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Megadrought highlights need for water conservation

| March 8, 2022 7:00 AM

To the editor:

The American West is in a megadrought — the worst drought in more than 1,200 years. Droughts occur naturally, but scientists have determined that 42 percent of this drought’s severity is attributable to higher temperatures caused by greenhouse gases.

Drought conditions in most of Montana are currently rated as “severe” to “exceptional.” By 2050 average temperatures are expected to be about 5 degrees warmer than they were in 1950. Although climate models indicate we may receive the same or more annual precipitation, hotter summers will dry out the soil, desiccate vegetation and evaporate water from lakes and streams.

As the climate in Montana warms, we are getting less snow and more rain during the winter. This means our snowpack is not as deep or extensive, and the winter season is shorter. We are losing dependable conditions for much loved recreation activities such as skiing, snowmobiling and ice fishing.

Spring is already coming three weeks earlier. Earlier springs lead to earlier stream runoff, and consequently longer periods of low stream flow during the summer. Not only do low flows threaten drinking water and irrigation supplies, but the resulting warmer water temperatures can be deadly for native trout. Warm water also encourages algae blooms; last summer toxic algae bloom warnings were posted for 11 lakes and streams in North Idaho.

City governments can prepare for droughts by promoting water conservation and enhancing water efficiency in city plans, landscapes and infrastructure. They should identify alternative water sources and create drought emergency plans. Outdoor watering is the biggest single household demand during the summer. We can help by watering at night, using timers, installing drip systems and converting lawns to less thirsty groundcovers.

Adaptive measures such as water conservation are important, but to ultimately lessen the impacts of climate change, we must move quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and convert to cleaner energy sources.

Kris Newgard and Kathy Mohar

Kootenai Climate Group