“Peak Water,” Are We There Yet?

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Eric Ellman

A new era for water managers began on the Colorado River last month.  Prompted by 14 years of drought and new rules to deal with it, the Bureau of Reclamation is cutting the annual release at Glen Canyon Dam by nearly 10%.   While downstream consumers won’t suffer immediate impact it’s another sign that we’re approaching “peak water”, a situation that the Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick likened to “peak oil,” at a Yale Climate and Energy Institute (YCEI) annual conference last year, which represents a theoretical point where recovery costs outweigh benefits.

The Bureau’s announcement came the same week that the IPCC released their 5th Assessment Report on climate change.  Public reaction to the report has focused on the issue of climate sensitivity and how much confidence to accord how much warming.  With 800 of the world’s top atmospheric scientists 95% confident that global warming is overwhelmingly anthropogenic, its clear that the debate on whether or not to move forward with precautionary measures has grown stale.  Forthcoming chapters of the report will focus on mitigation and adaptation strategies such as those the Bureau of Reclamation is now compelled to take on behalf of the combined water and power needs of the 31,000,000 people who depend on the flow from Lake Powell.  It’s another reminder that the most severe and immediate societal impacts of global warming are likely to be the result of changing hydrological conditions.

Elsewhere those impacts are even more profound.  At the same “Looming Crisis” water conference where Gleick spoke, Jay Gulledge of Oak Ridge National Laboratory described climate change as a “threat multiplier” whose secondary effects exacerbate social instability. That theme was recently reiterated when Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy reminded another YCEI audience of the roots of Middle East unrest: drought, failed crops and resulting dislocation.  

The latest IPCC report reiterates that the world is warming.  And while unraveling the mechanisms behind it continues to be important, it’s critical that the discussion shift to policies and practices that mitigate and adapt to a dynamic and threatening new reality.