Energy & Environment — Western drought threatens water, power resources

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Today we’re examining the drought conditions impacting Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Plus: Average gasoline prices drop below $4 per gallon and a new study finds the Arctic is warming even faster than previously thought.

This is Overnight Energy & Environment, your source for the latest news focused on energy, the environment and beyond. For The Hill, we’re Rachel Frazin and Zack Budryk. 

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💧 Shrinking reservoirs pose problems for the West

Nowhere is the Southwest’s worst drought since the year 800 more evident than Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the pair of artificial Colorado River reservoirs whose plunging levels threaten major water and power sources for tens of millions of people. 

Already, the region is being forced to adapt to the sweeping effects of climate change, and the lakes and their surrounding area are nearing an environmental point of no return. 

The retreating waters have revealed everything from World War II-era boats to multiple sets of human remains, including one in a barrel, a morbid reminder of Las Vegas’s history of organized crime. 

  • Lake Mead is projected to get down to 22 percent of its full capacity by year’s end, while Lake Powell is expected to drop to 27 percent, according to estimations from the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Both now sit at record lows.
  • In Lake Mead alone, the net water loss has worked out to more than 6 trillion gallons, according to data from the National Park Service.

Hoover Dam is already seeing reduced electricity production from Lake Mead’s shrinking size, and the reservoir is projected to fall to approximately 150 feet above “dead pool” status, or the point at which the levels are too low to flow downstream, endangering both power and drinking water.  

“The moment of truth is here for everyone,” said Christopher Kuzdas, a senior water program manager with the Environmental Defense Fund. The issues, he added, are an “unmistakable signal that people — we need to change fundamentally how we manage and use water.”   

Some background: The Colorado River Basin is in a unique position when it comes to drought: The river’s waters are governed by a century-old agreement among seven states, which allocates more water than actually exists in the river because it was based on data from one of the wettest decades in U.S. history.  

The river, America’s sixth-longest, winds through Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and its basin covers about 8 percent of the continental U.S. Approximately 80 percent of its waters eventually go to agriculture, but it also provides drinking water for 25 million people, and its hydroelectric dams produce an average of 8,478 gigawatt hours a year in power-generating capacity.  

Under the interstate usage compact, a new round of water cuts will kick in automatically on Jan. 1 for Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and possibly California if water levels have not increased by year’s end.  

For Lake Powell, specifically, the seven states reached an agreement in April to forfeit their water from the reservoir so that it can keep producing power. The federal government, meanwhile, plans to move about 162 billion gallons from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir into Lake Powell.   

A ticking clock: And if the states involved in the Colorado River compact can’t agree on a plan to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet by Monday, the federal government will step in to determine the cuts. 

Read more from The Hill’s “DRIED UP” series on the drought.

⛽️ Average gasoline price falls below $4

The average national price of gasoline fell below $4 per gallon on Thursday for the first time since March, according to AAA.

  • Prices averaged $3.99 on Thursday, AAA said.
  • The drop represents a dip of more than $1 since prices peaked in June at about $5.02. 

Experts say they expect gasoline prices to continue to fall at least a bit more.  

Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates, told The Hill that he expects an additional decline of about 5 cents per gallon in the coming weeks and a further drop of about 15 cents per gallon after mid-September, when refiners are able to sell lower-cost winter gasoline.  

But why? Lipow noted that prices have been on the decline as the high prices caused people to drive less in the U.S. and around the world.  

“The consumer has changed their buying habits and reduced consumption of gasoline as they’ve combined local errands,” Lipow said, adding that they have also taken shorter driving trips for vacation.  

“Worldwide, the rising costs of energy have caused demand destruction that has pressured oil prices as well,” he said. “Especially in Southeast Asia and countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka where they simply don’t have the money to pay for higher energy [costs].” 

Lipow also said that markets have stabilized after Russia, which is facing embargoes from many Western economies over its invasion of Ukraine, was able to find new buyers for its oil from countries like China, India and Turkey. 

“Now that some time has elapsed, you’re seeing increases in Russian production as they’ve found new customers,” he said.  

Earlier this week, AAA also cited a drop in oil prices due to fears of economic slowdown as another factor in the falling prices. 

The politics: While presidents typically have little control gasoline prices, especially since oil is traded globally, lowered prices are likely to give the President Biden and the Democrats at least some political reprieve.  

Republicans for moths have hammered the White House over the price increases, even though analysts have long pointed to global factors as the causes of their rise and subsequent fall.  

Meanwhile, the White House touted the lowered national average on Thursday, tweeting, “Big news: The average national gas price has dropped below $4 per gallon. With over a dollar drop in just 58 days, this is the fastest decline in gas prices in over a decade.” 

Read more here.

ARCTIC IS WARMING EVEN FASTER THAN THOUGHT: STUDY

The Arctic is warming at a more rapid pace than previously thought — and four times faster than the world at large, according to research published Thursday in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.

Between 1979 and 2021, the Arctic warmed about four times as fast as the global average, significantly more than previous estimates of two or three times as fast, researchers found. 

Within the region itself there are also numerous variations in the pace of the warming — the northern Russian island chain of Novaya Zemlya is warming at seven times the global average, according to researchers from the Finnish Meteorological Institute.  

Researchers calculated the average of four sets of satellite data during the four decades covered by the research, and found that while global average temperatures saw an increase of about 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade, the Arctic saw warming of over 0.75 degrees.  

The big picture: The Arctic Circle is at particular risk for warming simply because so much of it is ocean, compared to other regions. As a result, when its sea ice melts, the increased portion of water contributes to further warming because it absorbs the sun’s heat rather than reflecting it.  

The impacts of this warming go far beyond the Arctic region, contributing to sea-level rise and the ocean’s surface temperatures, which can tie into extreme weather events like hurricanes. The World Wildlife Fund describes the region as “the world’s refrigerator,” noting that when the Arctic reflects less heat, it can lead to both an increase in extreme heat and more cold snaps as it destabilizes the polar jet stream that blows around the Arctic Circle. 

Read more about the findings here.

ON TAP TOMORROW

The House is expected to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, a major climate, tax and health care bill, sending it to President Biden

WHAT WE’RE READING

ICYMI

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s Energy & Environment page for the latest news and coverage. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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