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The Climate 202

The Colorado River faces a climate change-driven crisis

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! If you live in the D.C. area, we hope you caught a glimpse of the double rainbow on Sunday. But first:

The Colorado River faces a climate change-driven crisis

The Colorado River plays a pivotal role in the American West, supplying water to more than 40 million people, irrigating 5 million acres of farmland, and providing critical habitat for rare fish, birds and plants.

But demand for the Colorado's water far exceeds supply in the fast-growing Southwest, as a climate change-fueled megadrought and rising temperatures place an unprecedented strain on the iconic river, The Washington Post's Karin Brulliard, Matt McClain and Erin Patrick O'Connor report.

Our three colleagues traveled the length of the 1,450-mile waterway, from its start in the Rocky Mountains to its finish in the Sea of Cortez, to examine how people and places are coping with a shrinking lifeline in a hotter and drier landscape.

The Climate 202 spoke with McClain, a photojournalist at The Post, about his experience reporting the story — he fell into the river once — and his thoughts on the Colorado's future in a warming world. The following Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity:

The Climate 202: How did this story originate?

McClain: Last summer, I got a call from [Post photo editor] Olivier Laurent, who gave me the opportunity to work on the story. At that point, the drought was starting to be in the news, and we knew we wanted to use the river as an avenue to give people a deeper understanding of the complex water issues out West. That call happened in May, and by July 4, I was on my first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. I ended up making four trips for the story for a couple of weeks at a time.

The Climate 202: What was one of your favorite moments from your reporting?

McClain: When I was in Rocky Mountain National Park in July, I found an area of the river that cut through a grassy meadow with mountains in the background. I thought it was the perfect illustration of the river's humble origins as a large stream, rather than the massive river that goes through the Grand Canyon. 

I kept returning to the same spot, hoping to capture some elk or other wildlife in the shot. And finally, I came upon a moose standing in the river. The late afternoon light was filtering through the trees, and it was really a magical moment because as a photographer, you're rarely able to capture the perfect image that you have in your head. 

The Climate 202: What was one of the most challenging moments from your reporting?

McClain: I actually returned to the same spot where I photographed the moose in the middle of the winter, and it was covered in snow. So I rented snowshoes and joined a snowshoe tour that the National Park Service was putting on. Even though I previously lived in Colorado for five or six years, I had never really snowshoed. I ended up falling off a bridge into the Colorado River, and another person on the tour had to pull me out. I'll admit to that. [laughs]

Another challenging aspect was the heat. It was over 100 degrees when I was in Las Vegas, and it reached 106 degrees when I was hiking at Lake Mead. So I was definitely worried about dehydration, which was somewhat ironic.

The Climate 202: Do you think the severe water shortages in the West get enough attention in the inside-the-Beltway news cycle?

McClain: I think issues in other parts of the country are very much “out of sight, out of mind.” Unless you're dealing with it on a daily basis, you're not going to pay attention, given everything else going on in the world. But if you live out West, water is always kind of on your mind in one way or the other.

The Climate 202: What do you hope readers take away from the piece?

McClain: I think this piece should be a wake-up call for other areas that aren't experiencing these conditions yet. This isn't necessarily a Western problem. This could be a preview of how other parts of the country will be affected by climate change in the future — potentially even in the near future.

Pressure points

1 in 6 Americans live in areas with significant wildfire risk

Roughly 16 percent of the country’s population lives in areas under wildfire threat, and over the next 30 years, that share will increase to 21 percent, according to a Washington Post analysis of a model built by the nonprofit First Street Foundation, The Post's John Muyskens, Andrew Ba Tran, Naema Ahmed and Anna Phillips report. Nearly half of all Americans who live in areas vulnerable to fire will reside in the South, and minorities face a disproportionate risk. 

For the first time, the analysis details specific locations that are in peril, even those not typically associated with wildfires, which are becoming more severe and frequent because of human-caused climate change. 

California has the most at-risk properties because of its large size and Mediterranean climate. But across the southern half of the country, states including Texas, Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, North Carolina and South Carolina stand at the forefront of a growing problem. And by 2052, about 44 percent of all Native Americans will live in areas with a significant risk of wildfire. Nearly 1 in 4 Hispanic people will live with a significant probability. 

While President Biden has approved nearly $3.5 billion for communities to prepare for disasters related to extreme weather and climate change, only about 4 percent of the counties facing fire risk in this analysis have applied for wildfire mitigation funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Agency alert

17 states urge EPA to nix California’s ability to set its own clean car rules

The Republican attorneys general of 17 states are calling on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to revoke the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to allow California to set its own climate regulations for cars, which are often stricter than the federal standards, Nathan Solis reports for the Los Angeles Times. 

The waiver, exclusive to California, was originally withdrawn under the Trump administration but reinstated by President Biden in March. The states’ joint petition argues that the EPA’s decision would require all states to adopt the Golden State’s tougher restrictions on greenhouse gas emission from cars and trucks under the Clean Air Act

“The act simply leaves California with a slice of its sovereign authority that Congress withdraws from every other state,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a statement.

On the Hill

Sen. Capito, GOP colleagues press Biden on the social cost of carbon

A group of Republican senators on Friday urged the Biden administration to release information about the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases and how it evaluates the toll of carbon emissions when setting nationwide policies. 

In a letter, the lawmakers, led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, asked the working group to release records on its meetings and other activities. It follows a November letter questioning the working group's recommendations for decision-making, budgeting and procurement. 

In the last few months, the lawmakers wrote, the Environmental Protection Agency has relied on the climate metric to oppose new natural gas pipelines, while the Interior Department has used it to determine which areas to make available for oil and gas lease sales.

On the Hill this week

On Monday: The House Rules Committee will meet to consider pending bills, including the Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act, which would empower the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the cost of gasoline is being manipulated by oil companies. 

On Tuesday: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on strengthening energy and critical mineral partnerships between the United States and Canada to address energy security and climate change.

  • The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment and climate change will meet to discuss President Biden’s proposed budget for the Environmental Protection Agency for fiscal year 2023, with testimony from EPA Administrator Michael Regan.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation will hold a hearing on efforts to address climate change at airports across the country.

On Wednesday: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will meet to examine Biden's proposed budget for the Fish and Wildlife Service for fiscal year 2023, with testimony from FWS Director Martha Williams

  • The Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Department of the Interior, environment, and related agencies will also meet to discuss the EPA’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023.
  • The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold a hearing on how the nation can build an “affordable and resilient” food supply chain.
  • National Park Service Director Charles Sams III and Comptroller Jessica Bowron will testify before the House Appropriations Committee on Biden's budget request for the service.

On Thursday: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hear testimony from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on the president’s budget request for Interior.

On Friday: The House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee on research and technology will hold a hearing titled “Building a Workforce to Navigate the Electric Vehicle Future.”

In the atmosphere


Thanks for reading!