As the Northeast starts to emerge from its winter whites, other areas in the country are questioning whether it actually snowed enough this year.
Threats to Utah’s snowpack levels are the biggest climate change challenge facing Salt Lake City, according to Mayor Ralph Becker, a member of the President’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and this year’s National League of Cities president.
“The way we provide all of our water for well over a century now is changing,” he told ThinkProgress after Monday’s general session at the National League of Cities Conference in Washington, D.C., which focused on how climate change is affecting infrastructure across the nation.
Utah is the second-most arid state in the nation, and its water supply comes largely from the snowpack left in the surrounding mountains at the end of winter.
“We have built all our infrastructure for water around the snowpack,” Becker said.
And as of this month, Salt Lake City’s snowpack is at 69 percent of the 30-year average, according to the National Resources Conservation Center.
In January, a hydrologist told a local news station that northern Utah’s temperatures had averaged five degrees higher than normal over the second half of 2014. That’s “incredibly significant when you talk about snowpack,” the National Weather Service’s Brian McInerney told the Fox affiliate. Warmer weather, McInerney said, has helped cause more precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow, which has contributed to Salt Lake City’s low snowpack.
Other states are also dealing with low water supplies, and are expecting more shortages in the future: according to a Government Accountability Office report from 2014, 40 states expect to experience water shortages in the next 10 years. Snowpack in California and other western states has also been in decline.
“Climate change is most significantly affecting our water infrastructure,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said during Monday’s session for city leaders. “What you all invested in 40, 50 years ago is now needing significant repair, as well as looking at the new challenges we’re seeing on the drinking water side.”
McCarthy said President Obama has requested that the EPA increase its funding request for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a federal financing mechanism for clean water projects.
Salt Lake City has taken a number of steps to address water conservation, including structuring water bills so that the more water residents use, the higher their rates are. The city also recently launched an online tool to encourage residents to move away from traditional landscaping and toward yards that reflect the natural desert landscape.
According a report released in November on water use between 2005 and 2010, Utahns overall used more water for the public supply than any other state, although Becker says Salt Lake City has decreased its water use by 20 percent over the past decade.
But in a state that gets more than three quarters of its electricity from coal, a water-intense power source, it will take more than planting cactus and taking shorter showers to solve Utah’s water worries.
Salt Lake City is one of the more than 1,000 U.S. cities that pledged to meet carbon emission reductions set by the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States did not ratify alongside 141 other countries in 2005.
In 2008, Becker and the Salt Lake City Council signed a resolution committing that the city will work to reduce its carbon footprint to 20 percent below the 2005 level by 2020, 50 percent below the 2005 level by 2040, and 80 percent below the 2005 level by 2050. Under these commitments, the city is home to the country’s first net-zero public safety building, a standard the mayor says all new city projects will have to meet.
Achieving carbon reduction goals will depend largely on reducing the city’s electricity use. In a 2009 audit, electricity consumption accounted for 54 percent of the city’s carbon emissions. The second-largest emissions sector is transportation, which the mayor has also pledged to address, investing in bike lanes and improved public transit, as well as making the city more walkable and increasing traffic efficiency.
Despite what the mayor says is general public support for addressing climate change, the city isn’t getting much help at the state level.
The Utah House of Representatives passed a bill last week supporting a state request that the EPA withdraw carbon reductions under the proposed Clean Power Plan.