When UNLV research professor and climate resilience specialist Kristen Averyt recalls the summer family vacations of her youth spent water skiing on Lake Mead, you can almost feel the spray cooling the desert breeze.
Much has changed since those not-so-distant days. When family members returned to the lake last year, the water line had receded so far that they couldn’t launch their boat.
The vast reservoir created with the completion of Hoover Dam became a symbol of the modern West; a tamed Colorado River bestowing abundant water and endless potential.
Now, devastated by the worst drought in 12 centuries, Lake Mead’s “bathtub ring” marks a previously robust water line, and has come to illustrate a West imperiled by climate change.
In June 2021, Lake Mead registered its lowest water level since the reservoir’s inception in the 1930s, and in August the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued a water shortage declaration for the river. The designation triggers cuts to annual water allocations in the system beginning in 2022. That translates into an approximately 7 billion gallon cut from Southern Nevada’s annual 300,000-acre feet.
By March of this year, water levels had declined more than 164 feet and were expected to drop another 30-plus feet by 2024. Power generation for Hoover Dam, which provides electricity for 20 million people, is in peril.
Severely stressed by thinning snow packs in the Rocky Mountains and decreased runoff in the Colorado River Basin, coupled with dramatic increases in use, the crisis on the Colorado is reflected in staggering declines in Mead and Lake Powell. In total, the river storage system, which provides water to more than 40 million people, is at a third of capacity.
The 20-year “megadrought,” as it’s being called, shows little sign of abating as average temperatures continue to rise, dramatic weather events are more frequent. In Nevada, already the driest state, the effects are extreme with 100 percent of the state under severe conditions and more than 43 percent under an extreme or exceptional designation, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. So far in 2022, the state is on course to suffer its driest 12 months in the past 128 years.
A visceral threat
Into that formidable breach walk Averyt and UNLV colleagues who bring personal passion and professional talents in climate science and environmental law to an existential challenge. They’re combining scientific research with innovative legal policy to address front-line issues at a critical moment.
For her part, Averyt serves as Nevada’s first senior climate adviser after a November appointment by Gov. Steve Sisolak. She’s a lead coordinator of the state’s climate policies, which continue to expand at agencies such as the Office of Energy, Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the Nevada Department of Transportation.
Sisolak pointed to Averyt’s academic and professional credentials. The former president of Nevada’s Desert Research Institute, Averyt was among the scientists to share in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She also co-authored the 2014 U.S. National Climate Science Assessment.
“On a personal level, I grew up going out to Lake Mead as a kid from Southern California, going out to learn to water ski and wake board,” Averyt said. “For me, in the last two years climate change has been just profoundly visceral. Like it has I think for a lot of people.
“It’s one thing to study something, to look at a time line that’s going downward and recognize that’s the flow level of the Colorado River, but when you actually see it coming to fruition, it hits your gut. I think what we’re seeing right now, with respect to the drought, and truly if you just go down and take a look at Lake Mead, it really is a manifestation of climate change.”
The declining lake is such a stark example that it’s easy to forget it was only a few years ago that the issue of climate change was as political as it was scientific, with a large percentage of the population denying it was substantially caused by humankind.
As an undergraduate, Averyt read former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 book An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It at a time many people considered it overblown, if not outright fiction. As it turns out, Gore’s practical climate science lesson and warning might have been understated.
Averyt offers a basic way of understanding climate change by looking at extreme changes in the weather.
“A fundamental way that climate change impacts extreme weather is that, as you heat up the atmosphere, it can hold more water,” she said. “So, it means that your dries get drier, and your wets get wetter. This is really not just about periodic drought. This is aridification, and there’s a difference. Aridification is permanent. Drought is going to be the normal.”
Pairing science and policy
So how do you fight it effectively?
In part, by weaving solid science into smart policy. Although Averyt is a research professor, the intersection of science and policy has long intrigued her.
One place the two are pairing up effectively is the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s 2021 Water Resource Plan to reduce individual daily consumption from its current 110 gallons per day to 86 gallons by 2035.
“They have laid out specific policies that they believe we need to move forward with in order to achieve that conservation goal,” she said. “It’s going to require societal change.”
The law as a climate bulwark
Averyt’s climate policy colleagues at UNLV approach the issue from the legal side. It’s a group that includes William S. Boyd School of Law Senior Fellow for Climate Adaptation and Environmental Policy Patricia Mulroy, who spent nearly a quarter century guiding the Southern Nevada Water Authority into a new era of drought-conscious conservation.
It also features law professor Bret Birdsong, who has gained a national reputation as an expert in public lands and natural resources and water law. It’s a life’s passion that he came to by accident.
While attending law school in San Francisco, he took a chance on a water law course. He quickly learned that there’s the outdoors, and then there’s the West.
“I’d always been interested in conservation and outdoors stuff, but I never thought I would make a career of it,” he said. “In the West, the outdoors is everywhere. You can’t go anywhere without a big, sweeping vista, a huge sky, and mountains. Even here in the desert, we look up and see snowcapped mountains most years. It’s a different sort of thing. It spoke to me a lot personally. It inspired me.”
He gained experience working on public lands issues for the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, which litigates on behalf of myriad bureaus under the Department of the Interior’s vast umbrella.
The climate change-driven megadrought exacerbates stresses on a water system used by the seven states that are signatories to the Colorado River Compact. The 1922 agreement allotted 15 million acre-feet of water annually, half of which flowing to the lower basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada. With its diminutive population, Southern Nevada received just 300,000 acre-feet of the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted.
“In the Colorado River Basin, we’re facing a long-term structural deficit, which is to say that the demand for water will continue to far outstrip the supply of water into the future,” Birdsong said.
“But water rights are based on what was there in the past. As long as water was there and could be put to beneficial use, the western water rights system is: you have a protectable entitlement to that.”
The trouble is, those lofty hydrological estimates of 15 million acre-feet were not only overstated, but he said, “completely off in terms of what we can expect with the climate change scenario.”
With basic water law set in stubborn stone and the water line dropping, Birdsong says the river system’s stakeholders have become increasingly creative in carving out what he calls “side deals” within a legal framework.
“They realize they’re going to have to deal with a structural deficit,” Birdsong said. “To everyone’s credit, over the last 20 years, there has been really a flurry of these side agreements to try to figure out how we’re going to deal with this. Some of them are pretty innovative.”
From lining agricultural ditches in California — which prevents water seeping out of canals and going to waste — to investing in coastal desalination plants to trading for water from the river, with the stakes this high, any idea is on the table.
Showing the Southwest the way
California, not traditionally accustomed to practicing water conservation, is attempting to implement programs with mixed success. As a March editorial in the Los Angeles Times jabbed, “It’s a little late to start gearing up the water-saving tips. And while better messaging is clearly needed, it’s not enough.”
By late March, California Gov. Gavin Newsom had issued an executive order calling for increased water conservation and vowed to spend an additional $22.5 million in response to the drought emergency.
Perhaps that’s what makes Southern Nevada’s own water conservation story so remarkable. Thanks to a lot of planning by the Southern Nevada Water Authority and cooperation from the community, that paltry 300,000 acre-feet is still being used, treated, and returned into the system. With return-flow credits, the water goes a long way.
“Nevada was an afterthought (in the Compact), and yet here we are in 2022, and we’re still not using the full allotment of water from the Colorado River,” Birdsong said. “(Arizona at 2.8 million and California at 4.4 million) have much, much bigger allotments. It’s pretty remarkable that here we are with 2.2 million people and we’re still not quite using our full allotment. The reason for that is the creativity to squeeze as much out of that system as possible.”
Preserving a fragile ecosystem
In the field, UNLV desert ecologist professor emeritus Stanley Smith has studied the long-term impact of global change on desert ecosystems for decades and for almost that long has been correcting the public’s misperception of drought.
“One of my pet peeves over the years is that people misuse the word ‘drought,’” Smith said. “It’s a climatic anomaly. It’s not a predictable dry season. It really would irk me when people say ‘drought’s effects on plants’ every dry season. Well, that’s not drought.”
The former vice president for research and dean of the College of Sciences, Smith continues to study the impact of drought on desert riparian zones, those precious oases and water sources so vital to life in the land of little rain.
“Riparian zones only take up probably 5 percent of the landscape, but they support more than half the species,” Smith said. “This is the situation where if we start losing our ephemeral water courses, if they just dry up, that’s really going to affect the biodiversity in addition to riparian plants just dying. That would have a bigger impact I think on the public than would the open desert being a little drier.”
Using the levers of government
For Frank Fritz, a senior fellow and adjunct professor at in the Boyd School of Law, the road to fighting climate change began as a teenager growing up near Long Island’s Great South Bay. When human-caused water pollution contaminated its famous clam shoals, he was inspired by the effort to do something about it.
With experience honed by 25 years as an attorney in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Fritz is the founder of Boyd’s Climate and Sustainability Law Project. He leads a small group of students who focus on developing legal methods that municipalities can use to fight climate change. Fritz also is a member of the national pro bono law project, Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization.
In one recent Climate Law Practicum course, Fritz engaged students to write a model ordinance for municipalities that would reduce energy use in buildings.
In doing so, it would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in buildings, which produce approximately 20 percent of climate-warming gasses. By benchmarking energy use statistically, it is possible to gradually increase efficiency. End result: A reduction in energy use with the help of solid statistics and applicable laws.
With data collected and collated on an EPA website, municipalities would receive that information to set performance standards for buildings. Improving energy efficiency standards would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also believes such laws could also have a practical application for water use in a time of extreme stress on the system.
What may initially seem like a small change is part of a much larger effort to combat climate change with practical methods, regulations, and laws. There are no silver-bullet solutions in a megadrought. But, Fritz says, there are thousands of people working to combat the existential challenge.
The issue is complex, the course of corrective action daunting, but Fritz reduces it to a few simple questions.
“The focus of my work is not on how big the problem is, but what can we do about it?” he asks. “What can we do right now to concretely make a difference and improve our odds? And it turns out there’s so many things that can be done. So, I’m going to keep trying and trying and trying no matter what anyone says. It’s worth trying.”
By their efforts, Fritz, Birdsong, Averyt and their colleagues provide a reminder that UNLV has an important role to play in the biggest climate crisis in recorded history.
Climate change-driven megadrought is no longer a distant threat or the stuff of futuristic fiction, but a new normal requiring a real-time response.
“Ten or 15 years ago, climate change was about polar bears and penguins,” Averyt said. “But today, it’s really come home, and we can see it right here on our front doorstep.”
John L. Smith is a longtime Nevada journalist and author. A member of the Nevada Press Association Hall of Fame, his latest book is Saints, Sinners, and Sovereign Citizens: The Endless War over the West’s Public Land.