Climate change will spare no one in the West if action is not taken

The flow of a Western river slows dramatically due to drought, causing a Nevada reservoir on the waterway to shrink to a dangerously low level.

The Colorado and Lake Mead? Well, yes, but also the Carson River and Lake Lahontan in Northern Nevada.

As reported Sunday by the Reno Gazette-Journal, the Carson is running so low this year that Lahontan now resembles “a bed of dry, cracked mud and sand with a dry boat ramp and pier.” The reservoir is currently holding less than 4,000 acre-feet of water — one acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre of land a foot deep — whereas two years ago it was holding more than 239,000.

This has reduced outdoor recreation activities that play a part in the region’s economy and quality of life, but even worse is that it’s forcing nearby cattle ranchers who rely on the river and reservoir to sell off portions of their stock.

What’s happening, of course, is that the Carson has become the latest casualty of human-generated climate change that has disrupted weather patterns and created a new normal of dryness across the West.

The mark it’s left in the Lake Lahontan area, located about 40 miles southeast of Reno, underscores the fact that no area is immune from the devastating effects of global warming.

In the case of the Carson River, the problem lies with a paucity of snowmelt from the eastern Sierra Nevada range that feeds it.

In the Gazette-Journal story, sixth-generation rancher Devere Dressler recalled seeing snowcaps in the mountains as late as August in most years, but this year the snow was gone by June.

Dressler further told the Gazette-Journal that the west fork of the Carson, which runs through the ranch he and his wife operate, was no longer carrying fish through his property. He used to see suckerfish, minnows and an occasional trout — now they’re vanished.

“This is the worst I’ve seen,” he said.

The Gazette-Journal reported that Dressler is doing the right thing by reducing his herd and easing his draw on the river, as opposed to hogging water that could be used by other users and wildlife.

But he’s one of the lucky ones in the situation. The river’s water rights are divided between “senior” members who received those rights beginning in 1849 and “junior” members who signed up after 1910. Those junior rights holders have received no water allocations since June.

Meanwhile, ranchers also are getting squeezed by high costs of hay and other feed products.

“Folks are just selling off whatever (livestock) they can because they can’t afford feed,” Chris Moreno, Nevada Department of Agriculture environmental scientist, told the Gazette-Journal.

This story — agriculture producers scaling back or even going out of business — is happening throughout the region due to lack of water. Rural communities in California, Oregon and elsewhere have lost residents as thousands of wells have dried up in those areas, while cities are instituting severe water restrictions and limiting new property development to protect what little water supply they have.

In Las Vegas, we’re fortunate that the water conservation measures we adopted years ago have reduced our water demand to the point where we can weather the upcoming reduction in our allotment from Lake Mead without taking drastic action. Our community showed wisdom in embracing the recycling of wastewater, establishing a rebate program to convert turf lawns to low-impact desert landscaping and, most recently, banning strictly ornamental turf.

But we can’t stand still, and neither can anyone in the West.

Climate change isn’t a science-fiction threat, it’s a here-and-now fact of 21st-century life. And as shown most recently along the Carson River, no one in the West is being spared.

Maintaining the livability and economy of the West requires a multistate, multipronged effort that includes reducing greenhouse gases, establishing widespread water conservation measures, redrafting water-sharing compacts, and more.

We can’t keep putting this off. The sorry state of the Carson River and Lake Lahontan is just the latest warning sign that drastic action is needed.