“The risks of a diminished Great Salt Lake aren’t merely beached sailboats and wider shores; they also include species extinction and toxic dust clouds billowing over nearby communities, the lawsuit says.”
“The precipitous drop in water levels, which has shrunk the Great Salt Lake’s footprint by half over the past few decades, stems from a two-fold problem: Climate change has helped decimate the mountain streams that feed the lake, while demand for the streams’ fresh water has ballooned for new development, agriculture and industry.”
“Toxic chemicals — including arsenic, lead and mercury — are trapped in the lakebed. As more of the lakebed becomes exposed and dries, those chemicals are carried into the air by the wind. The consequent toxic dust storms could lower life expectancies, as well as heighten cancer and infant mortality rates, said Moench, citing past instances of lakes drying up across the world.”
“Hotter surface water can slow upwelling, a phenomenon that brings nutrients from deep in the water like nitrogen and phosphorus compounds toward the surface, feeding the plankton that form the foundation of the food pyramid. Roughly half of the fish in the world are caught in upwelling zones.
Hotter water also holds onto less oxygen, which can suffocate sea life. Earlier this year, thousands of dead menhaden fish washed up on the shores of Texas, due in large part to high water temperatures. The water itself becomes more acidic as it heats up, which can disrupt coral formation. And when the temperature rises too high, coral will expel the symbiotic algae that live in their tissues, turning completely white. This is called coral bleaching. All these effects of hotter water temperatures can then make coral more vulnerable to disease.
Sargassum, a type of algae, has seen massive and growing blooms in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean in recent years, but there’s been a record quantity this summer, enough to be seen from the sky, washing up on beaches from South America to Florida. As it rots, it emits smelly, toxic hydrogen sulfide gas. Higher water temperatures are likely a factor here as well.
It’s not clear yet exactly how the alarmingly hot waters of the Caribbean will affect seafood catches, but scientists warn that extreme marine heat has proven devastating to fisheries in the past.”
“California, Arizona, and Nevada agreed to conserve at least 3 million acre-feet of water from the river over the next few years, or an average of about 1 million acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot fills one acre of land with one foot of water and is what two to three households use each year.)”
“These cuts are enormous, and they will certainly help safeguard the river and all that it sustains. Yet they’re only about half of what federal regulators had originally called for. An unusually wet winter in the West brought relief to the river’s ailing reservoirs, allowing states to get away with a much less ambitious offer.
Ultimately, however, this deal is not nearly enough to save the river, experts say. Steeper cuts are likely on the horizon.”
“”As Justice Brett Kavanaugh writes in a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in Sackett v. EPA is likely to hobble the law’s ability to protect several major waterways, including the Mississippi River and the Chesapeake Bay.
The case involves an admittedly quite difficult question of how to read a vague provision of the law. The Clean Water Act prohibits “discharge of pollutants” into “navigable waters.” But it also defines the term “navigable waters” counterintuitively, to include all “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.”
Both the courts and the federal agencies that enforce this law have struggled over the last half-century to determine which “waters” can be regulated under this uncertain statutory language — a problem exacerbated by the fact that pollutants discharged far from a major waterway can nonetheless migrate into that waterway. A toxic chemical dumped miles from the Mississippi River might find its way to that river through the network of streams, creeks, wetlands, and similar geographic features that feed into it.”
“As an amicus brief filed by professional associations representing water regulators and managers warned, this new definition will “exclude 51% (if not more) of the Nation’s wetlands” from the Act’s protections. Wetlands often act as filtration systems that slow the seepage of pollutants into major waterways, and as sponges that help control floods.
In short, this opinion will significantly curtail the federal government’s ability to protect American waters.”
“The specific dispute in Sackett involved Idaho landowners who wanted to fill in what a federal appeals court described as a “soggy residential lot” with dirt and rocks so that they could build a house on it. The lot is near a tributary that feeds into a creek, which itself feeds into Priest Lake, a sufficiently large body of water that no one really questions if it is subject to the Clean Water Act.
Although all nine justices agreed that the Clean Water Act does not apply to this particular lot, they split 5-4 on how to read the act, with Kavanaugh joining the three liberal justices in dissent. (Technically, both Kavanaugh’s opinion and Justice Elena Kagan’s separate opinion, which also disagrees with Alito, are opinions “concurring in the judgment,” because all nine justices agreed that the property owners should prevail. But both of those opinions dissent from Alito’s reading of the law.)
The Clean Water Act is not the most precisely drafted law, and its text offers few hints as to what the “waters of the United States” might be. But it does include one pretty clear indication of how the law treats wetlands. One provision of the Clean Water Act applies the law to “wetlands adjacent” to waterways covered by the act.
As Justice Kagan writes in her opinion, “in ordinary language, one thing is adjacent to another not only when it is touching, but also when it is nearby. So, for example, one house is adjacent to another even when a stretch of grass and a picket fence separate the two.”
But Alito’s opinion does not apply the act to all wetlands that are “adjacent” to nearby waterways. Under Alito’s approach, only wetlands that have a “continuous surface connection to bodies that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right, so that there is no clear demarcation between ‘waters’ and wetlands” are subject to the law’s restrictions on pollution.”
“regardless of whether the Sackett opinion can be squared with the actual language of the Clean Water Act, it is a binding opinion by the Supreme Court of the United States, and its narrow reading of that act could drastically limit the nation’s ability to fight water pollution.”
“Near the end of his opinion dissenting from Alito’s approach, Kavanaugh lays out several ways that “the Court’s rewriting of ‘adjacent’ to mean ‘adjoining’ will matter a great deal in the real world.” He warns that this decision “may leave long-regulated and long-accepted-to-be-regulable wetlands suddenly beyond the scope of the agencies’ regulatory authority.””
“The fundamental challenge facing any water regulator is that water systems are interconnected. As Kavanaugh writes, “because of the movement of water between adjacent wetlands and other waters, pollutants in wetlands often end up in adjacent rivers, lakes, and other waters.”
This explains why Congress not only extended the Clean Water Act to significant waterways, it also extended it to wetlands that are “adjacent” to those waterways. It makes no sense to prohibit pollution dumped directly into the mighty Mississippi, but to permit pollution to be dumped on nearby wetlands that feed directly into the river.
Nevertheless, five justices ruled that Congress’s decision to apply the law to adjacent waterways does not matter.”
“More than 100 years ago, the US government encouraged Americans to populate rural areas like this, build infrastructure, and farm more land, according to Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. That’s when engineers started building canals to take water from the Colorado River. At the time, the US policy was “to try to get every acre of land under the plow,” Porter said.
These canals turned the desert into a produce powerhouse. When farmland in Iowa or Nebraska is frozen and blanketed in a thick layer of snow, it’s 70 degrees and sunny in the Imperial Valley and Yuma. As soon as there was enough water in the mix, the conditions were ideal for growing crops year-round.
oday, the Imperial Valley, Coachella Valley, and Yuma together use close to 4 million acre-feet of water per year. That’s an enormous amount, equal to roughly a third of the entire flow of the river. (An acre-foot fills one acre of land with one foot of water and is roughly what two average houses use each year.)”
“In determining the share each basin would get, water officials ignored inconvenient science and massively overestimated the river’s average flow. Western water users each got a piece of the river, but — together with water later allocated to Mexico through a treaty — those pieces turned out to be more than what it can offer in a typical year. (The 1922 decision also failed to spell out what shares would be given to the 30 or so tribal nations in the basin.)”
“water officials didn’t factor in the possibility of a changing climate. Decades of recent warming have been drying out the West, causing less water to flow into the river.”
“Conserving water obviously sounds like a great idea. The problem is that farmers in these regions are already highly efficient. Water-saving technologies are also pricey, and farmers I spoke to are concerned that any future payments won’t be enough to cover them.”
“I’ve spent the last few weeks searching for a good solution to the crisis, an end to this story. No source I found could offer one. Any effort to restore the river will mean some people (or animals) get less water, barring several more winters like this one. And there’s no way around that, no secret technology to grow food without water. “It’s just such a complicated, ugly problem,” Schwabe said.
It’s an unsatisfying conclusion. Then again, maybe that’s what climate change creates: ugly problems where everybody loses. The best thing we can do, perhaps, is to sober up to this reality — that climate change will reshape economies and human lives — and use that knowledge to prepare.
Scientists have known for decades that the Colorado River is over-allocated and that warming is drying out the basin. Yet water regulators have failed to act in a meaningful way to rebuild Lake Powell and Lake Mead, Schwabe said. They should have started overhauling the Law of the River years ago, he said, instead of always being in “crisis mode.”
“The longer you wait to act, the more drastic your action has to be,” Schwabe said. “If we had started making these cutbacks in the ’80s and ’90s, in incremental steps, we probably wouldn’t be talking about this today. The situation is dire because we failed to act previously.””
“The Colorado River, which supplies drinking water to seven states in the US and two in Mexico, is the lifeblood of the American West and beyond. It’s drying up at an alarming rate, threatening cities, industries, agriculture, and energy sources. As it shrinks, rich ecosystems across its 1,450 miles are also disappearing.”