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Climate Change Is Already Affecting the West's Water

By 2020 Glacier National Park will be "Puddles National Park" and the rest of the west won't be much better off. So where's the concern?
 
 
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It's said our primeval ancestors had a simple arithmetic system: "One, two, three, many." That describes the focus of many 2008 voters, whose concerns are the economy, energy prices, Iraq, and "those other problems." As we get closer to the presidential election, most Americans aren't worried about global warming. Maybe they will be when they turn the tap and no water comes out.

In early August we toured Glacier National Park with the Sierra Club, catching a glimpse of several of the humongous ice fields. In 1910 there were 150 glaciers in the park; now there are 25, which are losing 9 percent of their mass per year. Sometime between 2015 and 2020 they'll disappear. Locals joke the 1.4 million acres will be renamed "Puddles National Park."

Worldwide, most glaciers are diminishing. So is the ice pack in places like the North Pole and Iceland. While ice loss is generally regarded as compelling evidence of global warming, most Americans aren't losing any sleep over it. An April Gallup Poll found that "while 61% of Americans say the effects of global warming have already begun," only 37 percent are worried about it, roughly the same percentage that were concerned when Gallup first began asking the same question, nineteen years ago.

Why isn't global climate change seen as a more important issue?

Many observers believe the typical American is too busy to be bothered by more than a couple of national problems -- it's the "one, two, three, many" phenomenon. Social scientists report that average voters don't have a lot of leisure time; they're too busy struggling to make ends meet. Most Americans are worried about the economy -- paying their mortgage and health insurance -- and gasoline prices. The little news most of us have access to either comes from talk radio -- cultural issues -- or cable TV -- Iraq and terrorism. While we're aware of the threat posed by global climate change, we're too harried to be able to consider the consequences.

Unless it slaps them in the face, the typical American can't be bothered by an abstract threat. If there's a global warming event -- a mammoth hurricane, tornado, or forest fire -- in our neighborhood, then we get concerned. From this perspective, the loss of a few thousand acres of ice in a remote corner of Montana hardly seems significant. Most of us don't see it as a danger sign.

But it is. Disappearing glaciers is a harbinger of huge problems. In the West, the most obvious is drought.

During our tour of Glacier Park, local scientists explained the systemic effects of global warming. In addition to glacier melt there is less snow, more rain, and longer growing seasons. Over the past fifty years the average Montana temperature has risen six degrees Fahrenheit. This has caused longer dry periods, which have resulted in a massive loss of timber due to an infestation by the Mountain Pine Bark Beetle. This in turn, has fed catastrophic forest fires -- like hurricanes and tornadoes, it's not that these disasters happen more frequently, but that when they do they have greater impact. Warmer water coupled with loss of foliage threatens much of Glacier's wildlife. And, Montana's stream flow is decreasing; a state that used to have an abundance of water now has areas that don't have enough: eastern Montana suffers from a prolonged drought and last year Montana filed suit against Wyoming arguing the state was taking more than its fair share of water from the Yellowstone river.

If you live in an area with lots of water, you probably don't care about the west's water problems. But out here on the left coast, drought is an ominous fact of life. As the southwest was populated -- an area stretching from Los Angeles to Albuquerque -- water had to be transported from the north, because annual rainfall wasn't sufficient to supply local needs. The water problems in Montana illustrate an ominous reality for the west: global warming is reducing our regional water supply. If you live in the Los Angles basin, most of your water comes from the Owens River in the Sierras and the Colorado River; both are diminishing.

As the name suggests, the Colorado River is fed by Colorado mountain snow melt, which has dramatically decreased in the past few years. The 1400-mile-long river is the primary water supply for seven states. By 2012, due to increased demand and diminished supply, the Colorado River will no longer be able to meet it's contractual commitments. Meanwhile, there are signs of impending disaster all along the watercourse: Lake Powell has already gone dry and experts predict that Lake Mead will be disappear by 2021.

If Montana, a state with a population of one million, is beginning to run out of water, what does this suggest lies ahead for Southern California, an area inhabited by 23 million? Citizens of the southwest may have other concerns today, but at the end of the decade their collective cry will be show me the water!

Bob Burnett is a writer and activist in Berkeley, Calif.

 
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