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The Security Implications of Omitting Climate Change from Federal Water Availability Forecasts

Lake,_Drought_in_Oklahoma_—_Flickr_-_Al_Jazeera_EnglishBy Marc Kodack 

The U.S. Presidential Memorandum, Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West (October 19, 2018), directed the Secretaries of Commerce and Interior to “develop an action plan to improve the information and modeling capabilities related to water availability and water infrastructure projects…” The action plan was released last month and “defines individual and joint agency activities to improve the modeling and forecasting capabilities related to water availability and water infrastructure projects.” There is, however, a glaring omission. While there are three uses of the term “climate” in the action plan, “climate change” is not mentioned in the plan or any of its proposed or completed actions. Accurately forecasting water availability fails without integrating climatic change effects into those forecasts, particularly in the context of the climate-vulnerable Western United States. Ignoring this key influence on current and future water availability deprives federal agencies, including the Department of Defense (DoD), of critical information, leading to skewed strategic planning results with potentially significant consequences for national security.

Actions in the action plan already completed or under way

Individual agencies within the departments of Commerce and Interior, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), have already completed multiple activities related to the action plan, and will be continuing with their on-going efforts. Many of these efforts are related to improving the Bureau of Reclamation’s reservoir operations. While many of these on-going actions are useful for understanding spatial and temporal variation in water availability, such as enhancing NOAA’s sub-seasonal-to-seasonal forecasting efforts or USGS’s proposed program to “conduct national and regional assessments of water availability” for the 90,000 sub-watersheds in the conterminous U.S., that will still be inadequate. The idea of stationarity—that “natural systems fluctuate within an unchanging envelope of variability”—is effectively dead due to climatic changes that have fundamentally altered that envelope of variability. This action plan ignores that reality, which can have significant negative implications for water security throughout the U.S.

Implications of omitting climate change

The absence of consideration of the significant consequences climate change has and will continue to have on water availability is a fundamental flaw in the action plan (and completed actions) that will be carried over into all future federal actions. It is also inconsistent with the U.S. government’s own analysis of climate change implications for water availability. Take, for example, the 2018 National Climate Assessment, which states:

Rising air and water temperatures and changes in precipitation are intensifying droughts, increasing heavy downpours, reducing snowpack, and causing declines in surface water quality, with varying impacts across regions. Future warming will add to the stress on water supplies and adversely impact the availability of water in parts of the United States. Changes in the relative amounts and timing of snow and rainfall are leading to mismatches between water availability and needs in some regions, posing threats to, for example, the future reliability of hydropower production in the Southwest and the Northwest. Groundwater depletion is exacerbating drought risk in many parts of the United States, particularly in the Southwest and Southern Great Plains. Dependable and safe water supplies for U.S. Caribbean, Hawai‘i, and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Island communities are threatened by drought, flooding, and saltwater contamination due to sea level rise. Most U.S. power plants rely on a steady supply of water for cooling, and operations are expected to be affected by changes in water availability and temperature increases. Aging and deteriorating water infrastructure, typically designed for past environmental conditions, compounds the climate risk faced by society. Water management strategies that account for changing climate conditions can help reduce present and future risks to water security, but implementation of such practices remains limited.

Without these forecasted climatic changes being acknowledged, the plan’s parochial actions may lead to complacency by users of the information generated. Temporal breadth is required to see further into the forecasted climate future because if any of these actions are used to create solutions near-term, e.g., 5-10 years, more robust and possibly more expensive solutions may be required beyond a decade if climate conditions worsen.

For the military, misunderstanding how climate change affects water availability, whether for overseas operations or on installations, increases risks to mission. For example, as part of the Joint Force and in support of the National Defense Strategy, the Army has developed the Multi-Domain Operations Concept (MDO). One of the needed capabilities to implement MDO is significant demand reduction in logistics to lessen delivery requirements by up to 50%. Bulk commodities with large field requirements are fuel, ammunition, and…water. Water is required for “human consumption, hygiene, medical and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield Explosives decontamination.

The Army is the executive agent for all land-based water. It is responsible for “all aspects of land-based water support for the Military Services during contingency operations, including water selection, pumping, purification, storage, distribution, cooling, consumption, water reuse, water source intelligence, research and development, acquisition of water support equipment, water support operations doctrine, human factors requirements, training, and water support force structure.”

With the doctrinal connection between installations and operations and the Army’s role as executive agent for all land-based water, incorporating climate change into water availability planning is essential to understand if mission requirements can be met both now and in the future. Water availability planning includes not only estimating water volumes, sources, and quality needed, but all the equipment and infrastructure to acquire, treat, store, deliver, reuse, and dispose, if necessary, to support the Joint Force, and ultimately, the National Defense Strategy.

Other strategic plans also omit climate change

This action plan is not alone, however. As I wrote previously, the interagency National Drought Resilience Partnership (NDRP) also inexplicably omits climate change – a critical factor for drought forecasting and planning. Further, the Department of Commerce’s strategic plan and the Department of Interior’s strategic plans,  which should be the parent plans for this action plan, also omit climate change and its’ effects on water availability. In short, a number of U.S. government plans dealing with water issues that have been released in 2019 are missing attention to climate change. This is a worrying development, to say the least.


Without consideration of climate change in this water forecast action plan, understanding of water availability across the breadth of U.S. national interests cannot occur. You can’t plan for risks that you’re ignoring. Individual actions, in this context, will bee disconnected from a comprehensive and complete understanding of the risks. Climate change data is readily available, widely shared and regularly reported on by many different outlets. We can see the risks coming. Deliberately ignoring that information creates a blind-spot on water availability in the U.S. That keeps the U.S. population who relies on that water uniformed about the risks to their families, homes, and livelihoods, as well as to the military that defends them.

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