Human Activity Near Watersheds is Worsening Drought Effects

Human Activity Near Watersheds is Worsening Drought Effects

Human-induced climate change has resulted in extreme dryness and megadroughts, especially in the Western US. A new study published in Nature found that almost half of “managed” watersheds with human activity had a significantly increased risk of drought or flooding compared to “natural” watersheds with no development.

By modifying the seasonal flow rate of waterways with infrastructure and certain water management techniques, humans are magnifying the effects of climate change. Researchers from the study found that “1 out of every 10 watersheds nationwide saw at least a 167% amplification in the harm from climate because of human management, and about another third saw at least a 20% increase.”

PBS: Western states face a bleak future amid the worst drought in more than 1,000 years, February 15, 2022.

Why This Matters

Climate change is driving the worst Western Drought in 1,200 years. In places like California, human development and poor water management practices have added to the severity of already existing drought conditions. Below-average snowpack and declining reservoirs are also putting immense strain on watersheds (such as the Colorado River) to provide for the needs of millions of people. Severe drought in the state has also contributed to extreme wildfire conditions that have ravaged 4% of California’s total land area and destroyed over 40,000 homes and businesses. In July of 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom called for a 15% reduction in residential water use, and in late October, he signed an executive order to enforce it.

VICE: 40 Million People Rely on the Colorado River, and Now It's Drying Up, August 14, 2021.

Guardian: The climate science behind wildfires - why are they getting worse?, August 20, 2021.

MSNBC: Climate Change Threatens Americans' Water Supply, October 31, 2021.

Outdated Dams

Dams are a form of water management that are destructive and have “an effect four or five times worse than climate change alone,” according to study lead Nitin Singh. There are over 90,000 dams in the US, but 75-90% serve no functional purpose and are extremely damaging to ecosystem health and water quality. While hydropower is touted as a form of clean renewable energy, the reality is that dams release billions of tons of carbon emissions from rotting vegetation each year. Dam storage is proving to be an ineffective and unsustainable source of water for states in the face of severe drought caused by human-induced climate change.

Terra Mater: The Price of Damming our Rivers | Hydropower Impact, December 1, 2020.

Patagonia: DamNation | The Problem with Hydropower, April 23, 2020.

WW0: Newsmaker of the Week - Jacob Morrison, director of River's End, October 28, 2021.