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As Climate Changes Makes Desert Water Scarce, the Debate over Livestock vs. Wildlife Heats Up

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Monday, December 19, 2022

Tucked away from humans in hard-to-reach places, hundreds of artificial water catchments—AWCs, also known as guzzlers—dot the arid Southwest landscape, collecting rainwater for wildlife to drink. The introduction of livestock to the arid environment in the late 1800s and early 1900s, along with legislated prioritization of grazing rights, altered or usurped many natural water sources for the area’s native species. At the same time, the image of the West as an agrarian Eden, with plenty of land and sunshine, brought agricultural investment to Southern California–where water is in short supply. This in turn fostered large-scale water diversion and set precedence for putting agricultural water needs over wildlife. By the 1940s, state and federal land management agencies acknowledged a decline in numbers of wild animals—which presented a problem for recreational hunting. To maintain healthy wildlife populations for recreation on public lands, they installed what would become a network of AWCs throughout the Southwest. Originally for quail and small game, new designs were added over the years for larger animals. In the ’70s and ’80s, guzzler installation expanded to mitigate loss of water sources to drought and development. In Southern California deserts, where water is scant and ranchers reigned for more than a century, guzzlers became a go-to solution for thirsty native wildlife, including endangered and threatened species, sidelined by grazing cattle. As climate change has increased the severity of drought and continued to test the limits of desert animal survival, guzzlers have become a lifeline for many species. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 2022 is the driest in 128 years of record-keeping in California. Neal Darby, a National Park Service biologist in Mojave National Preserve for 15 years, often visits these man-made storage systems—sometimes carrying water on his back—to top off tanks or make repairs. He has seen the difference they can make for struggling species. A U.S. Marine helicopter delivers water to a guzzler in southern California. “Water was considered the primary limiting factor in recovery and conservation of desert environments,” he said. “Rain catchment and storage systems were designed to put permanent water sources across the landscape to complement water sources developed for livestock interests.” A 2016–17 study in the preserve showed the guzzlers’ impact: 44 mammal species visited artificial water catchments, “which supports the long-held assumption that AWCs may benefit wildlife in arid habitats.” Recording devices have captured tortoises, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, ringtail, quail, bats, birds—even bathing burrowing owls—and a whole cast of characters frequenting these lifelines. Like anything water-related in California, however, this wildlife-friendly water catchment system is controversial. When it comes to negotiating water rights, wildlife does not have a seat at the table. Environmental and agricultural advocates often find themselves at odds over water allocation and management, which historically favors the $50 billion agriculture industry in the state. And protections for wildlife are hard-won and heavily litigated. When it comes to negotiating water rights, wildlife does not have a seat at the table. Environmental and agricultural advocates often find themselves at odds over water allocation and management, which historically favors the state’s agriculture industry. Though guzzlers don’t require water diversion, AWCs in desert regions rely on rain to fill, and the “rainy season” is now less reliable. Additionally, filling them manually can be a costly undertaking. Moreover, some scientists think it’s unhealthy for wildlife to depend on man-made water sources. But, as California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) biologist Janene Colby pointed out, in some particularly drought-stricken habitats—such as one area of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park known to support endangered Peninsular bighorn—guzzlers are the only viable sources of water for miles around. Although government agencies are mandated to protect wildlife on public lands, it’s not always clear how that includes guzzlers. Man-made water sources fall in and out of favor with leadership in Anza-Borrego and Mojave, two of Southern California’s protected deserts still grappling with the impacts of grazing. To Intervene—or Not—in Wild Landscapes Simple design makes guzzlers durable and low-maintenance: a collection lid or apron channels rainfall, runoff, or snowmelt into a tank below (sometimes underground), holding a couple hundred to 10,000 gallons. Animals access the water using a built-in ramp or external drinker box. Some have cattle exclusion fences and brush piles that create cover from predators; some include extra traction or escape ramps to prevent small animals from drowning. During drought, guzzlers provide a ready supply of drinking water and supplement moisture intake to compensate for extremely dry vegetation. “Availability of water probably helps with digestion and nutrient uptake to help animals persist despite poor forage conditions. It also helps many animals dissipate their body heat so they can handle the heat better,” said Darby. Ironically, said Darby, “the biggest conflicts we have are the Wilderness Act and the ‘Organic Act,’”—a nickname for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. According to these pieces of legislation, land management agencies must perpetuate the natural state of ecosystems and eschew man-made alterations on designated lands. That includes guzzlers. “Some people say, ‘If there wasn’t water here before, there shouldn’t be any here now,’” Darby explains. “[Guzzlers] don’t necessarily fit in with wildlife values, but so many springs are taken for ranching, mining, and grazing—guzzlers in some areas are the only thing keeping wildlife alive.” “If a species requires ongoing habitat manipulation to persist in a particular area—because we are unwilling to address underlying human-made causes of habitat change, because we are unwilling to let the species move to more suitable locations, or because natural processes favor a species evolution unfavorable to a particular species—do we opt for perpetually fabricated landscapes?” said Dana Johnson, attorney and policy director with Wilderness Watch, and a critic of the approach. “Guzzlers are often associated with heavy motorized intrusions—helicopters for dropping water, vehicle use for access and maintenance, heavy equipment use—and their purpose is to perpetually manipulate the environment to maintain desired conditions at the expense of natural processes,” Johnson said. “Guzzler opponents point to the historical purpose of artificial water systems—to grow wildlife to hunt them—and say adding water artificially inflates animal populations,” said Brendan Cummings of Center for Biological Diversity, who was once in the “absolutely no guzzlers” camp. He was a lawyer on a suit that halted Mojave National Preserve’s plans to add more guzzlers in the early 2000s. “[Guzzlers] don’t necessarily fit in with wildlife values,” said former CDFW biologist Laura Cunningham, who worked in the Mojave for decades and is current California director of the Western Watersheds Project. “But so many springs are taken for ranching, mining, and grazing—guzzlers in some areas are the only thing keeping wildlife alive,” she said. A Water Drop for Bighorn Sheep “Allocating water for wildlife is often up to one or two people who recognize an issue and choose to move forward with it,” said retired Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Superintendent Mark Jorgensen. And it’s often up to the charisma of a few key species to rally support. Jorgensen is one of those people; peninsular bighorn sheep is one of those species. Found only in the arid eastern mountains of Southern California, total bighorn numbers had dwindled to about 300 when it made the endangered list in 1998 due to drought, habitat loss, and disease from cows. Jorgensen recognized the park’s duty to revive bighorn back in the 1970s. “We are not going to restore desert wilderness if we’ve taken away all the water,” he remembers realizing. Partnering with CDFW and multiple volunteers—including hunting organizations—Jorgensen and his staff installed 10 rainwater guzzlers throughout Anza-Borrego’s 600,000-acre terrain. By the time he retired in 2009, a coordinated recovery effort had brought the total peninsular bighorn population up to almost 800. But park leadership did not prioritize guzzler upkeep after Jorgensen left. Ongoing drought left some dry; others deteriorated under harsh desert conditions. At the same time, a study of the Lower Colorado desert from 1984 to 2017 showed vegetation cover decreased by about 35 percent due to the warming climate. When several endangered bighorn sheep were found dead near a dry guzzler in Anza-Borrego in 2020, CDFW scientist Colby contended that—by allowing guzzlers to fall into disrepair—park officials had failed to carry out their duty to protect the borregos. In a population that small (now about 900), every sheep counts. “Bighorn sheep are important, but to what end are we watering a desert?” Despite initial resistance from senior state park scientist Danny McCamish, who expressed concern that guzzlers were “bolstering a man-made false population,” Colby arranged Anza- Borrego’s first-ever emergency water drop. With help from a helicopter supplied by nearby Marines, Colby and her crew hustled to repair and fill a guzzler near Whale Peak—on a 115-degree day. Similar operations have taken place for Riverside and Mojave county guzzlers. But at a cost of up to $65,000 for just one water drop to just one guzzler, with funds and supplies donated, water drops are not a sustainable solution. McCamish agrees and questions the ongoing support of guzzlers. “Bighorn sheep are important,” he told a reporter in April 2022, “but to what end are we watering a desert?” The Usurping of Native Water Sources by Ranchers After the Gold Rush, ranchers raising cows and sheep (not bighorn) set the course of water use in San Diego’s backcountry. Homesteading and farming accompanied the cattle, putting additional pressure on desert water sources. In the 1860s, on one of only two year-round wetlands in Anza-Borrego, in the central part of what is now the state park, the Sentenac brothers built a cabin and started raising goats, cattle, and domestic sheep. Shortly thereafter, they began piping water from nearby San Felipe Creek to fill a cattle trough. San Diego cattleman George Sawday later started his famous livestock empire on that land, pumping water from the creek and the wetland to support his burgeoning herds. Ranchers were also in the practice of burning native vegetation to make way for grazing cattle and planting non-native tamarisk for windbreaks. Tamarisk’s extensive roots, which make it drought-hardy, change water flow patterns and alter the chemistry of the soil. For more than a century, tamarisk choked San Felipe Creek and Sentenac Cienega, further limiting water availability for wildlife. By 1910, almost 50,000 cattle roamed the region’s foothills and deserts. Though Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was established in 1933, grazing rights continued on the land until 1970, while a patchwork of private inholdings throughout the park continued to support cows. From the Riverside County line in the north to the Mexico border in the south, most prominent water sources were “usurped in some way,” Jorgensen said, altering the delicate desert balance to this day. “If you had looked at the map and plotted to rid the desert of its native water sources, you couldn’t have done a better job,” he said. Just 10 miles south of Sentenac Cienega, over a rugged smattering of mountains, at Vallecito Creek, a stage coach company and later a dairy farm replaced what had been a rich riparian habitat that supported deer, bobcat, mountain lions, birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, insects, and of course, bighorn—along with indigenous villages—and drained the water to feed domesticated animals. Ranching and agriculture continued there until the 1970s. And although the area around the creek is now a park, it’s still a popular camping spot where human use displaces wild animal use. This was one of the most critical vicinities Jorgensen identified to install AWCs for bighorn, in the ’80s and ’90s, when numbers in the Vallecito Mountains had dwindled to under 30. One of those guzzlers—at the site of the helicopter water drop—is currently the only water source for a local ewe group. Yearly counts show a resurgence in Vallecito Mountains peninsular bighorn, at a height of 150-175 in the greater area. Like water sources in San Diego County deserts, many springs and seeps throughout the Mojave, just over 200 miles to the northeast, were tapped for cattle starting in the late 1800s. Ranching in the vast desert area—with grazing allotments on public lands—continued for more than a century, even after the Desert Protection Act set aside 1.6 million acres for Mojave National Preserve (MNP) in 1994. That meant local fauna and bovine visitors shared water—both developed and natural sources. But that didn’t work well for some species, like easily spooked bighorn or quail. And the impact of cattle trampling vegetation also challenged how native desert species survived in their own habitat. Starting in the 1970s, the Bureau of Land Management and CDFW installed 134 small game guzzlers and six for big game in what is now MNP, along with “wildlife friendly” fencing that kept cows (and wild burros) from accessing certain streams while other animals could jump or duck in for a drink. As the Ranching Era Ends, Infrastructure Questions Remain In 2001, environmental groups precipitated the end of most grazing in Mojave National Preserve, contending it violated the 1994 Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan. With the end of the ranching era, park leadership began to remove the wells, pipes, windmills, pumps, and troughs that had sustained cattle—and incidentally provided water for wildlife—for more than 100 years. But conservationists and hunters alike worried that animal populations, particularly mule deer, were declining without access to these watering systems. CDFW proposed to convert abandoned livestock wells to guzzlers. That’s when Center for Biological Diversity stepped in with the lawsuit that halted the conversion, alleging that guzzlers harm wildlife, especially desert tortoise, a few of which were found dead inside tanks. Cummings, now a conservation director with the organization, said “poorly maintained guzzlers were basically death traps for tortoises,” and that he has a file filled with photos of tortoise carcasses from when he worked on the case. Though the conversion plan had already been approved by the National Parks Service, in 2005 Mojave’s superintendent nixed it at the last minute. Darby said those tortoises did not necessarily drown; they probably climbed in there to live out their last moments in a cool, protected spot. The Preserve staff then launched research into the efficacy of man-made water sources, with mule deer as the subject. Preliminary results showed higher survival rates in areas with guzzler access. But several years into it, the preserve’s next superintendent stopped the study. Under Todd Suess, the Preserve management plan for developed water resources proposed removal or neglect of all guzzlers and abandoned wells in accordance with the Wilderness Act. Lucky for him, Darby said, current leadership is supportive of catchment systems. But even with support, he said, the Wilderness Act makes guzzler maintenance tricky: it prohibits heavy equipment on the preserve, which disturbs the character of the land, said Dana Johnson, and “stresses the animals further.” Instead of heading straight to the sites, Darby and his crew take a circuitous route on non-preserve land, pull the tanker up to the very edge of the preserve, and then deploy several hundred feet of hose to pump water to the guzzler. “We actively maintain all bighorn sheep guzzlers,” Darby said, “even hauling water to replenish them if they go dry. This is because bighorn is such a keystone animal in the desert.” Darby’s most recent Mojave guzzler refill was on September 17 in the Jackass Mountains, in collaboration with the Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. While guzzlers cannot bring back vegetation, habitat, or natural water sources, Jorgensen is hopeful that Anza-Borrego superintendent Ray Lennox “will do what needs to be done” to repair the ones he put in. Jorgensen heard through the grapevine that helicopters are lined up to do tank replacements, and a long-term guzzler maintenance plan is in the works. The Need for an Overarching Wildlife Management Plan Since the tortoise lawsuit, Cummings said his view of guzzlers has evolved in light of climate change. “It’s a lot hotter than it was back then,” he said. “We’ve altered the climate, and that’s dried up natural water sources. Bird species diversity in Mojave is half of what it was 30 years ago, due to drought and water stress. Wildlife is increasingly dependent on artificial water sources.” The guzzler controversy, Cummings said, “is part of a much broader issue: our wildlife management is not changing as fast as the climate.” “We’ve altered the climate, and that’s dried up natural water sources. Bird species diversity in Mojave is half of what it was 30 years ago, due to drought and water stress. Wildlife is increasingly dependent on artificial water sources.” Opponents and proponents of guzzlers do agree on one thing: “fighting for water for wildlife is really hard,” said Cunningham of Western Watersheds Project. There’s no overarching plan on how to protect water sources for wildlife; no coordinated effort among agencies. And besides protected areas where advocates fight for exceptions, decades-old rules prioritize livestock water use and grazing rights on public lands. “We’ve seen severe drought for years, and yet domestic livestock grazing on public lands continues without any meaningful restriction. The same problem exists with water diversion for human uses. We could give meaningful consideration to wildlife as a ‘stakeholder,’ but we often don’t,” said Dana Johnson. Even California’s landmark water legislation, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, does not provide specific protections of water for wildlife: there’s a burden of proof on CDFW to show how misuse would harm Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems. “We need to think about how to change land management paradigms,” said Cummings. “Right now, responses are reactive, not well thought out. It’s clear that species recovery under a changing climate requires some level of human intervention.” The solution is twofold, Cummings believes. “Do as much as we can to protect desert groundwater and make sure surface waters are flowing, and climate-informed revisitation of guzzlers,” he said, noting that as they proceed, leaders need to be asking, “Where does it make the most sense to have artificial water?” The post As Climate Changes Makes Desert Water Scarce, the Debate over Livestock vs. Wildlife Heats Up appeared first on Civil Eats.

The introduction of livestock to the arid environment in the late 1800s and early 1900s, along with legislated prioritization of grazing rights, altered or usurped many natural water sources for the area’s native species. At the same time, the image of the West as an agrarian Eden, with plenty of land and sunshine, brought agricultural […] The post As Climate Changes Makes Desert Water Scarce, the Debate over Livestock vs. Wildlife Heats Up appeared first on Civil Eats.

Tucked away from humans in hard-to-reach places, hundreds of artificial water catchments—AWCs, also known as guzzlers—dot the arid Southwest landscape, collecting rainwater for wildlife to drink.

The introduction of livestock to the arid environment in the late 1800s and early 1900s, along with legislated prioritization of grazing rights, altered or usurped many natural water sources for the area’s native species. At the same time, the image of the West as an agrarian Eden, with plenty of land and sunshine, brought agricultural investment to Southern California–where water is in short supply. This in turn fostered large-scale water diversion and set precedence for putting agricultural water needs over wildlife.

By the 1940s, state and federal land management agencies acknowledged a decline in numbers of wild animals—which presented a problem for recreational hunting. To maintain healthy wildlife populations for recreation on public lands, they installed what would become a network of AWCs throughout the Southwest. Originally for quail and small game, new designs were added over the years for larger animals.

In the ’70s and ’80s, guzzler installation expanded to mitigate loss of water sources to drought and development. In Southern California deserts, where water is scant and ranchers reigned for more than a century, guzzlers became a go-to solution for thirsty native wildlife, including endangered and threatened species, sidelined by grazing cattle. As climate change has increased the severity of drought and continued to test the limits of desert animal survival, guzzlers have become a lifeline for many species. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 2022 is the driest in 128 years of record-keeping in California.

Neal Darby, a National Park Service biologist in Mojave National Preserve for 15 years, often visits these man-made storage systems—sometimes carrying water on his back—to top off tanks or make repairs. He has seen the difference they can make for struggling species.

A US Marine helicopter delivers water to a guzzler in southern California.

A U.S. Marine helicopter delivers water to a guzzler in southern California.

“Water was considered the primary limiting factor in recovery and conservation of desert environments,” he said. “Rain catchment and storage systems were designed to put permanent water sources across the landscape to complement water sources developed for livestock interests.”

A 2016–17 study in the preserve showed the guzzlers’ impact: 44 mammal species visited artificial water catchments, “which supports the long-held assumption that AWCs may benefit wildlife in arid habitats.” Recording devices have captured tortoises, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, ringtail, quail, bats, birds—even bathing burrowing owls—and a whole cast of characters frequenting these lifelines.

Like anything water-related in California, however, this wildlife-friendly water catchment system is controversial. When it comes to negotiating water rights, wildlife does not have a seat at the table. Environmental and agricultural advocates often find themselves at odds over water allocation and management, which historically favors the $50 billion agriculture industry in the state. And protections for wildlife are hard-won and heavily litigated.

When it comes to negotiating water rights, wildlife does not have a seat at the table. Environmental and agricultural advocates often find themselves at odds over water allocation and management, which historically favors the state’s agriculture industry.

Though guzzlers don’t require water diversion, AWCs in desert regions rely on rain to fill, and the “rainy season” is now less reliable. Additionally, filling them manually can be a costly undertaking. Moreover, some scientists think it’s unhealthy for wildlife to depend on man-made water sources.

But, as California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) biologist Janene Colby pointed out, in some particularly drought-stricken habitats—such as one area of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park known to support endangered Peninsular bighorn—guzzlers are the only viable sources of water for miles around.

Although government agencies are mandated to protect wildlife on public lands, it’s not always clear how that includes guzzlers. Man-made water sources fall in and out of favor with leadership in Anza-Borrego and Mojave, two of Southern California’s protected deserts still grappling with the impacts of grazing.

To Intervene—or Not—in Wild Landscapes

Simple design makes guzzlers durable and low-maintenance: a collection lid or apron channels rainfall, runoff, or snowmelt into a tank below (sometimes underground), holding a couple hundred to 10,000 gallons.

Animals access the water using a built-in ramp or external drinker box. Some have cattle exclusion fences and brush piles that create cover from predators; some include extra traction or escape ramps to prevent small animals from drowning.

During drought, guzzlers provide a ready supply of drinking water and supplement moisture intake to compensate for extremely dry vegetation. “Availability of water probably helps with digestion and nutrient uptake to help animals persist despite poor forage conditions. It also helps many animals dissipate their body heat so they can handle the heat better,” said Darby.

Ironically, said Darby, “the biggest conflicts we have are the Wilderness Act and the ‘Organic Act,’”—a nickname for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. According to these pieces of legislation, land management agencies must perpetuate the natural state of ecosystems and eschew man-made alterations on designated lands. That includes guzzlers.

“Some people say, ‘If there wasn’t water here before, there shouldn’t be any here now,’” Darby explains.

“[Guzzlers] don’t necessarily fit in with wildlife values, but so many springs are taken for ranching, mining, and grazing—guzzlers in some areas are the only thing keeping wildlife alive.”

“If a species requires ongoing habitat manipulation to persist in a particular area—because we are unwilling to address underlying human-made causes of habitat change, because we are unwilling to let the species move to more suitable locations, or because natural processes favor a species evolution unfavorable to a particular species—do we opt for perpetually fabricated landscapes?” said Dana Johnson, attorney and policy director with Wilderness Watch, and a critic of the approach.

“Guzzlers are often associated with heavy motorized intrusions—helicopters for dropping water, vehicle use for access and maintenance, heavy equipment use—and their purpose is to perpetually manipulate the environment to maintain desired conditions at the expense of natural processes,” Johnson said.

“Guzzler opponents point to the historical purpose of artificial water systems—to grow wildlife to hunt them—and say adding water artificially inflates animal populations,” said Brendan Cummings of Center for Biological Diversity, who was once in the “absolutely no guzzlers” camp. He was a lawyer on a suit that halted Mojave National Preserve’s plans to add more guzzlers in the early 2000s.

“[Guzzlers] don’t necessarily fit in with wildlife values,” said former CDFW biologist Laura Cunningham, who worked in the Mojave for decades and is current California director of the Western Watersheds Project. “But so many springs are taken for ranching, mining, and grazing—guzzlers in some areas are the only thing keeping wildlife alive,” she said.

A Water Drop for Bighorn Sheep

“Allocating water for wildlife is often up to one or two people who recognize an issue and choose to move forward with it,” said retired Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Superintendent Mark Jorgensen. And it’s often up to the charisma of a few key species to rally support.

Jorgensen is one of those people; peninsular bighorn sheep is one of those species. Found only in the arid eastern mountains of Southern California, total bighorn numbers had dwindled to about 300 when it made the endangered list in 1998 due to drought, habitat loss, and disease from cows. Jorgensen recognized the park’s duty to revive bighorn back in the 1970s.

“We are not going to restore desert wilderness if we’ve taken away all the water,” he remembers realizing.

Partnering with CDFW and multiple volunteers—including hunting organizations—Jorgensen and his staff installed 10 rainwater guzzlers throughout Anza-Borrego’s 600,000-acre terrain. By the time he retired in 2009, a coordinated recovery effort had brought the total peninsular bighorn population up to almost 800.

But park leadership did not prioritize guzzler upkeep after Jorgensen left. Ongoing drought left some dry; others deteriorated under harsh desert conditions. At the same time, a study of the Lower Colorado desert from 1984 to 2017 showed vegetation cover decreased by about 35 percent due to the warming climate.

When several endangered bighorn sheep were found dead near a dry guzzler in Anza-Borrego in 2020, CDFW scientist Colby contended that—by allowing guzzlers to fall into disrepair—park officials had failed to carry out their duty to protect the borregos. In a population that small (now about 900), every sheep counts.

“Bighorn sheep are important, but to what end are we watering a desert?”

Despite initial resistance from senior state park scientist Danny McCamish, who expressed concern that guzzlers were “bolstering a man-made false population,” Colby arranged Anza- Borrego’s first-ever emergency water drop.

With help from a helicopter supplied by nearby Marines, Colby and her crew hustled to repair and fill a guzzler near Whale Peak—on a 115-degree day. Similar operations have taken place for Riverside and Mojave county guzzlers. But at a cost of up to $65,000 for just one water drop to just one guzzler, with funds and supplies donated, water drops are not a sustainable solution.

McCamish agrees and questions the ongoing support of guzzlers. “Bighorn sheep are important,” he told a reporter in April 2022, “but to what end are we watering a desert?”

The Usurping of Native Water Sources by Ranchers

After the Gold Rush, ranchers raising cows and sheep (not bighorn) set the course of water use in San Diego’s backcountry. Homesteading and farming accompanied the cattle, putting additional pressure on desert water sources.

In the 1860s, on one of only two year-round wetlands in Anza-Borrego, in the central part of what is now the state park, the Sentenac brothers built a cabin and started raising goats, cattle, and domestic sheep. Shortly thereafter, they began piping water from nearby San Felipe Creek to fill a cattle trough. San Diego cattleman George Sawday later started his famous livestock empire on that land, pumping water from the creek and the wetland to support his burgeoning herds.

Ranchers were also in the practice of burning native vegetation to make way for grazing cattle and planting non-native tamarisk for windbreaks. Tamarisk’s extensive roots, which make it drought-hardy, change water flow patterns and alter the chemistry of the soil. For more than a century, tamarisk choked San Felipe Creek and Sentenac Cienega, further limiting water availability for wildlife.

By 1910, almost 50,000 cattle roamed the region’s foothills and deserts. Though Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was established in 1933, grazing rights continued on the land until 1970, while a patchwork of private inholdings throughout the park continued to support cows. From the Riverside County line in the north to the Mexico border in the south, most prominent water sources were “usurped in some way,” Jorgensen said, altering the delicate desert balance to this day.

“If you had looked at the map and plotted to rid the desert of its native water sources, you couldn’t have done a better job,” he said.

Just 10 miles south of Sentenac Cienega, over a rugged smattering of mountains, at Vallecito Creek, a stage coach company and later a dairy farm replaced what had been a rich riparian habitat that supported deer, bobcat, mountain lions, birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, insects, and of course, bighorn—along with indigenous villages—and drained the water to feed domesticated animals. Ranching and agriculture continued there until the 1970s. And although the area around the creek is now a park, it’s still a popular camping spot where human use displaces wild animal use.

This was one of the most critical vicinities Jorgensen identified to install AWCs for bighorn, in the ’80s and ’90s, when numbers in the Vallecito Mountains had dwindled to under 30. One of those guzzlers—at the site of the helicopter water drop—is currently the only water source for a local ewe group. Yearly counts show a resurgence in Vallecito Mountains peninsular bighorn, at a height of 150-175 in the greater area.

Like water sources in San Diego County deserts, many springs and seeps throughout the Mojave, just over 200 miles to the northeast, were tapped for cattle starting in the late 1800s. Ranching in the vast desert area—with grazing allotments on public lands—continued for more than a century, even after the Desert Protection Act set aside 1.6 million acres for Mojave National Preserve (MNP) in 1994.

That meant local fauna and bovine visitors shared water—both developed and natural sources. But that didn’t work well for some species, like easily spooked bighorn or quail. And the impact of cattle trampling vegetation also challenged how native desert species survived in their own habitat.

Starting in the 1970s, the Bureau of Land Management and CDFW installed 134 small game guzzlers and six for big game in what is now MNP, along with “wildlife friendly” fencing that kept cows (and wild burros) from accessing certain streams while other animals could jump or duck in for a drink.

As the Ranching Era Ends, Infrastructure Questions Remain

In 2001, environmental groups precipitated the end of most grazing in Mojave National Preserve, contending it violated the 1994 Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan.

With the end of the ranching era, park leadership began to remove the wells, pipes, windmills, pumps, and troughs that had sustained cattle—and incidentally provided water for wildlife—for more than 100 years. But conservationists and hunters alike worried that animal populations, particularly mule deer, were declining without access to these watering systems. CDFW proposed to convert abandoned livestock wells to guzzlers.

That’s when Center for Biological Diversity stepped in with the lawsuit that halted the conversion, alleging that guzzlers harm wildlife, especially desert tortoise, a few of which were found dead inside tanks. Cummings, now a conservation director with the organization, said “poorly maintained guzzlers were basically death traps for tortoises,” and that he has a file filled with photos of tortoise carcasses from when he worked on the case.

Though the conversion plan had already been approved by the National Parks Service, in 2005 Mojave’s superintendent nixed it at the last minute. Darby said those tortoises did not necessarily drown; they probably climbed in there to live out their last moments in a cool, protected spot.

The Preserve staff then launched research into the efficacy of man-made water sources, with mule deer as the subject. Preliminary results showed higher survival rates in areas with guzzler access. But several years into it, the preserve’s next superintendent stopped the study. Under Todd Suess, the Preserve management plan for developed water resources proposed removal or neglect of all guzzlers and abandoned wells in accordance with the Wilderness Act.

Lucky for him, Darby said, current leadership is supportive of catchment systems. But even with support, he said, the Wilderness Act makes guzzler maintenance tricky: it prohibits heavy equipment on the preserve, which disturbs the character of the land, said Dana Johnson, and “stresses the animals further.”

Instead of heading straight to the sites, Darby and his crew take a circuitous route on non-preserve land, pull the tanker up to the very edge of the preserve, and then deploy several hundred feet of hose to pump water to the guzzler.

“We actively maintain all bighorn sheep guzzlers,” Darby said, “even hauling water to replenish them if they go dry. This is because bighorn is such a keystone animal in the desert.”

Darby’s most recent Mojave guzzler refill was on September 17 in the Jackass Mountains, in collaboration with the Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep.

While guzzlers cannot bring back vegetation, habitat, or natural water sources, Jorgensen is hopeful that Anza-Borrego superintendent Ray Lennox “will do what needs to be done” to repair the ones he put in. Jorgensen heard through the grapevine that helicopters are lined up to do tank replacements, and a long-term guzzler maintenance plan is in the works.

The Need for an Overarching Wildlife Management Plan

Since the tortoise lawsuit, Cummings said his view of guzzlers has evolved in light of climate change. “It’s a lot hotter than it was back then,” he said. “We’ve altered the climate, and that’s dried up natural water sources. Bird species diversity in Mojave is half of what it was 30 years ago, due to drought and water stress. Wildlife is increasingly dependent on artificial water sources.”

The guzzler controversy, Cummings said, “is part of a much broader issue: our wildlife management is not changing as fast as the climate.”

“We’ve altered the climate, and that’s dried up natural water sources. Bird species diversity in Mojave is half of what it was 30 years ago, due to drought and water stress. Wildlife is increasingly dependent on artificial water sources.”

Opponents and proponents of guzzlers do agree on one thing: “fighting for water for wildlife is really hard,” said Cunningham of Western Watersheds Project. There’s no overarching plan on how to protect water sources for wildlife; no coordinated effort among agencies. And besides protected areas where advocates fight for exceptions, decades-old rules prioritize livestock water use and grazing rights on public lands.

“We’ve seen severe drought for years, and yet domestic livestock grazing on public lands continues without any meaningful restriction. The same problem exists with water diversion for human uses. We could give meaningful consideration to wildlife as a ‘stakeholder,’ but we often don’t,” said Dana Johnson.

Even California’s landmark water legislation, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, does not provide specific protections of water for wildlife: there’s a burden of proof on CDFW to show how misuse would harm Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems.

“We need to think about how to change land management paradigms,” said Cummings. “Right now, responses are reactive, not well thought out. It’s clear that species recovery under a changing climate requires some level of human intervention.”

The solution is twofold, Cummings believes. “Do as much as we can to protect desert groundwater and make sure surface waters are flowing, and climate-informed revisitation of guzzlers,” he said, noting that as they proceed, leaders need to be asking, “Where does it make the most sense to have artificial water?”

The post As Climate Changes Makes Desert Water Scarce, the Debate over Livestock vs. Wildlife Heats Up appeared first on Civil Eats.

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Climate Change and Wild Turkeys: New Study Overturns Conventional Wisdom

A recent research study has discovered that rainfall during the nesting season does not impact the breeding success of wild turkeys, challenging the commonly held...

Research from North Carolina State University reveals that precipitation levels during wild turkey nesting season don’t significantly impact reproductive success, challenging traditional beliefs and complicating predictions about the effects of climate change on these populations.A recent research study has discovered that rainfall during the nesting season does not impact the breeding success of wild turkeys, challenging the commonly held belief about the importance of precipitation for wild turkey nesting success. This revelation provides fresh insights into the potential effects of climate change on wild turkey populations.“We wanted to know how weather influences nesting success right now, and then use that data to assess how climate change may influence wild turkey populations in the future,” says Wesley Boone, corresponding author of a paper on the work and a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University.“Wild turkeys are fairly tolerant of a wide range of conditions, but there are a host of factors that can affect their reproductive success,” says Chris Moorman, co-author of the study and a professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. “This work focused on two of those conditions, precipitation and temperature, and how they may influence nest survival during the incubation period.” For the study, researchers focused on daily nest survival, which is whether the eggs in the nest survive any given 24-hour period. Over the course of eight years, researchers monitored 715 turkey nests and collected daily precipitation and temperature data for each nest during the entire incubation period. For temperature, the researchers looked specifically at the extent to which temperatures at each nest varied from historical averages.The researchers analyzed all of this data to determine the extent to which precipitation and temperature were associated with daily nest survival.Findings on Precipitation and Temperature“The most surprising finding was that precipitation during nesting was not a good predictor of daily nest survival,” Moorman says. “It had been widely believed that particularly rainy weather made it more likely that eggs wouldn’t survive.”“We also found that temperatures which were higher than historical averages were associated with higher rates of daily nest survival during incubation,” says Boone. “Peak nesting season is generally in April, so we’re talking about warmer than average spring weather.”“Taken by itself, this might suggest that climate change could benefit turkey reproductive success and, by extension, turkey populations,” Moorman says. “However, we also looked at precipitation and temperature data for the months leading up to nesting season, and at the overall likelihood that a turkey nest will successfully hatch at least one egg. And when we looked at both of those datasets, things get a lot less clear.”“For example, the data suggest that more precipitation in January – long before nesting season – is associated with greater nest survival,” Boone says. “The data also suggest that higher temperatures in January are associated with worse nesting survival. But there is so much uncertainty related to those findings that it’s not clear whether there’s a real relationship there, or if it’s an anomaly. However, it does temper any enthusiasm we might have about the likelihood that climate change will benefit turkey populations.”Reference: “Robust assessment of associations between weather and eastern wild turkey nest success” by Wesley W. Boone, Christopher E. Moorman, David J. Moscicki, Bret A. Collier, Michael J. Chamberlain, Adam J. Terando and Krishna Pacifici, 15 November 2023, The Journal of Wildlife Management.DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.22524The paper was co-authored by David Moscicki, a Ph.D. student at NC State; Krishna Pacifici, an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources; Adam Terando, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Bret Collier, a professor of wildlife ecology at Louisiana State University; and Michael Chamberlain, the Terrell Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia.The research was done with support from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, which is headquartered at NC State; and from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, under McIntire Stennis Project Number 7001494. Additional support was provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources-Wildlife Resources Division, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia and the School of Renewable Natural Resources at Louisiana State University.

Coastal women in Bangladesh face health issues due to climate change

Women living in Bangladesh's coastal regions are severely affected by climate change-induced salinity, leading to various health complications. Famiha Suhrawardy reports for Dhaka Tribune.In short:The increased salinity in coastal areas has led to reproductive health issues among women, including miscarriages and difficulties in pregnancy.Local women suffer from waterborne diseases, hypertension, and respiratory infections due to a lack of safe drinking water.Initiatives by Brac, such as the installation of water tanks, have provided some relief, but challenges remain, particularly during dry seasons.Key quote: "It is a very troubling situation for the women living here. Due to the saline water, women face difficulty in getting pregnant and have miscarriages frequently." — Sumi Akter, Mongla resident.Why this matters: This issue highlights the direct human impact of climate change on health, particularly for vulnerable populations like women in coastal areas. It underscores the need for effective environmental and health policies to mitigate the consequences of climate change.LISTEN: Azmal Hossan on the sociology of climate crises in South Asia.

Women living in Bangladesh's coastal regions are severely affected by climate change-induced salinity, leading to various health complications. Famiha Suhrawardy reports for Dhaka Tribune.In short:The increased salinity in coastal areas has led to reproductive health issues among women, including miscarriages and difficulties in pregnancy.Local women suffer from waterborne diseases, hypertension, and respiratory infections due to a lack of safe drinking water.Initiatives by Brac, such as the installation of water tanks, have provided some relief, but challenges remain, particularly during dry seasons.Key quote: "It is a very troubling situation for the women living here. Due to the saline water, women face difficulty in getting pregnant and have miscarriages frequently." — Sumi Akter, Mongla resident.Why this matters: This issue highlights the direct human impact of climate change on health, particularly for vulnerable populations like women in coastal areas. It underscores the need for effective environmental and health policies to mitigate the consequences of climate change.LISTEN: Azmal Hossan on the sociology of climate crises in South Asia.

Arctic wildlife faces dire challenges amid record heat and ecosystem changes

The Arctic's rapid warming is causing significant shifts in ecosystems, posing severe threats to the region's wildlife.Sharon Guynup reports for Mongabay.In short:Arctic species are struggling to adapt to the dramatic changes in their habitats due to climate change.The loss of sea ice is affecting a wide range of species, from walruses to migratory birds.The rapid pace of these environmental changes is outstripping the ability of many species to adapt.Key quote:“Species can adapt over time, but they don’t have time, and ecosystems are really complicated. I’m not clear which species will prevail and where.”— Joel Clement, Arctic climate and policy expertWhy this matters:This situation in the Arctic is a reminder of the broader impacts of climate change on global biodiversity. It highlights the urgent need for effective climate action to mitigate these changes and protect vulnerable species.Read: Shorebird egg theft is becoming a big problem in the Arctic. And climate change is behind it.

The Arctic's rapid warming is causing significant shifts in ecosystems, posing severe threats to the region's wildlife.Sharon Guynup reports for Mongabay.In short:Arctic species are struggling to adapt to the dramatic changes in their habitats due to climate change.The loss of sea ice is affecting a wide range of species, from walruses to migratory birds.The rapid pace of these environmental changes is outstripping the ability of many species to adapt.Key quote:“Species can adapt over time, but they don’t have time, and ecosystems are really complicated. I’m not clear which species will prevail and where.”— Joel Clement, Arctic climate and policy expertWhy this matters:This situation in the Arctic is a reminder of the broader impacts of climate change on global biodiversity. It highlights the urgent need for effective climate action to mitigate these changes and protect vulnerable species.Read: Shorebird egg theft is becoming a big problem in the Arctic. And climate change is behind it.

Climate change triggers severe crawfish shortage in southern US

A combination of drought and extreme weather has led to a dramatic decrease in crawfish availability, impacting the economy and culture in the southern United States.Xander Peters reports for National Geographic.In short:Last year's drought and cold weather spells in Louisiana have caused a significant reduction in crawfish populations.The shortage has led to a 500% increase in crawfish prices, affecting local economies and cultural practices.The situation exemplifies the broader impact of climate change on regional food systems and livelihoods.Key quote:“It'll take four or five years before we get back where we're supposed to be.”— Zachary Hebert, crawfish farmerWhy this matters:The crawfish shortage in the southern U.S. highlights the vulnerability of local food systems to climate change. It underscores the need for sustainable practices and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.Be sure to read: Dead fish carry toxic mercury to the deep ocean, contaminating crustaceans.

A combination of drought and extreme weather has led to a dramatic decrease in crawfish availability, impacting the economy and culture in the southern United States.Xander Peters reports for National Geographic.In short:Last year's drought and cold weather spells in Louisiana have caused a significant reduction in crawfish populations.The shortage has led to a 500% increase in crawfish prices, affecting local economies and cultural practices.The situation exemplifies the broader impact of climate change on regional food systems and livelihoods.Key quote:“It'll take four or five years before we get back where we're supposed to be.”— Zachary Hebert, crawfish farmerWhy this matters:The crawfish shortage in the southern U.S. highlights the vulnerability of local food systems to climate change. It underscores the need for sustainable practices and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.Be sure to read: Dead fish carry toxic mercury to the deep ocean, contaminating crustaceans.

Another Big Question About AI: Its Carbon Footprint

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Two months after its release in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million active users, and suddenly tech corporations were racing to offer the public more “generative AI” Pundits compared the new technology’s impact to the Internet, or electrification, or the […]

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Two months after its release in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million active users, and suddenly tech corporations were racing to offer the public more “generative AI” Pundits compared the new technology’s impact to the Internet, or electrification, or the Industrial Revolution—or the discovery of fire. Time will sort hype from reality, but one consequence of the explosion of artificial intelligence is clear: this technology’s environmental footprint is large and growing. AI use is directly responsible for carbon emissions from non-renewable electricity and for the consumption of millions of gallons of fresh water, and it indirectly boosts impacts from building and maintaining the power-hungry equipment on which AI runs. As tech companies seek to embed high-intensity AI into everything from resume-writing to kidney transplant medicine and from choosing dog food to climate modeling, they cite many ways AI could help reduce humanity’s environmental footprint. But legislators, regulators, activists, and international organizations now want to make sure the benefits aren’t outweighed by AI’s mounting hazards. “The development of the next generation of AI tools cannot come at the expense of the health of our planet,” Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey (D) said last week in Washington, after he and other senators and representatives introduced a bill that would require the federal government to assess AI’s current environmental footprint and develop a standardized system for reporting future impacts. Similarly, the European Union’s “AI Act,” approved by member states last week, will require “high-risk AI systems” (which include the powerful “foundation models” that power ChatGPT and similar AIs) to report their energy consumption, resource use, and other impacts throughout their systems’ lifecycle. The EU law takes effect next year. “The models that are able to write a poem for you, or draft an email, those are very large,” says one expert—”too big for most personal devices.” Meanwhile, the International Organization for Standardization, a global network that develops standards for manufacturers, regulators, and others, says it will issue criteria for “sustainable AI” later this year. Those will include standards for measuring energy efficiency, raw material use, transportation, and water consumption, as well as practices for reducing AI impacts throughout its life cycle, from the process of mining materials and making computer components to the electricity consumed by its calculations. The ISO wants to enable AI users to make informed decisions about their AI consumption. Right now, it’s not possible to tell how your AI request for homework help or a picture of an astronaut riding a horse will affect carbon emissions or freshwater stocks. This is why 2024’s crop of “sustainable AI” proposals describe ways to get more information about AI impacts. In the absence of standards and regulations, tech companies have been reporting whatever they choose, however they choose, about their AI impact, says Shaolei Ren, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Riverside, who has been studying the water costs of computation for the past decade. Working from calculations of annual use of water for cooling systems by Microsoft, Ren estimates that a person who engages in a session of questions and answers with GPT-3 (roughly 10 t0 50 responses) drives the consumption of a half-liter of fresh water. “It will vary by region, and with a bigger AI, it could be more.” But a great deal remains unrevealed about the millions of gallons of water used to cool computers running AI, he says. The same is true of carbon. “Data scientists today do not have easy or reliable access to measurements of [greenhouse gas impacts from AI], which precludes development of actionable tactics,” a group of 10 prominent researchers on AI impacts wrote in a 2022 conference paper. Since they presented their article, AI applications and users have proliferated, but the public is still in the dark about those data, says Jesse Dodge, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, who was one of the paper’s coauthors. AI can run on many devices—the simple AI that autocorrects text messages will run on a smartphone. But the kind of AI people most want to use is too big for most personal devices, Dodge says. “The models that are able to write a poem for you, or draft an email, those are very large,” he says. “Size is vital for them to have those capabilities.” The IEA projects that global data centers’ electricity consumption in 2026 will be double that of 2022. Big AIs need to run immense numbers of calculations very quickly, usually on specialized Graphical Processing Units—processors originally designed for intense computation to render graphics on computer screens. Compared to other chips, GPUs are more energy-efficient for AI, and they’re most efficient when they’re run in large “cloud data centers”—specialized buildings full of computers equipped with those chips. The larger the data center, the more energy efficient it can be. Improvements in AI’s energy efficiency in recent years are partly due to the construction of more “hyperscale data centers,” which contain many more computers and can quickly scale up. Where a typical cloud data center occupies about 100,000 square feet, a hyperscale center can be 1 or even 2 million square feet. Estimates of the number of cloud data centers worldwide range from around 9,000 to nearly 11,000. More are under construction. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that data centers’ electricity consumption in 2026 will be double that of 2022—1,000 terawatts, roughly equivalent to Japan’s current total consumption. However, as an illustration of one problem with the way AI impacts are measured, that IEA estimate includes all data center activity, which extends beyond AI to many aspects of modern life. Running Amazon’s store interface, serving up Apple TV’s videos, storing millions of people’s emails on Gmail, and “mining” Bitcoin are also performed by data centers. (Other IEA reports exclude crypto operations, but still lump all other data-center activity together.) Most tech firms that run data centers don’t reveal what percentage of their energy use processes AI The exception is Google, which says “machine learning”—the basis for humanlike AI—accounts for somewhat less than 15 percent of its data centers’ energy use. In 2022, Google’s data centers consumed about 5 billion gallons (nearly 20 billion liters) of fresh water for cooling. Another complication is the fact that AI, unlike Bitcoin mining or online shopping, can be used to reduce humanity’s impacts. AI can improve climate models, find more efficient ways to make digital tech, reduce waste in transport, and otherwise cut carbon and water use. One estimate, for example, found that AI -run smart homes could reduce households’ CO₂ consumption by up to 40 percent. And a recent Google project found that an AI fast-crunching atmospheric data can guide airline pilots to flight paths that will leave the fewest contrails. Because contrails create more than a third of global aviation’s carbon emissions, “if the whole aviation industry took advantage of this single AI breakthrough,” says Dave Patterson, a computer-science professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a Google researcher, “this single discovery would save more CO₂ than the CO₂ from all AI in 2020.” Patterson’s analysis predicts that AI’s carbon footprint will soon plateau and then begin to shrink, thanks to improvements in the efficiency with which AI software and hardware use energy. One reflection of that efficiency improvement: as AI usage has increased since 2019, its percentage of Google data-center energy use has held at less than 15 percent. And while global internet traffic has increased more than twentyfold since 2010, the share of the world’s electricity used by data centers and networks increased far less, according to the IEA. However, data about improving efficiency doesn’t convince some skeptics, who cite a social phenomenon called “Jevons paradox”: Making a resource less costly sometimes increases its consumption in the long run. “It’s a rebound effect,” Ren says. “You make the freeway wider, people use less fuel because traffic moves faster, but then you get more cars coming in. You get more fuel consumption than before.” If home heating is 40 percent more efficient due to AI, one critic recently wrote, people could end up keeping their homes warmer for more hours of the day. “AI is an accelerant for everything,” Dodge says. “It makes whatever you’re developing go faster.” At the Allen Institute, AI has helped develop better programs to model the climate, track endangered species, and curb overfishing, he says. But globally AI could also support “a lot of applications that could accelerate climate change. This is where you get into ethical questions about what kind of AI you want.” If global electricity use can feel a bit abstract, data centers’ water use is a more local and tangible issue—particularly in drought-afflicted areas. To cool delicate electronics in the clean interiors of the data centers, water has to be free of bacteria and impurities that could gunk up the works. In other words, data centers often compete “for the same water people drink, cook, and wash with,” says Ren. In 2022, Ren says, Google’s data centers consumed about 5 billion gallons (nearly 20 billion liters) of fresh water for cooling. (“Consumptive use” does not include water that’s run through a building and then returned to its source.) According to a recent study by Ren, Google’s data centers used 20 percent more water in 2022 than they did in 2021, and Microsoft’s water use rose by 34 percent in the same period. (Google data centers host its Bard chatbot and other generative AIs; Microsoft servers host ChatGPT as well as its bigger siblings GPT-3 and GPT-4. All three are produced by OpenAI, in which Microsoft is a large investor.) As more data centers are built or expanded, their neighbors have been troubled to find out how much water they take. For example, in The Dalles, Oregon, where Google runs three data centers and plans two more, the city government filed a lawsuit in 2022 to keep Google’s water use a secret from farmers, environmentalists, and Native American tribes who were concerned about its effects on agriculture and on the region’s animals and plants. The city withdrew its suit early last year. The records it then made public showed that Google’s three extant data centers use more than a quarter of the city’s water supply. And in Chile and Uruguay, protests have erupted over planned Google data centers that would tap into the same reservoirs that supply drinking water. Most of all, researchers say, what’s needed is a change of culture within the rarefied world of AI development. Generative AI’s creators need to focus beyond the technical leaps and bounds of their newest creations and be less guarded about the details of the data, software, and hardware they use to create it. Some day in the future, Dodge says, an AI might be able—or be legally obligated—to inform a user about the water and carbon impact of each distinct request she makes. “That would be a fantastic tool that would help the environment,” he says. For now, though, individual users don’t have much information or power to know their AI footprint, much less make decisions about it. “There’s not much individuals can do, unfortunately,” Ren says. Right now, you can “try to use the service judiciously,” he says.

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