Executive Summary for October 14th

In this weekly roundup on water and drought, we analyze key developments in the West including a new study of how climate change increases wildfires. We also look at the critical state of the Great Salt Lake and a new collaborative in California.

Published on Oct. 14, 2016 Read time Approx. 2 minutes

Wildfires and Climate Change

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences further confirms the effect of climate change on increasing wildfires in the Western U.S. in recent decades.

There has been an increase in the number of acres burned in wildfires in the West since the early 1980s and the fire season has been getting longer.

The study found that while there are multiple factors at play in increasing wildfire activity, “observed warming and drying have significantly increased fire-season fuel aridity, fostering a more favorable fire environment across forested systems.” The study added that warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase the potential for wildfires.

The results follow other findings. Earlier this year we reported on the effects of climate change on forests. “The conclusion of our work is very direct: warming temperatures are drying out western forests and warmer and earlier springs are lengthening the fire season. The consequence of these factors is that there are more opportunities for large, severe fires,” Anthony LeRoy Westerling, associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of California, Merced, told Water Deeply. “As a result, fire activity is increasing.”

Grim Forecast for Great Salt Lake

While many eyes have been following the declining water levels at Lake Mead on the Colorado River, another icon of the West is also threatened: Great Salt Lake, as ABC News reported this week.

“The Great Salt Lake has reached historic low levels and scientists believe it will only continue to shrink all the way up to the end of the century,” ABC reported. Falling lake levels mean an increase in salinity that will affect brine shrimp – the backbone of the lake’s ecosystem – and threaten wildlife in the area, including its diverse bird populations.

The lake faces threats from increased water use from communities and agriculture in the region, declining run-off and impacts from climate change.

New Water Coalition

With California’s sixth year of drought just beginning, the newly formed California Water Action Committee – a coalition of “diverse stakeholders” – announced its intention to work toward water security across sectors.

The group comprises big businesses (some with large water footprints) such as Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch, as well as environmental groups including the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Sustainable Conservation.

The group has announced four projects with which it is involved at present. The first focuses on researching headwaters ecology with the purchase of a 10,000-acre (4,000-hectare) property in the Sierra Nevada. Its goal is “restoring forest health and resilience, reducing risk of destructive wildfires and researching the link between ecologically based forest thinning and water supply,” according to a description on the website.

The second project focuses on how businesses can help contribute to the aims of Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Water Action Plan. The third works on groundwater recharge in the San Joaquin Valley and the fourth tackles forest restoration in the San Gabriel Watershed, with the goal of improving water resources for the Los Angeles area.

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