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As Climate Talks Put Focus on Water Crisis, the Colorado River Provides a Stark Example



As world leaders meet in Scotland this week to discuss efforts to address the climate crisis, experts are urging greater focus on adapting to fundamental shifts in the planet’s water supplies — and they’re pointing to the Colorado River as a prime example.

The river, a vital water source for about 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles, has continued to shrink and send reservoirs declining toward critically low levels after years of extremely dry conditions compounded by hotter temperatures. To water resiliency advocates who are attending the United Nations conference, the river’s plight stands out as one of the world’s starkest cases of a major water source that is being ravaged by the altered climate, where efforts to adapt haven’t been nearly enough.

“To me, it is the best example globally of how things can go badly,” said John Matthews, executive director and co-founder of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation. “I can easily point to the Colorado as a place where we only have hard choices now.”

A whitish-colored “bathtub ring” on Lake Mead’s banks indicates how much its water level has dropped.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

His group is one of a number of nongovernmental organizations participating in a series of water discussions, including talks on how humanity can adapt to a climate of supercharged floods and droughts.

Matthews said the water shortage on the Colorado River reflects fundamental problems in how Hoover Dam and other infrastructure projects were designed for a climate that no longer exists, and how water supplies continue to be divided under a rigid and antiquated system.

“We had a profound amount of ecological and hydrological hubris in how we designed things then, and how for the most part we still design things now,” Matthews said.

This stretch of the Colorado River, slicing through the Grand Canyon, flows between two vast reservoirs: Lake Powell in Utah and Lake Mead in Nevada.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The water level in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, has dropped this year to its lowest point since Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

That extends to the legal structure of how the river is divided among seven states and Mexico. The river has long been overallocated under the 1922 Colorado River Compact and subsequent agreements.

“The Colorado Compact is trapped in a climate that went away in 1980 or 1990, and is not coming back for at least another millennium,” Matthews said. “I think this is an old car without airbags.”

Yet Hoover Dam and the giant canals that were built across the desert facilitated rapid population growth and economic development in the Southwest, from Los Angeles to Phoenix.

“It’s very serious that these reservoirs are so low. It’s akin to having overdrawn our savings account and now being out of money.”

Zach Frankel, the executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Utah Rivers Council

And just as the U.S. water system was planned and built based on assumptions about how much water would be available from Rocky Mountain snowmelt, Matthews said, similar challenges now face countries including Ethiopia, China, Turkey and Brazil as they plan water infrastructure projects.

A residential community overlooks Lake Mead and the surrounding desert landscape. The lake provides water to about 40 million people in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The water level in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, has dropped this year to its lowest point since Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s. The reservoir near Las Vegas now stands at just 34% of full capacity, and the federal government has declared a shortage on the Colorado River for the first time. That has triggered water cutbacks next year for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. Farmers in parts of Arizona are bracing for reductions and planning to leave some fields dry.

The cuts could soon affect California, too, if the reservoir continues to decline as projected.

Scientists estimate that about half the decrease in runoff in the watershed since 2000 was caused by unprecedented warming. And this heat-driven erosion of the water supply is projected to worsen as temperatures continue to climb.

“The story of climate change on the Colorado is really a story about less snow,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Utah Rivers Council. “Climate change is increasing winter air temperatures, which are resulting in less snow in the Utah, Colorado and Wyoming mountains that lead to less melted snowpack water that flows into the river.”

The Venetian Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. The city and its suburban sprawl gets 90% of its water from the Colorado River, which is diverted from Lake Mead at the nearby Hoover Dam.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s very serious that these reservoirs are so low,” Frankel said, speaking of Lake Mead and Lake Powell. “It’s akin to having overdrawn our savings account and now being out of money.”

Discussions about water are taking on a higher profile at this annual U.N. climate meeting in Glasgow, formally called the 26th gathering of the Conference of Parties, or COP26.

A new water pavilion features a series of livestreamed discussions about water solutions. Announcing these events, Matthews and other organizers said they want to boost awareness about water’s central role in the climate crisis, and the need for action.

Attendees at the conference are talking about strategies such as designing water infrastructure for new climate extremes, working with nature to restore floodplains and wetlands, capturing flood flows to recharge depleted groundwater, and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from pumping and treating water. They’re also sharing ideas about planning for more intense floods and droughts.

Visitors to Lake Mead set up camp on a spit of land that was formerly submerged.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“Water is the main bleeding edge for climate adaptation, where people and economies are going to be hurt,” said conference attendee Felicia Marcus, a visiting fellow at Stanford University and former chair of California’s state water board. “It’s where you feel the impacts of climate change first.”

Marcus said COP26 could be pivotal “for water taking its rightful place as a core issue,” and for countries to more fully incorporate water adaptation strategies in their climate policies.

Because many people are talking more about “water resilience” lately, researchers at the Pacific Institute in Oakland wrote a paper presenting a definition of the term. They defined water resilience as “the ability of water systems to function so that nature and people, including those on the frontlines and disproportionately impacted, thrive under shocks, stresses, and change.”

As for the shrinking Colorado River, Marcus said, it’s become “a very potent symbol of what’s to come, and what’s happening in other places around the world.”

Boaters ply the waters of Lake Havasu, a reservoir of Colorado River water that was created by the construction of the Parker Dam.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Lake Mead’s retreating shorelines became a backdrop representing the need for climate action last month when Vice President Kamala Harris visited to push for the Biden administration’s infrastructure and climate plans.

Around Lake Mead, a federally managed national recreation area that attracts more than 8 million visitors each year, the low water levels have already hurt some locals who rely on the reservoir for boating and fishing.

“The water levels have been dropping every year,” said Eric Richins, a Kingman, Ariz.-based boat operator whose company, Big Water Boating, leads fishing tours on Lake Mead. “It’s harder to access Lake Mead because the ramps you’d usually use are closed because of the low water levels.”

In 2019, the seven states that rely on the river reached a set of agreements intended to reduce the risks of reservoirs declining to dangerously low levels. Under that seven-year deal, California, Arizona and Nevada agreed to a series of water reductions.

The sign atop the Hotel Del Sol in Yuma says volumes about summer temperatures in the southern Arizona desert. Scientists estimate that about half the decrease in runoff in the Colorado River watershed since 2000 was caused by unprecedented warming.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Colorado River churns through the Imperial Irrigation Dam near Yuma. The dam was built between Arizona and California and diverts water to both states.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

But after two hot and extremely dry years, water officials in the three states have acknowledged that those steps won’t be sufficient. They’ve been meeting to consider next steps, which could include additional cutbacks.

Some scientists have estimated the Colorado could lose about one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise. In other research, federal scientists have studied the baseflow, or the movement of groundwater into streams in the watershed. They’ve projected that hotter, drier climate could lead to a 29% decline in baseflow in the Upper Colorado River Basin by the 2050s.

The latest studies add to warnings that scientists have been raising for years about how climate change is affecting the river. And some warnings came decades ago.

Activists with the group Climate Investigations Center have pointed to an internal Exxon memo written in 1979 about a study by an intern on the potential effects of rising carbon dioxide levels. In a bulleted list summarizing other published research on the environment effects of higher CO2 levels, the report stated: “The flow of the Colorado River would diminish and the southwest water shortage would become much more acute.” The document has been cited in court cases against oil companies.

The ghost town of St. Thomas, Nev., once was submerged in Lake Mead. The town was abandoned as Colorado River water rose behind Hoover Dam to form the vast reservoir of Lake Mead.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

With the river’s reservoirs continuing to decline, members of Congress convened hearings last month.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, explained what he called the “math problem” on the river.

“If we rely upon the promises of the 1920s and the 1940s, there are legal entitlements to 17.5 million acre-feet of water each year. Annual use today is approximately 14 million acre-feet. And over the last 20 years, the river has given us an average of 12.3 million acre-feet,” Entsminger told the House water subcommittee. “There is more and more evidence on the ground that what the Colorado River is actually facing is not drought but aridification and a permanent transition to a drier future.”

Leaders of tribes also spoke. Daryl Vigil of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, a co-facilitator of the Water and Tribes Initiative, said Indigenous tribes have long been left out of the decision-making process on the river and need to be at the table.

A youth wades across a shallow stretch of the Colorado River in Yuma, where river water is diverted to local agricultural fields and into canals that travel west to the fertile Imperial Valley and the coastal cities of Southern California. The river crosses the border into Mexico, but runs dry before reaching the Sea of Cortez.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“Tribes have senior water rights to at least 25% of the current natural flow of the Colorado River but have historically been excluded from decision-making or ‘consulted’ only after decisions have been made,” Vigil said in written testimony. “It is time to create a new paradigm for governing the use of the Colorado River — one that integrates best available science and Indigenous knowledge of the basin. And one that involves tribes as active partners.”

Others stressed the importance of stepping up the pace of talks on additional measures, saying the government hasn’t put in place a default plan if the states don’t reach a collaborative agreement quickly enough.

“The point I want to emphasize is the need for speed,” said Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado law school and a former Interior Department official. “It’s just not clear that the river will allow the current pace of discussions to continue without devastating consequences.”

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself




Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe



On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court



Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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