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Don Paul: There's a nuisance rain shortfall in WNY, but it's a growing crisis out west

Don Paul: There's a nuisance rain shortfall in WNY, but it's a growing crisis out west

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Key reservoir on Colorado River hits record low amid drought

In this Aug. 13, 2020, file photo, a bathtub ring of light minerals delineates the high water mark on Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Boulder City, Nev. A key reservoir on the Colorado River is expected to match its record low level on Thursday, June 10, 2021. The dropping surface elevation of Lake Mead along the Arizona-Nevada border is the another sign of the drought's grip on the region.

Excepting some torrential deluges Wednesday in the Southern Tier, the majority of Western New York is coming up short on yearly rainfall. Buffalo is running about a third below average, which is a large anomaly. Even so, while much of Western New York is "abnormally dry," we are not categorized as being in a drought status.

It appears rain will be in short supply over the next week. While a few spotty showers will be possible for a small part of Saturday afternoon, and again early Sunday, when all is said and done there will be little to show in the way of needed rain by next Friday.

At this time of the growing season, just .1-.5 inch of rain in a week will not be of much help. Gardeners will need to keep watering, and growers may have to consider some irrigation. Streamflow volume is also very low. At least cooler temperatures next week will slow the rate of evaporation from plants and soil. The midsummer heat will be in retreat, with some moderation likely returning the following week, while the more extreme heat remains farther west.

The extent of drought is an entirely different story in the western states. Nearly 100% of California is in at least severe drought status and 74% of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought. Conditions are inevitably worsening with each passing week.

The flood threat shifts to the East Coast as we monitor storms in the Midwest and hot, fire weather in the West. CNN meteorologist Tyler Mauldin has the weekend forecast.

Lake Oroville, thought of as a lynchpin in California's water supply system, is already at less than 42% of its capacity, and drying rapidly. The lake helps water 20% of the nation's crops.

Owing to the climatology of central and southern California, meaningful rainfall in the summer and much of fall is a nonentity. It just doesn't happen, drought or no drought. This is now the dry season for the southwest, apart from the underlying drought. With the ongoing megadrought quickly worsening, the situation will be going from critical to potentially disastrous. When conditions are already extreme to exceptional and it’s only early June, it is truly alarming to contemplate how much more severe the crisis will be by late summer. The latest seasonal outlook from the U.S. Drought Monitor offers no reason to hope for any improvement over a tremendous portion of the western half of the nation.

As reported in Yale Climate Connections this week, scientist-author Dana Nuccitelli points to a 2020 study in the journal Science showing the years 2000-2018 to be the second driest 19-year span in California in the last 1,200 years. For more ambitious readers, here is a synopsis of the study which outlines much of the human factor in this facet of a regional drier and hotter climate. The study concludes human activity has taken what would have been moderate drought and put it on a path with the worst megadrought for the southwest since the Mayan era. 

Nuccitelli outlines some of the agricultural consequences of this megadrought in California: “California is effectively America’s garden – it produces two-thirds of all fruits and nuts grown in the U.S. The state’s agricultural industry generates $50 billion each year. ... California produces nearly all of the almonds, artichokes, avocados, broccoli, carrots, celery, kiwi, figs, garlic, grapes, raisins, raspberries, strawberries, honeydew melons, nectarines, olives, pistachios, plums, tangerines, mandarins and walnuts grown in the U.S. About 80% of all almonds in the world are grown in California: The state’s almonds alone generate $6 billion annually. But nut trees are water-intensive (though notably less so than the alfalfa and pastureland grown for animal agriculture), and unlike seasonal crops, they cannot be fallowed in a dry year. Given the lack of water in 2021, some farmers have been forced to resort to tearing out valuable almond trees and instead planting less thirsty crops.” Eighty percent of California’s developed water supply is directed at agriculture.

Of course, the wildfire season, already having destroyed record acreage in California last year, will be enhanced this year. The Fourth National Climate Assessment Report concluded for the southwest region as a whole, twice as much acreage has been destroyed by wildfire in the last three decades as would have been lost were it not for human-driven climate change. The warming climate has also led to explosive growth in the bark beetle population, leading to even more loss.

The megadrought also has a huge impact on hydroelectric power generation. Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, is now at its lowest level on record.

Simply put, this is the most important reservoir in the nation. The dam’s capacity to produce electricity will be negatively impacted for a vast swath of the southwest, including Arizona and Nevada. The Bureau of Land Reclamation is likely to declare the lake’s most extreme shortage status for the first time, drastically reducing the water supply in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

Clearly, there is no magic fix for this megadrought in the short term, short of a productively wetter weather pattern late next autumn and winter bringing limited relief. Natural weather variation may offer some help. But the root underlying contributing factor of human activity has exacerbated what used to be primarily natural variation droughts and has converted them into megadroughts requires behavioral change on a large scale.

Most climate scientists agree this is the critical decade to drastically reduce reliance on fossil fuels and to develop the embryonic capacities to store carbon underground from some remaining irreplaceable industrial sources, to avoid its release into the atmosphere. Along with reducing carbon and methane emissions, efforts to advance the use and efficiency of alternative fuels and power generation technologies will be in the spotlight for years to come. Failing to do so will assure the climate “tipping points” of inevitable worst-case scenarios will be reached and passed.

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