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Executive Summary for December 1st

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including creeping drought across western states, a shrinking Great Salt Lake and a new tool for tracking Salton Sea changes.

Published on Dec. 1, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Creeping Drought Across the West

California begins its rainy season with only 15 percent of the state in moderate drought. But across other western states such as Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, drought areas are increasing.

Arizona’s KJZZ reported that the state has been experiencing high temperatures that are making dry conditions worse. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 42 percent of the state is experiencing moderate drought and nearly half the state is abnormally dry.

“The drought extends up into Utah, and maybe the western portions of Colorado and New Mexico, and even into Southern California, as well,” Jessica Nolte, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Phoenix, told KJZZ.

Warm, dry weather is also causing drought to expand across the western edge of New Mexico. The Associated Press reported that this November is likely to be the warmest on record for the state: “Many parts of New Mexico are seeing unseasonably warm temperatures that are helping to dry out soils and exacerbate the problem.”

In other western states, 81 percent of Utah is abnormally dry or experiencing moderate drought and in Montana about 75 percent is abnormally dry or has moderate drought, while 12 percent of the state is experiencing extreme drought.

A Shrinking Great Salt Lake

Utah’s iconic Great Salt Lake has shrunk by 50 percent since 1847, but the greatest impacts have come in just the past few decades, explains a story in the New York Times.

A study published in Nature Geoscience found that the lake’s declining levels were mostly caused by human consumption. A growing population has spurred increased development, resulting in more diversions from the watershed. And water used to grow crops such as alfalfa, grain and corn has also taken a toll, the story says. If business continues as usual, an estimated 30 square miles of dry lakebed will be exposed in the next 30–50 years.

Things could worse if the state goes ahead with the Bear River Development Project – a scheme to build seven new dams on the Bear River, the largest tributary feeding into the lake. The project could divert up to 220,000 acre-feet of water from the Bear River each year.

Keeping Track of the Salton Sea

As California works to implement a plan to mitigate the impacts from a shrinking Salton Sea, the Pacific Institute has launched a new webpage to track key details related to the lake and how it’s changing.

The site provides information on the current elevation of the lake. You can also see the area and volume of the lake and track how it has changed since a 2003 water transfer deal impacted water flows into the lake.

So far, since 2003, lake levels have fallen by more than 7ft and have shrunk the lake’s footprint by 32 square miles. A chart also tracks the annual changes in salinity, which is steadily increasing as water levels into the lake fall.

In addition, the site tracks mitigation work in which the state and its partners are engaged, including 1,000 acres of dust-control projects. But so far the tally for acreage dedicated to habitat restoration projects is zero. That should change soon.

According to the guidelines of a new Salton Sea Management Plan, California will need to create 30,000 acres of ponds, wetlands and dust-suppression projects in the next 10 years to counter some of the worst impacts as the shrinking lake is expected to expose more than 48,000 acres of dry lakebed.

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