False Washington Submit, local weather change isn’t the reason for “Arizona’s water issues” • Do you agree?
Originally published by Climate Realism
On June 4, 2023, The Washington Post (WaPo) published a story entitled “Arizona’s water problems show how climate change is transforming the West.” The claim that climate change is causing water problems in the western United States is false. It ignores the historical context of decades of water problems, the impact of population growth and trends, and the current state of drought in the region.
In the article, the WaPo makes the following claims:
Arizona’s decision last week to limit housing construction in some parts of Phoenix’s fast-growing suburbs is another important warning about how climate change is affecting lifestyles and economies in the West. Across the region, glaciers have receded, wildfires have increased, and rivers and lakes have shrunk. It’s been a wet winter, but the deeper trends brought about by the warmer atmosphere remain.
One of the country’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas is booming as water-intensive microchip companies and data centers move in; Tens of thousands of houses stretch deep in the desert. But it is also a time of crisis: climate change is drying up the American West and putting fundamental resources at increasing risk.
Drought has been a frequent occurrence in Arizona throughout history, and it lies in one of the driest parts of North America. There is still almost no drought there. Apparently, the WaPo was not able to check the latest data on the drought in the region. According to the US Drought Monitor, most parts of Arizona are currently experiencing no drought at all, as shown in the screenshot below:
The WaPo also downplays the single largest cause of Arizona’s water scarcity—population growth. First, population growth is leading to warmer temperatures (due to the Urban Heat Island effect) that are often wrongly attributed to climate change. For example, Figure 1 compares Phoenix’s July average temperature to Phoenix’s population growth over the same period. Note that the purple marker from 1960 indicates when growth really exploded in Phoenix, at the same time that temperatures really started to rise at that time.
Even more important than the impact of Phoenix’s growing population on temperatures is its direct impact on water use. More and more people are demanding more water for all purposes. Phoenix and Arizona together lie in one of the most naturally arid regions on the North American continent. Water was scarce even before Phoenix became one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States. In addition to groundwater extraction, Phoenix makes extensive use of water from the Colorado River via Lake Mead Reservoir. Just last year, there was this headline: Phoenix agrees to leave additional water in Lake Mead to slow reservoir decline. In “Climate at a Glance: Water Levels – Lake Mead” the root cause of water supply problems is revealed:
[D]Over the past century, much of the continental United States has experienced more plentiful rainfall due to the planet’s warming. In addition, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed that there have been increases in precipitation in mid-latitude regions of the world, including the United States, since 1951, with no recorded global precipitation decrease. It’s also important to note that Lake Mead reservoir supplies water to Arizona, California, and Nevada.
Each of these states has experienced significant population growth and increased water needs since the reservoir was filled in 1935, an important factor when considering Lake Mead’s water level.
As shown in Figure 2, water withdrawals have even regularly exceeded the available supply over the past 30 years due to population growth.
Figure 2: Water availability and use in the Colorado River basin Over the past century, water consumption in the basin has steadily increased, with annual consumption exceeding total river flows in 75% of the years from 2000 to 2015. This overconsumption has caused the river to dry up at its mouth in Mexico and the major storage reservoirs in the drainage basin, including Lake Mead, are becoming increasingly depleted, posing a serious risk of water shortages. All variables are presented as three-year running averages. Data source: US Bureau of Reclamation via ResearchGate.
Population growth in an arid region, not climate change, is at the root of Arizona’s current water problems. The WaPo completely overlooks this fact and instead exploits Arizona’s water problems to push the climate crisis narrative, in which everything bad in the world is blamed on climate change, even when the facts say otherwise. This lack of investigative journalistic honesty has become commonplace at WaPo, where apparently “science dies in the dark.”
Anthony Watts is a Senior Fellow in Environment and Climate at the Heartland Institute. Watts has been in the weather business both on and off camera as an on-air meteorologist since 1978 and currently makes daily radio forecasts. He has developed weather graphic presentation systems for television and dedicated weather instruments, and is a co-author of peer-reviewed articles on climate issues. He runs the most viewed climate website in the world, the award-winning website wattsupwiththat.com.