Archive for the ‘Water Policy’ Category

NFIP revamp moving through the grinder

May 13th, 2008

Posted by: admin

The literature on the myriad problems with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is long and deep. One of the main problems is that the program is not insulated from politics and thus is prevented from acting like a real market by setting actuarially-sound rates on its customers. Other problems exist but the premium-setting problem is the most significant and no matter how Congress tinkers with the NFIP, if it doesn’t address the premium issue then the NFIP will continue to be a taxpayer money-sucking problem child.

A NFIP reauthorization has been moving through Congress and yesterday the Senate passed its version. Predictably they moved the current $18+ billion NFIP deficit to general revenues (i.e. the U.S. taxpayer), a move that has a long history in Congress. But some good was included in the bill and the House’s version does not have the $18+ billion shift. The Senate was able to pass an annual premium increase cap from 10% to 15%, which is more significant than it probably sounds. They also authorized $2B for updated floodplain mapping, which is also much more significant than it probably sounds, as currently premiums are not always based on physical reality. (We’ll see how much actually gets appropriated out of that $2B.)

(And hey all, sorry for the non-controversial post.)

Seasonal Forecasts and the Colorado Winter

February 14th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.


The figure above shows the snowpack in the state of Colorado for the past few years. The current level is higher than its been for a while. This is great news for just about everyone in Colorado — except seasonal climate forecasters, who had predicted a dry, warm winter, and were sticking to that forecast as recently as a month ago.

In today’s Denver Post our excellent local science reporter Katy Human takes a look at the forecasts and why forecasters have given in to the reality of massive snowfall totals here in Colorado:

Dry-winter forecasts were flat wrong this year for much of Colorado and the Southwest, and weather experts say they’re struggling to understand why the snow just keeps falling.

Some forecasters blame climate change, and others point to the simple vicissitudes of weather. Regardless, almost everyone called for a dry-to-normal winter in Colorado and the Southwest — but today, the state’s mountains are piled so thick with snow that state reservoirs could fill and floods could be widespread this spring.

“The polar jet stream has been on steroids. We don’t understand this. It’s pushing our limits, and it’s humbling,” said Klaus Wolter, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Wolter and NOAA both forecast a drier-than-average winter in most of Colorado. AccuWeather Inc. did the same, citing similar reasons: A La Niña weather system of cool, equatorial Pacific water had set up in the tropics last fall.

I have a lot of respect for Klaus, who is brave enough to put out forecasts in the public on time scales that will allow verification, and hence newspaper articles on his performance. Forecasting is not for the thin-skinned. But forecasts have other effects as well:

La Niña winters have almost always brought droughtlike conditions to the Southwest, as the jet stream ferries storms farther north.

But Arizona has been hit with record snowfall this winter, said Mark Hubble, a senior hydrologist with the Salt River Project in Arizona, the largest provider of water and power in Phoenix.

Dry forecasts last fall convinced Salt River Project managers to purchase about 20,000 acre-feet of water from the Central Arizona Project as a backup, Hubble said. An acre- foot of water is about enough for a family of four for one year.

“As it turns out, we didn’t need it — at all,” Hubble said. He could not estimate the financial losses to Salt River, because some payments are made in-kind, with water trades and offsets in the future.

So why did the forecasts bust this year? No one really knows.

Wolter said he’s troubled that his and other long-range forecasts have been off two years in a row now.

Last year, experts predicted a wet year from Southern California across to Arizona and southern Colorado, because of an El Niño weather system of warmer Pacific water.

Instead, drought worsened in the Southwest, capped by a huge fire season in Southern California.

“So we have two years in a row here where the atmosphere does not behave as we expect,” Wolter said. “Maybe global changes are pulling the rug out from underneath us. We may not know the answer for 10 years, . . . but one pet answer is that you should get more variability with global change.”

So I suppose we should add busted seasonal forecasts to our growing lists of things consistent with predictions of climate change. Making long term, unverifiable forecasts is sure a lot safer territory than predicting seasonal snowpack!

For further reading:

Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2000: Policy Responses to the 1997/1998 El Niño: Implications for Forecast Value and the Future of Climate Services. Chapter 7 in S. Changnon (ed.), The 1997/1998 El Niño in the United States. Oxford University Press: New York. 172-196. (PDF)

Water in the west

October 22nd, 2007

Posted by: admin

In case you missed it, the NY Times Sunday Magazine cover story yesterday was the western water problem. Brad Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment, which is closely affiliated with our Center, got a lot of ink, as did other CU and NOAA affiliates.

One thing (among many) hinted at in the article that deserves highlight: Western agriculture is done. Not tomorrow, not even in the next decade or two, but eventually. Without a check on urban expansion and with every drop of water spoken for, the economics are obvious: people in urban areas need water and have the cash to buy it from the agricultural senior rights holders.

Over on the Post-Normal Times, Sylvia adds the variable to the west’s water equation that the Sunday Mag article left out: the ecosystems and endangered species angle (here and here).

What to think about (western) water?

April 6th, 2007

Posted by: admin

Wednesday’s NYT had a long article about western water by Randal Archibold and Kirk Johnson. The issue is nothing to new to us out here, but holds important lessons for the rest of the country as well.

First read the article. Then realize the most important lesson not discussed in the article: this is not just a western issue. I and colleagues at Eastern Kentucky University and Columbia University are conducting research which I’ll describe here over the next few months on New York City and drought (part of our project is developing the paleoclimatology of Hudson River precip, the other is the policy implications). NYC has declared drought emergency after emergency over the past twenty years in what has been a relatively wet two decades compared to the previous five centuries. This has happened not amid increasing use, but decreasing use. New York City isn’t the only example of a perhumid region experiencing drought or water availability crises, as areas of the southeast and Pacific Northwest battle over water.

Second, perhaps inadvertently the article perfectly illustrates the shortsighted response to water supply issues under future climate. Many communities over the past decades have put strong focus on consumption reductions (see that NYC water page again, which shows a steady decline in total consumption and per capita consumption). But when water supply issues come out and politicians start getting asked about the response, one keyword is thrown like a ninja star at the reporter: concrete. More steel, more infrastructure, more technology. In other words, more serial engineering.

If you’ve flown into Los Angeles or Las Vegas with a window seat you know the real problem. Every backyard in LA has a large turquoise rectangle and the number of golf courses in Las Vegas seems to equal the number of slot machines. But these are just small manifestations of the real problem: mentality. It would be hard to dispute the west’s unlimited consumption mentality, starting from the grass roots of lawn watering at single family homes and spreading all the way up to the top:


Montana and water and the strange case of science and politics

March 12th, 2007

Posted by: admin

You probably don’t know who Eloise Kendy is, but you should. She’s a hydro consultant up in Helena, Montana, now with the Nature Conservancy, who writes nifty little papers exploring the collision of hydrologic realities with political and policy dream worlds (if you can get it, see pages 14-20 of Issue #19 of The Water Report). I covered one of her papers last summer in this post.

For a while Eloise has been writing about how the state of Montana doesn’t think that groundwater and surface water are connected. Well, everybody knows that the two are usually so connected that they are inseparable, but the state of water policy in Montana deems them connected only if a groundwater withdrawal directly removes water from a stream. Your withdrawal creates a cone of depression that allows for less recharge of groundwater into surface water, but as long as the cone of depression doesn’t intersect with the stream and thus directly draw from the stream you aren’t considered to be depleting the surface water. (If you want the science on this, try here, especially this circular.)

This legal alternate reality arose when the state legislature defined groundwater in 1993 as water that “is not immediately or directly connected to surface water.” Immediate or directly connected is not a hydrologic term, which left it open to interpretation by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). According to Kendy et al. in the Water Report paper I linked above:


Frames Trump the Facts

June 29th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The July/August, 2004 issue of Sierra Magazine has an interesting interview with Berkeley’s George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics, on the “framing” of environmental issues.  (A side note, Lakoff seems to be a hot commodity as he also appears in the July/August issue of The Atlantic Monthly in an excellent article by James Fallows on the upcoming presidential debates.)

After being asked to define “framing,” Sierra asks Lakoff “How about “protecting the environment”? Is there a frame embedded there too?”  Lakoff’s reply includes the following:

“Environmentalists have adopted a set of frames that doesn’t reflect the vital importance of the environment to everything on Earth. The term “the environment” suggests that this is an area of life separate from other areas of life like the economy and jobs, or health, or foreign policy. By not linking it to everyday issues, it sounds like a separate category, and a luxury in difficult times.”

Then Sierra asks “What’s the alternative?”  Lakoff replies:


Colorado River and Drought

May 3rd, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

An interesting article (registration required) in the 2 May 2004 New York Times on drought in the Colorado River Basin. A tell-it-like-it-is quote from the University of Utah’s Daniel C. McCool:

“The law of the river is hopelessly, irretrievably obsolete, designed on a hydrological fallacy, around an agrarian West that no longer exists. After six years of drought, somebody will have to say the emperor has no clothes.”

But if the following statement from the New York Times is true …

“Continuing research into drought cycles over the last 800 years bears this out, strongly suggesting that the relatively wet weather across much of the West during the 20th century was a fluke.”

… then the period we are currently in is not so much “drought” as “normal”. In other words, get used to it.

You can find a graph of snowpack in the Colorado part of the Colorado River basin here. (It shows a slightly more favorable snowpack than reported in the Times, but not by much.)

And, “about getting used to it” my colleagues Doug Kenney, Bobbie Klein, and Martyn Clark have a very interesting paper (in PDF) on the effectiveness of mandatory and voluntary lawn watering restrictions implemented in 2002 in the Front
Range communities of Colorado.

For more information on water in the west see our project, Western Water Assessment.


Kenney, D.,R. Klein, and M. Clark, Use and Effectiveness of Municipal Water Restrictions During Drought in Colorado. Journal of the American Water Resources Association, February 2004, 77-87.