When the wind and rain started Friday night, my daughter and I were out eating pizza. We watched through floor-to-ceiling windows as wind bent the trees nearly horizontal and water pouring from the gutter eroded out a mini-arroyo and then pooled alongside the restaurant. People gasped when the electricity first flickered off, then cheered when the lights stayed dark. With enough light coming through the windows to illuminate dinner plates, people continued their meals and conversations.
Eventually, we made a run for the car; it seemed wise to drive before the night was completely dark. Flooded, the roads were passable but nerve-wracking in a low-slung sedan. A five-minute drive took 20. And it was a huge relief to arrive back at our dark, leaky home full of freaked-out pets.
Three years into a drought, it’s not gracious to complain when rain arrives, even when it sends water rushing under doors and window sills and through cracks in the roof and stucco. In our neighborhood, that one storm dropped almost two inches of rain. That’s twice the total amount of rain that had fallen in the eight months between October and June.
The next morning, the storm still dominated local news in Albuquerque. Some homes south of downtown remained flooded; trees were uprooted across the metro area, including at a number of popular city parks. A few roads were still closed due to high water or downed power lines. Video footage of a destructive, twisting cloud appeared on Twitter and Facebook feeds. Thousands of customers were without electricity; Rail Runner travelers had to be retrieved by buses. The National Weather Service confirmed that 89-mile-per-hour gusts were recorded at the Sunport. Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry estimated the damage might cost the city as much as $2 million.
On Saturday, the Rio Grande ran high with rain and runoff. By Sunday, much of that water was long-gone downstream. Silt and debris plugged up irrigation infrastructure, and the river resumed its parched and puny appearance. (For a look at how quickly the drought- and demand-stressed Rio Grande dries after monsoon rains, check out SFR’s video online at SFReporter.com.)
Thankfully, few people were silly enough to declare the drought over. But it’s worth taking a look—again—at what climate scientists have been predicting will happen in the southwestern United States.
For years, they’ve been saying the same thing: Temperatures will continue rising. Climate models related to precipitation are a little less certain. Highly variable and localized, precipitation changes are harder to predict. But according to the recently published “Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States,” a collection of technical papers prepared at the request of the president and Congress, increased annual precipitation in the Southwest is unlikely. So, what is likely? Increased precipitation intensity. And that change, according to the report, represents a significant threat to transportation and infrastructure in the region.
Throughout the West and certainly in New Mexico, the infrastructure that captures and delivers surface water (as opposed to the water we pump from beneath the surface of the earth) was designed to take advantage of snowmelt. Snow falls in the mountains, then melts throughout the spring and summer. That water is captured, stored and released according to need. (Except for years like this one, when reservoirs are tapped and muddy after three years of drought; water managers have already released all the water stored for farmers in the Middle Rio Grande.) It has been a convenient system, seeing as how demands for water among riparian plants, farmers and city-dwellers alike all rise during the warmer months.
What the models show—and what we’re already experiencing—is a decrease in snowpack and subsequent snowmelt (less snow, falling higher in elevation and further to the north, that melts earlier and faster), a longer growing season and a rise in temperatures. It’s also possible that more of our annual precipitation will fall not as snow, but summer rain. At first glance, it sounds OK, right? The rain will pitter-patter down on crops, cool hot afternoons and descend right when we need it most.
Except that’s not the likely scenario. The storms won’t be gentle and regular. Rather, they may resemble the storms that hammered the central Rio Grande valley last week.
To be clear: I’m not saying last week’s storm is a symptom of climate change. Rather, I’m suggesting we use such a storm to see what went wrong and how we can plan for intense precipitation in the coming years. Not only does our way of storing and moving water need to change—to help us transition from snowpack-based infrastructure to a system capable of capturing and storing severe summer rains—but so does our transportation infrastructure. Heck, even our traditional flat roofs need to be rethought.
Adapting to a changing climate is in everyone’s best interest, whether you care about river flows, farmers’ futures, or just your own pocketbook and real estate. So let’s look at the data, scan the skies and ground—and plan for how future generations can sustainably, and safely, inhabit the places we live today.
To read the climate assessment, which includes data about everything from the effects of climate change on natural ecosystems and public health to information for decision makers and researchers, visit swcarr.arizona.edu.