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Climate Change Could Cause Permanent Drought

By John Fleck/
Journal Staff Writer
      Global warming is turning the Southwest into a permanent Dust Bowl, where the dry conditions of our worst 20th century droughts — the 1930s and 1950s — become the norm over the next century, according to new research.
    Global warming will push our winter storm track, which brings the region much of its moisture, to the north, according to Richard Seager at Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory.
    Seager's results, published on line today by the journal Science, sent ripples through the western water community as they began circulating this week.
    They suggest a fundamentally new kind of drought here — not the occasional unusually dry stretches of the type the region saw in the 1930s and 1950s, but a climate that is that dry all the time.
    "Clearly the population pressures here are already causing real problems to begin with, which means that the questions from climate change are all the more pressing," said Brad Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment project at the University of Colorado.
    "This presents a pretty intimidating challenge to water interests in the Southwest if this scenario indeed comes to pass," said Kelly , a climatologist and water expert at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno.
    Seager and others argue there is already evidence that the change is under way in the lingering drought conditions the region has endured since the late 1990s.
    "I think it's clearly here now," said Kevin Trenberth, an expert on climate change and drought at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.
    In New Mexico, 8 of the last 10 years have seen below-average flows on the Rio Grande, including a forecast for far below-normal runoff this year. As a result, the region's largest reservoirs — built as buffers against dry years --are far below normal levels.
    If Seager is right, it poses an enormous problem for the region's reservoir-based water systems, Udall explained. Big dams like Glen Canyon on the Colorado River or Elephant Butte in New Mexico are used to even out flows between wet and dry years.
    In wetter-than-average years, water is stored to be used in drier-than-average years.
    "If the (average) drops, no amount of storage is going to help you," Udall said.