September 27, 2016

Time to Wake Up: Climate Change in Utah

Mr. President, I am here for the 146th time to wake this Chamber up to the consequence of climate change. The leading edge of consequence is already upon us, and it is threatening the people and economies of all 50 States. Because of the dark influence of the fossil fuel industry, we can’t have an honest, bipartisan conversation here in the Senate about climate change. So I travel. I have been to 13 States. Last month, I visited Utah and met with local business, policy, and science leaders to learn more about the effects of climate change in Utah.

Coastal Rhode Island and landlocked Utah may seem worlds apart, but we share a common future under climate change, and both Utahns and Rhode Islanders share a deep connection to our home State’s natural environment.

Generations of Rhode Islanders have been drawn to Narragansett Bay and our coasts, and it is not just for love and beauty. In 2013, Rhode Island’s ocean economy generated $2.1 billion and supported more than 41,000 Rhode Island jobs. The Presiding Officer from Alaska can appreciate the importance of an ocean’s economy.

Narragansett Bay comes alive in the summer’s warmth. But it is mostly frozen water that brings people to the mountains of Utah. With what they call the “greatest snow on Earth,” winter blesses Utah. During the last ski season, nearly 4 1/2 million skiers and snowboarders visited the State, generating over $1.3 billion in spending. According to the Utah Office of Tourism and the University of Utah, almost 1 in 10 jobs in Utah is in tourism.

Well, whether it is ski boots or boat shoes, there is no question that significant portions of both Utah’s and Rhode Island’s economies are tangled in the consequences of climate change.

Rhode Island has already seen winter surface temperatures in Narragansett Bay increase by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1960s, and the sea level at the Newport Naval Station tide gauge is up almost 10 inches since the 1930s. We are seeing more flooding and erosion along our coast, threatening our shore side businesses and homes. Fish stocks are shifting in search of cooler waters, upsetting the ecological balance of Narragansett Bay and endangering Rhode Island’s traditional fisheries.

Out in Utah, there is not much saltwater fishing going on, but they have their own issues. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, average temperatures have already risen two full degrees Fahrenheit there over the past 100 years. During my visit in early August, the National Weather Service reported that for the first time in the 144 years that they had been measuring, Salt Lake City had five nights in a row with low temperatures over 78 degrees and 21 straight days with high temperatures over 95 degrees. Heat waves can have public health consequences, especially for the young and the elderly, but this warming also has serious implications for Utah’s fabled ski industry.

I visited with Ski Utah and with professional skiers from the group Protect Our Winters, folks who make their living out on the slopes. They spoke about the shortened winter seasons and depleting snowpack. Snowy Thanksgivings have historically kicked off the resorts’ winter season, but Utah is seeing more and more weeks of rain. Resorts are forced to make snow, but manmade snow can’t match nature’s “greatest snow on Earth.”

In his book “Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth,” Dr. Jim Steenburgh of the University of Utah summarizes how Utah meteorologists Leigh Sturges and John Horel foresee snow versus rain at major Utah ski resorts under different climate change scenarios. Steenburgh writes:

For a temperature rise of 1 [degree centigrade] (about 1.8 [degrees Fahrenheit]), about 10 percent of the precipitation that currently falls as snow would instead fall as rain at 7,000 feet (roughly the base elevation of Canyons, Park City, and Deer Valley).

At 9,500 feet (midmountain at Snowbird and Alta and upper mountain at Canyons, Park City, and Deer Valley), however, it’s only 3 percent.

The numbers get worse, however, with greater warming. For a 4 [degree centigrade] temperature increase (about 7.2 [degrees Fahrenheit]), about 40 percent of the precipitation that currently falls as snow would instead fall as rain at 7,000 feet. At 9,500 feet, it’s about 20 percent.

This troubling future led Ski Utah’s 14 resorts to get together and send a letter last year to Utah Governor Gary Herbert, asking the State to take action on climate change by implementing the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Diminishing snowpack in these mountains is not only troubling for the ski and snowboard industry; it also jeopardizes Utah’s water supply. Roughly 70 percent of Salt Lake City’s drinking water comes from snowpack melt in the spring and summer. Snowpack is Utah’s natural reservoir.

Utah is the second driest State in the union, but it has one of the highest average per capita rates of water usage. And Utah’s population is growing as well, expected to double by 2050 to around 6 million souls.

Agriculture is the largest consumer of freshwater in the State. Over 80 percent of Utah water goes to farmers and ranchers. Abbreviated winters mean less snowfall, which means less snowpack, which means less water for Utah’s rivers, lakes, and farms in the summer months.

With increasingly hot, dry summers, Utah is primed for drought. According to the U.S. Drought Portal, as of August 30, over half the State was experiencing “abnormally dry” conditions. Around 5 percent of the State was in “moderate drought.” As recently as the summer of 2012, Utah had seen upwards of 30 percent of the State in “extreme drought.” USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service says Utah’s traditional reservoirs were at just 47 percent of capacity in August, down from only 51 percent of capacity at the same time last year.

I saw firsthand the consequences of Utah’s water problem during my visit to the Great Salt Lake. I joined the Nature Conservancy at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve. We walked out on wooden walkways over the marshes, but there was no need. The ground below was bone dry. The preserve is an important stopover for several million migratory shorebirds, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Now, this is perhaps a small thing, but there is a beautiful bird called Wilson’s phalarope that flies a 3,000-mile migration from the Patagonian lowlands in South America. Around a third of the world’s population comes to the Great Salt Lake. Its migration of more than 3,000 miles is just one more of God’s natural miracles.

Researchers from Utah State University, Salt Lake Community College, and the Utah Divisions of Wildlife Resources and Water Resources found that the lake’s volume has fallen by nearly half since the first pioneers reached its shores in 1847. The lake’s surface has dropped 11 feet. This has left roughly half of the former lakebed–marked here in white–now dry, and it has driven up the remaining lake area’s salinity and its concentration of chemical contaminants. The disappearing lake means less habitat for birds like the Wilson’s phalarope and for the brine shrimp and the other lake critters that they hunt.

The exposed lake bed contains contaminants of Utah’s and this lake’s industrial past. The dust containing those contaminants now compromises air quality in Salt Lake City, whipped up from the old lake bed. It also affects the other cities along Utah’s Wasatch Front. I met with Utah Moms for Clean Air, who describe the poor air quality in some of the State’s largest cities. Given its topography, this region is prone to ground-level ozone in the summer and inversions in the winter. Inversions are layers of air which trap particulate matter in the valley. These contaminants can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems, particularly in children. Due to that, Salt Lake County gets an F from the American Lung Association for both ozone and particulates.

The state as a whole didn’t do much better, averaging an ‘F’ for ozone and ‘D’ for particulate matter. World-class athletes can’t train in that air and world-beating companies don’t want to move employees into that air so Utah takes this seriously, and Utahans are taking action.

Utah gets a lot of sunshine, and Utah is a leader in solar energy. I met with some of Utah’s clean energy leaders at the Real Salt Lake Major League Soccer stadium, where one of Utah’s largest solar panel arrays provides more than 70 percent of that facility’s energy needs. Auric Solar, the Utah company that installed the solar panels, has averaged more than 170 percent annual growth since 2010. sPower, another solar company headquartered in Salt Lake City, told me their various projects are installing in total around 3 megawatts of solar generation every day.

On July 13, Salt Lake City mayor Jackie Biskupski signed a joint resolution with her city council, pledging to transition the city to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2032 and to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2040. That is in Utah.

I also stopped in Park City, UT. Park City has its own goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 through a combination of increased access to renewable energy, efficiency incentives for homeowners, and expanded recycling. Park City is often seen as an affluent resort, but one-quarter of its residents live below the poverty line. Outside of Park City, the rest of Summit County is mostly rural. It was the county and city governments that partnered, along with local power providers, to form the Summit Community Power Works, an effort to encourage energy efficiency improvement along all economic levels in the county.

It is working. They have done things such as retrofit the town’s affordable housing units with LED lightbulbs, taking impressive steps to increase efficiency and reduce carbon footprints. They don’t have the ability locally to change zoning laws or building codes. In Utah that is all controlled by the State. Offering just the economic benefits of efficiency and limited financial incentives, they are already seeing inspiring results.

I left Utah optimistic. State climatologist Dr. Rob Gillies and the other climate scientists I met with from the University of Utah, Utah State University, and Brigham Young University are eager to see their research on climate change reflected in their State’s clean energy goals. In all of my meetings and tours, I was struck by the industriousness and self-reliance demonstrated by Utah’s climate and clean energy leaders. They are determined to stave off climate change and provide a healthy future for their children and grandchildren.

We in Congress owe it to them and to Americans in every State working to preserve a healthy climate to be every bit as serious as they are about the science and just as committed as they are to tackling the greatest environmental challenge of our lifetime. It may mean telling the fossil fuel industry to shove off. They have far too much control of this body. I will tell you this. If the Earth’s greatest democracy can’t handle one greedy special interest, even if it is the world’s biggest greedy special interest, then we will deserve and earn our fate.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.