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  • It’s Boiling in the Southwest: Combating Extreme Heat and Water Scarcity with Regenerative Infrastructure

It’s Boiling in the Southwest: Combating Extreme Heat and Water Scarcity with Regenerative Infrastructure

April 02, 2024

Authored by Jason Twill, LEED Fellow

Every year across the U.S., people prepare for summer. Whether planning vacations with the kids or rearranging the closet from your winter wardrobe, one thing that all of us plan for is the sultry days of summer. But for populations living in the Southwest, each year for the past couple decades has been an ever-greater reminder that with the chill summer vibes comes increasing anxiety over wildfires, droughts, and extended bouts of extreme heat that, unfortunately, have become the new norm.

“We’re really looking at several tiers and phases to heat season. We have a period of preparation prior to heat season. Then we’re looking at what we’re going to be doing during the heat season from May to the September, October time-frame. Post-heat season, we can evaluate the effort that happened.”

  • Eugene Livar, Arizona Chief Heat Officer via Smart Cities Dive

Drought Impacts to Southwestern Communities

According to studies provided in the Fifth National Climate Assessment:

“Between 1913 and 2017, annual average discharge from the Colorado River decreased by 9.3% for each degree Celsius of warming… Additionally, since 2000 the Southwest has experienced an exceptional ‘mega-drought’ – defined as an episode of intense aridity that persists for multiple decades – that is recognized as the driest 22-year period in 1,200 years.”

When looking at these numbers individually by year, this decrease may seem minimal, but when shown as the increasing problem that it is, droughts in the Southwest will continue to have lasting impacts on communities. Reservoirs and lakes have been consistently reaching record water level lows; groundwater pumping (the action of bringing water from wells and trenches to aboveground for use) is causing dangerous subsidence in areas across the region. While our local, state, and national leaders are working on ways to sustainably address these issues, many municipalities and property owners are left in the meantime to find radical solutions to mitigate the adverse effects of extreme heat and water scarcity.

In addition to the geographical impacts of droughts, there is more and more evidence growing that heat-associated illnesses and deaths are growing every year. While many focus on the direct effects of droughts such as water shortages and crop losses, indirect health effects are rising. Air quality due to increased airborne and dust-related diseases affect those with respiratory issues and illnesses; mental health impacts have been reported as directly resulting from utility shutoffs when those energy sources are dependent on water supply.

Wildfires and the Growing Effects on Air Quality

When looking at the impact of wildfires within the Southwest region, data clearly shows that the increase in wildfires are affecting not only the ecosystems around them, but people as well. In the same report mentioned previously, it states that:

  • 7 out of 10 of the largest wildfires in 2020 – 2021 occurred in the Southwest United States,
  • 22 of the 50 largest US wildfires in 2020 occurred in California,
  • 7 of the largest wildfires in California history occurred since 2018, and
  • The 3 largest wildfires in Colorado history occurred in 2020.

These numbers highlight above the growing rate and severity of wildfires within the Southwest and, with that, the increased adverse effects they are imposing on community members within their range. Smoke from wildfires is affecting air quality for not just the directly affected area, but sometimes locations states away, forcing those with breathing-related problems to stay in their homes; erosion of land in wildfire affected areas is growing due to postfire debris movement. When coupled with the high potential of drought during the same timeframe, even a small, controlled fire can get out of hand and spread uncontrollably, destroying everything in its path.

But what can be done to help communities and building owners prepare to combat these situations before their members and employees are irreparably affected?

Creating Protection through Regenerative Infrastructure Development

While our state and national leaders are working diligently to create policies and larger infrastructure developments to help combat the effects of both droughts/wildfires and the growing outside issues making them worse, for many small municipalities and facility owners, they need bioregional-scale intervention now to get ahead of the problem. The quickest and most effective solution is through infrastructure development and updates strategically designed to combat these direct issues.

Water conservation and air quality measures have been implemented in the Southwest for decades, but smaller municipalities and facility leaders are catching on that they can create their own personal programs as well. For some, this looks like transitioning to renewably-supplied hydronic HVAC systems to better battle smoke and airborne contaminants, as well as have greater control over temperature comfort, something that many K-12 schools are currently doing to keep students safe and healthy. For those worrying about water conservation and access during drought periods, options to create greater irrigation controls, regenerative agriculture/land management, and reduce water usage, such as work McKinstry has performed at the Colorado School of Mines, are key. Many may not even know their options yet, and thus look for aid in companies like Viridis Initiative.

For us at Viridis who specialize in highly collaborative Infrastructure-as-a-Service model projects, we take seriously how important safety, resilience and operational efficacy is for our clients and we seek to aid them in every level of a project’s life, whether helping obtain financing for those ineligible for standard funding support or energy and infrastructure development. We partner with clients to break down exactly what their infrastructure needs are, how to procure needed funding, and then work to create a project that supports your resiliency needs including long-term maintenance needs. We believe that by understanding exactly what is affecting regional areas and communities that we can not only help facility owners and municipalities support their community members and end-users from a health-focused mindset, but also encourage greater community resiliency nation-wide.