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NOAA chief urges study of climate

NOAA administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. said he has no doubt humans are causing part of the ongoing climate changes.
NOAA administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. said he has no doubt humans are causing part of the ongoing climate changes.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

The administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has no doubt that humans are causing part of the climate changes that are occurring.

"It's a scientific consensus that's out here, and it's supported by everybody I know," added retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. in an exclusive Deseret Morning News interview.

Lautenbacher spoke with the newspaper shortly after his keynote address at a three-day convention in the Sheraton City Centre in Salt Lake City.

The meeting, "Water Policies and Planning in the West: Ensuring a Sustainable Future," is sponsored by the Western Governors' Association and the Western States Water Council.

In addition to Lautenbacher's talk, Gov. Jon M. Huntsman delivered a keynote speech, and advocacy groups distributed a study that they say shows the proposed Snake Valley pipeline to Las Vegas would harm the environment, ranches and members of an Indian tribe who need the water for culinary purposes.

Lautenbacher told the newspaper that he can think of nothing more important than what's going on with the climate and how that connects with the management of water.

America needs to continue its investment in climate research and climate science, he said. "We don't know everything we need to make the wisest choices at this time." However, well-researched reports are available from the agency, he added.

In discussions about global warming, many people are focusing on the idea of mitigating the problem. "That's hard to do," he said. "We need to think about adaptation as well as mitigation, and science will help us do that." For example, long-range drought predictions could help ranchers adapt to dry conditions before they arrive.

Someday, NOAA's National Integrated Drought Information Systems may allow scientists to predict what growing seasons will be like in a month, next year or in 10 years, he said. Adaptation and mitigation programs "need more research," Lautenbacher said.

Regional centers in which different NOAA functions are brought together are being developed, including one in Salt Lake City. They are intended to make it easier for the agency to connect with the public, whether about reports from the National Weather Service, information about fish laboratories, earth science, atmospheric studies, ocean research or surveying operations.

Previously these entities each communicated with Washington, D.C., in "kind of a hub-and-spoke deal. What we're trying to do now is make NOAA resources available regionally."

The effort began about eight months ago. NOAA is still building it, but, Lautenbacher added, in two or three years the public will see more of the regional NOAA offices.

During his speech, he said the five states with the fastest-growing populations in the West are Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Idaho. This year Salt Lake City suffered through its hottest summer ever, with an average temperature of 79.3 degrees, and August was the second-hottest and fifth-driest on record.

The climate is changing, he said, but it is an overlay above cyclical weather fluctuations.

"We need to have key improvements in climate monitoring," and they must be global, he said.

Huntsman, presently vice chairman of the governors group and next year's chairman, said he checks water information daily because water is critical for the state's survival, "to say nothing about our economic viability."

The meeting must bring out ideas that will allow policymakers to address water needs. "We're facing unprecedented demands for our limited supply of water in the West," he said. To find solutions will take creativity, smart planning, and collaboration among representatives of local, state and federal agencies, according to the governor.

"Water planning must be a bottom-up approach," Huntsman said.

A representative of Defenders of Wildlife and the Great Basin Water Network distributed a report titled "Gambling on the Water Table: The High-Stakes Implications of the Las Vegas Pipeline for Plants, Animals, Places and People."

The report quotes Jim Deacon, a professor emeritus of biology and environmental science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, as saying the Snake Valley pumping project could have a devastating effect on biological diversity.

The Southern Nevada Water District asked for the right to convey 100,000 acre-feet of water per year from an aquifer that straddles the Utah-Nevada border. The water would be piped to the Las Vegas area.

The report indicates the pipeline would harm humans, plants and animals in both states.

The booklet quotes Deacon as saying pumping groundwater for the project would cause a bigger drop in the water table in 100 years than has happened in the 15,000 years since the ice age glaciers retreated.