You’re Not Wrong

Friday, I talked about how the debate on climate change isn’t over, and how the human culpability for any change in the climate is questionable. It boiled down to, the world is huge, and we, no matter how much we want to think otherwise, are very small. There are a lot of us, however, and like ants, we can have a negative influence over comparatively large areas.

The Southwest “Drought” has been going on and getting worse for decades.

Understand that “drought” is not in quotes, above, because I don’t think that those areas lack water or rain. The Southwest States are in dire need of water, and their sources are quickly disappearing. The problem, however, is that these places aren’t suffering a drought. A drought happens when an otherwise wet area suffers a sudden and ongoing lack of rain. That’s not the case with the American Southwest. California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Nevada all occupy a complex of climate zones known collectively as the Great Southwestern Desert. Those areas never had that much water to spare. The history of Los Angeles is written in the mud of stolen rivers and dry wells. What changed is that, starting in the 1950’s, people started moving into these areas. Phoenix, Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City have all grown by leaps and bounds in the last five decades.

Even more, the rural areas and river valleys of the desert became crowded with farms, as dustbowl refugees and their children found their feet and rebuilt in their new home, a home conveniently clear of trees and scrublines. Almost immediately, these cities began tapping the nearby rivers for the water the sky refused to give them. The Colorado, the Sacramento, the Green, all became dotted with man-made lakes where dams for irrigation and power sprang up. Waters were diverted in canals, sometimes for thousands of miles to meet the needs of a growing populace.

As the trees grew back in the Ohio Valley and the Upper Peninsula, the Southwest Desert became a jumbled network of borrowed resources. By 1990, the Great Colorado River, the monster that carved the Grand Canyon and had a hand in a hundred other striking natural monuments, stopped short of its mouth in the Gulf of California, and has been walking up its bed since. And the problem isn’t just legitimate use. Last century’s civil engineering has left us with a mountain of waste. Lake Meade alone loses more than 257 billion gallons of water to evaporation every year. That number only gets more alarming as you expand it to seepage and evaporation along the irrigation and city supply networks.

Clearly, we can do better. Perhaps the interruption dams currently in use can be replaced with side draw reservoirs like the ones being tested along river valleys in Southeast Texas. Or, maybe fifty million people will wake up one day and realize they have created an untenable situation.

Los Angeles isn’t going dry because David Duchovny has a nice lawn; it was already dry, with an average rainfall of only four inches per year, but twenty million people live there, demanding three quarts of water each, every day. The Edwards Aquifer isn’t consistently low because Texas is in a drought; that drought ended in 2012. What didn’t end is that Austin and San Antonio have more than doubled in size since 1990 and continue to grow.

It’s going to suck, and we’re all going to pay. Food prices will rise as farms leave the flat, easily managed former sea beds of the Permian Basin and Cadillac Desert and return to the less machine-friendly, rolling hills of the Midwest. Cities and towns west of the Texas Hill Country are going to have to face the fact that they cannot survive if they continue growing the way they have. Already, the interests in Northern California and Oregon are balking at Los Angeles’s demand for more diverted water. Nevada and Arizona have been in and out of court since the last century over the Colorado River watershed.

It’s a hard thing for those of us who live in water-rich areas to understand. Our water concerns center around poisoning the supply with exotic chemicals and undertreated effluvia. We, living in and around Houston, live in fear of the day that the EPA declares our neighborhood the next Love Canal, but we can’t really conceive of the idea of the water not being there at all. Because it was never there. Now fifty million people spread across some five million square miles, will have to suffer in the short term, or cause a catastrophe. Because if they don’t learn to use less, there won’t be any more.