About 100 years ago, on Thursday, Jan. 26, 1922, at 10 a.m., eight members of the Colorado River Commission gathered for the first time at the offices of the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Over the next 11 months, they negotiated the details of the Colorado River Compact signed on Nov. 24, 1922. (Herbert) Hoover, then secretary of commerce, stated: “It is hoped that such an agreement … will prevent endless litigation which will inevitably arise in the conflict of states’ rights.”
We now know the river compact was guaranteed to fail because the politicians refused to listen to their own experts, who were already warning that the water supply numbers assumed by the compact were incorrect. This tradition of ignoring the science continues to this day.
The entire system functioned fairly well for 80 years until the latest river drought began. The period 2000-2021 is the driest 22-year period on record. The current drought is comparable to the three or four worst droughts that have occurred in the past millennium based on tree-ring studies.
What is different this time is that carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere are higher than experienced in the last million years. We are in unknown territory.
After the Colorado River Compact failed, interim guidelines for managing the river were put into place in 2007. When these failed, the drought contingency plan was adopted in May of 2019. The goal was to reduce the risk of Lake Mead and Lake Powell reaching critically low elevations. When the drought contingency plan failed, a “500 plus” plan was put in place based on a memorandum of understanding in December 2021.
This latest plan is designed to avoid and protect against the elevation of Lake Mead declining to levels below 1,020 feet as contemplated in the Lower Basin drought contingency plan. This plan will most likely fail in the next few months. The reason all these plans are failing is the inability to recognize the severity of the problem as repeatedly pointed out by climate scientists for over two decades.
Amid this crisis, our water usage in Boulder City has gone up in the past two years from 10,000 acre-feet in fiscal year 2020 to 10,920-acre feet in fiscal year 2021, an increase of about 300 million gallons in one year.
The argument for ignoring the science is that climate change action will hurt the economy. COVID has reminded us that dismissing the risk of rare and extreme events can hurt the economy more. Inaction on climate change is already hurting our economy nationally and locally.
There are many consequences of climate change directly impacting our economy and lives in Boulder City. Here are a few examples.
In June of 2019, a contract was signed between Boulder City and the Colorado River Commission for the sale of electricity from the Salt Lake City Area Integrated Projects. When I spoke to the then-director of utilities and folks at the Colorado River Commission, they all (privately) warned that we would have to keep paying even if the electricity was not delivered.
I spoke at a council meeting and suggested the contract be taken off the consent agenda and be placed on the regular agenda for further discussion. This request was ignored. Current models now rate this risk at one in four in the next four years but that is based on very optimistic analyses of recent river flows.
Low reservoir elevations will hit our local economy in a variety of ways connected to visits to the lake.
We are now frivolously spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorneys for an unknown period because the utility contracts were not examined carefully.
City leaders have failed to recognize the severity of the drought. Water managers keep applying one Band-Aid after another with little success. The time for Band-Aids is over.
We in Boulder City need to implement long-term cuts to our water usage. Blaming others is not productive as well as a poor excuse for doing nothing ourselves. To my knowledge, only one council member has recognized our predicament and tried to move things forward. I commend her for this, but we need everybody on board.
When dealing with uncertainty we should look at all possible outcomes and insure ourselves against the worst ones. A group of us are working on this outside City Hall. I invite people to look at the Boulder City Climate Action Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/groups/2024630844351785, and join us for monthly Zoom meetings with experts. Everyone is welcome including council members and city staff.
We must start to work together to find solutions before it is too late.
The opinions expressed above belong solely to the author and do not represent the views of the Boulder City Review. They have been edited solely for grammar, spelling and style, and have not been checked for accuracy of the viewpoints.
George Rhee is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UNLV. For the past few years he has focused his research and teaching on climate change, the changing water resource in the Colorado River Basin, and the renewable energy transition.