city of nearly 4 million people, is running out of water. “Day Zero”—the day city officials estimate the water system will be unable to provide drinking water for the taps—is less than three months away, and substantial rains are not expected before then.
In response, city managers have imposed a series of increasingly severe water-use restrictions to cut demand and are working to find emergency sources of supply, but it is difficult to see how a cutoff can be avoided. People will not die of thirst: Emergency water will be brought in for basic needs. But the social, economic, and political disruptions caused by a water cutoff will be unprecedented.
Cape Town is not alone. California, São Paulo, Australia, the eastern Mediterranean, and other regions have all recently suffered through severe droughts and water crises.
Short-term droughts and water shortages aren’t new. Under normal circumstances, cities can respond by temporarily cutting water waste. But circumstances aren’t normal anymore. More and more major cities will face their own Day Zero unless we fundamentally change the way water is managed and used.
The growing water crisis is the result of three factors. First, more and more regions of the world are reaching “peak water” limits, where all accessible, renewable water has been spoken for and no traditional new supplies are available. Second, urban populations and economies are expanding rapidly, putting additional pressures on limited water supplies and increasing competition with agricultural water users. And third, the very climate of the planet is changing because of human activities such as burning fossil fuels, affecting all aspects of our water systems, including the demand for water and the frequency and intensity of extreme events like floods and droughts.
Where these three factors combine, urban water crises explode.
The good news is that there are two key solutions to making our cities more resilient to water crises and disruptions: Reduce water demand and find new non-traditional sources of water supply.
Reducing demand means improving the efficiency of water use and changing water-using behaviors to reduce immediate needs. The first option includes installing efficient irrigation technology, replacing inefficient toilets, showerheads, washing machines, and dishwashers, and eliminating leaks. The second option includes cutting outdoor landscape water use and replacing water-intensive gardens, taking shorter showers, flushing toilets less often, and eliminating luxury water uses like private swimming pools.
The potential for these two approaches to reduce demand is enormous. During the severe drought in Australia from 2000 to 2009, urban water efficiency measures saved more water at lower cost and greater speed than traditional supply options, like tapping rivers and groundwater. During the drought, water demand dropped 60% in South East Queensland through a combination of investments in water efficiency programs and restrictions on outdoor water use. California urban water use was cut by over 25% during the 2012-2016 drought through similar indoor and outdoor efficiency programs, and there is much potential for even greater savings.
There are new supply options available too, even in regions where traditional sources are tapped out. South Africa has long pioneered the restoration of watersheds by removing invasive species like blue gum, wattles, and the vine kudzu, and increasing water flows in rivers. Artificially enhancing groundwater replenishment can increase the storage of water far more effectively than building new surface reservoirs. Wastewater treatment and reuse turns what used to be considered a liability into a valuable resource.
Cape Town currently only treats and reuses 5% of its wastewater—up until now they haven’t thought they had the need—and could greatly expand treatment and reuse. Just next door to South Africa in Namibia, the city of Windhoek has been reusing treated wastewater for decades. About 40% of Singapore’s total water demand is now being met with high-quality treated wastewater. California currently reuses about 15% of its wastewater and has the potential to greatly expand reuse in coming years. And when less costly options have been exhausted, seawater desalination offers a way to provide drought-proof supply.
It will rain again in Cape Town, and the emergency responses implemented over the next few months will be relaxed. But water problems are not going to disappear until we consistently and comprehensively change the way we think about and manage water. Peak water limits will be felt in more and more regions as traditional sources of water are tapped out. Urban areas will continue to expand. Global climate changes will accelerate and worsen, especially if we delay the transition to clean energy. The sooner we accept these facts, the sooner every city can move to manage water in a more sustainable fashion, postponing or even eliminating the risk of their own Day Zero.