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July 19, 2004
Study says pollution may add to drought
By Molly Ball
Air pollution from coal-burning power plants may be worsening the region's current drought, according to research by scientists with Nevada's Desert Research Institute.
Pollutants in the air, traceable to coal plants in Western states, are reducing the water content of Rocky Mountain snowfall, possibly by as much as 25 percent, said one of the scientists, Randy Borys, director of the institute's Storm Peak Laboratory in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
"We have documented cases where half of the water was not snowing out of clouds because of air pollution," Borys said last week.
Borys' research, which he has been pursuing for about six years, was published most recently in the May 2003 issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.  Those results documented individual clouds whose snowfall was reduced by as much as 50 percent.
Now Borys, whose lab is on a mountaintop, is testing the overall reduction in water in the total snowpack, which he believes could be as high as 25 percent.
That snowpack is the source of most of Nevada's water supply — 85 to 90 percent, said Ken Albright, director of resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.  Snowfall in the Rockies melts and flows southwest via the Colorado River.
If Borys' research is correct, Albright said, "It's going to have huge implications for the region.  This could dramatically change the way the West deals with water supply."
In the last five years, flow into the region's water system has averaged only 50 percent of normal levels, Albright noted.
Albright said he had not previously heard of Borys' findings, but if they were correct, "We'd still be in the midst of a drought, but it wouldn't be nearly as severe."
"If this is true, it poses new questions for water managers throughout the region on the global relationship between industry and human interaction with the environment," Albright added.  "This is huge."
Borys pointed out that even if the West were facing an overabundance of water in the Colorado River, air pollutants would still be acting on clouds to prevent snow from falling.  The water reduction he documents is not a cause of the drought, he said, since climate phenomena such as droughts are produced by big-picture changes in the overall atmospheric system.
"But if there is a drought, this is going to exacerbate it," he said.
The Desert Research Institute, which is part of the University and Community College System of Nevada, acquired the Colorado laboratory because the weather phenomena observable there have important consequences for Nevada, institute spokesman Ron Kalb said.
"There are some instances where you have to take the scientist to the environment, because you can't take the environment to the scientist," Kalb said.
The lab was rebuilt in 1995 for about $218,000, Kalb said.  That money came from the institute's grants and contracts, not the state of Nevada, he noted.
Borys' findings center on the way clouds form and the causes of rain and snow.  Like the oyster that seizes on a grain of sand to form a pearl, water droplets in storm clouds form around tiny airborne particles.  The particles can be natural, such as sea salt or dust, or manmade.
Borys found that some clouds had so many of the particles that too many tiny drops formed.  The same amount of water was split up into many small droplets instead of a few larger ones.  The problem is, droplets must reach a certain size to be heavy enough to fall out of the cloud as precipitation.
"On occasion, half of the snow that might fall is not falling" because it's tied up in droplets too tiny to drop, Borys said.  The droplets probably evaporate instead, never reaching the mountain snowpack, he said.
The particles involved, Borys found, were mainly sulfates and nitrates, which typically enter the atmosphere due to coal-burning power plants.  He used weather patterns to trace the particles to electric plants in Western states.
Despite the proven negative effects of pollution from burning coal, "the interior West is experiencing a resurgence in proposed new coal-fired power plants unlike any we have witnessed in a generation," said Vickie Patton, a Colorado-based representative for the nonprofit Environmental Defense.
According to Energy Argus, a commercial service that tracks energy projects, new coal plants are being proposed in Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico.  One-third of the electricity generated by those proposed plants would be in Nevada.
If even a few of those plants are built, Patton said, "the Western airshed would experience a significant rise in the two pollutants that are singled out in the DRI study, not to mention a staggering and unmitigated addition of greenhouse gases."
For several years, environmental scientists have believed in theory that pollutants affected precipitation, but Borys' research provides proof, said Jana Milford, a University of Colorado professor and Environmental Defense senior scientist.
"It's extremely valuable to have this empirical, observational evidence of the effects of pollution on climate," Milford said.
"Mountain snowfall is so critical to this region," she added.  "This study needs to be taken seriously" as a cause for concern to policymakers and the public."
More than half of the power generated in the U.S. comes from coal; proponents say new technologies have made coal power cleaner, and it remains cheaper than nuclear, natural gas or alternative energy sources.
The energy industry says that the effects on air quality and human health of the atmospheric particles produced by coal burning have been overstated.
Representatives of the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group, and the industry-sponsored nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute declined to comment on the implications of Borys' research because they were not familiar with it.
To Borys, the meaning is clear.  "I'm hoping some of our work demonstrates that pollutants have another reason to concern us," he said.
"Air pollution knows no boundaries," he added, citing oil fires in Kuwait and dust storms in Mongolia that produced effects literally across the globe.  "We're all in the same soup, so to speak.  Everyone needs to take responsibility to make sure we do our part to maintain our environment."

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