Why tackling drought is a significant part of Democrats’ economic package

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There are a lot of ways to measure climate change, but one of the most jarring involves counting corpses. Not corpses of those people killed by the effects of the warming planet — increased flooding, heat exhaustion, larger storms — but of those killed long ago and hidden where no one would ever find them, like at the bottom of Lake Mead.

Until drought powered by climate change shrinks Lake Mead so much that what was once its bottom becomes its shore.

So far, the contraction of Lake Mead as water levels fall this year has resulted in four bodies being found. There may be more; it’s hard to say. But this weird, grim statistic is an effective way of demonstrating the point. The world is changing — even if only temporarily — in ways that we would not have expected.

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The drought that’s emptying Lake Mead has gripped a substantial portion of the Southwest. We expect states like Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico to be dry, but those are now unusually dry by their own standards. Which is why it’s not really a surprise that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), as she advocated for changes to the Inflation Reduction Act that is soon headed to President Biden’s desk, insisted on including a $4 billion allocation for addressing drought.

As you’re probably aware, the Inflation Reduction Act is pointedly named but broad in scope. There’s a significant investment in policies and spending that aim at reducing the production of greenhouse gases, helping the fight to control global warming over the long term. But as Lake Mead demonstrates, the effects of that warming are already here.

The National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln operates a tool called the Drought Monitor. Each week, it evaluates the extent of drought across the country in maps and data. In the two decades that the assessments cover, you can readily see how both the spread and scale of drought has increased: more places affected; worse drought.

Below, for example, are the Drought Monitor’s depictions of the first or second week of August in each of the last 22 years. The current map is at bottom.

It is absolutely the case that drought is not progressing arithmetically forward. That is, it’s not the case that drought is getting more common and more widespread each year. Next year could be modest. It’s hard to predict, which is part of the challenge.

But using the Drought Monitor’s county-level data, we can see how much of the country’s population has been affected by at least four weeks of drought in any given year. From 2000 to 2004, for example, an average of 46 percent of the population was not affected by drought; about 4 percent of the population experienced at least four weeks of exceptional drought. From 2020 to this year, an average of 39 percent of the population lives in places not affected by at least four weeks of drought, while 1 in 9, on average, live in a place that’s been affected by exceptional drought for at least four weeks.

Again, this shifts. In 2000, it was the Southeast that saw more exceptional drought. In recent years, it’s been more likely to be Western states from California to Texas. In some years, no counties saw exceptional drought. In others, hundreds did.

The Inflation Reduction Act doesn’t solve this problem with a wave of a magic wand. Instead, it creates a fund that can shift the economics of water, an increasingly complicated enterprise. Places needing to conserve water could, for example, pay farmers to offset crop loss from using less water for irrigation. In essence, it’s a very old-school sort of solution: Use the deep pockets of the federal government to solve local problems (which is why various senators from the region are claiming credit for it). That’s how global warming often works: It creates thousands of evolving local problems in addition to continental ones.

Once the bill becomes law, it will aim to refill Lake Mead over the short term by providing an economic backstop to reduce drawdown of the lake’s water and over the long term by addressing climate change broadly. Finding bodies in newly exposed areas of lakes is titillating, but the country is better served by having those secrets remain hidden deep beneath enormous amounts of water.

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