The Arid Southwest


(This 1086th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 15, 2012.)


Williams DeBuys has written what I consider the most frightening book of this century. In A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford, 2011), he describes a situation already out of control with an ever-worsening future projected. Writing beautifully (which only makes his message scarier), DeBuys places the current status of the Southwest in historical context, reviews research and the experiences of affected individuals, and presents them in terms we can (too) easily understand.


This is a book about ever increasing levels of carbon dioxide with its associated higher temperatures; about forest fires, insect scourges and dust storms; about population pressure and power brown-outs in six western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. But his deeper focus is on water, or more appropriately the absence thereof.


In this column I will deal only with water in the Colorado River basin, water that is stored and managed for downstream human use in Lakes Mead and Powell.


You don't even have to believe in climate change to be shocked by the case DeBuys makes. He's not talking about some distant future. For example, he quotes one Scripts Institute research paper: "Lake Mead has a 50-50 chance of going dry by 2021." That's just nine years from now and the water supplies of Las Vegas, Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego and Los Angeles are threatened.


Consider the evidence: when full, Lake Mead is 360 feet deep. In 2010 it was 224 feet deep, down 37%. At the time DeBuys wrote his book, the water level was already so low that Hoover Dam was within 30 feet of no longer generating electricity.* Projected water delivery reductions will worsen shortages when the regional population continues to increase.


Today federal laws governing the use of water in the Colorado Basin below Lake Mead together with natural losses are not being satisfied by new water from melting rain and snow upstream. The current annual shortfall of water in that area is over 890 billion gallons per year. Translated into human terms, that deficit would serve 11 million homes. Water quality is declining too: DuBuys tells us, "The joke about Las Vegas is that eventually no one in that high-strung city will need anti-depressants. People will get all they need from their drinking water."


Solutions are not ready at hand. Sneaking water across the divide from the nearby Mississippi River system would provide very little; running a pipeline down from Canada has been considered and rejected; desalination is prohibitively expensive.


This is a national problem. We could, for example, have an out-migration comparable to that from the 1930s Dust Bowl. DeBuys says, "Notwithstanding a large cast of senatorial ideologues, right-wing bloviators, and modern-day Iagos lobbying for Big Coal and Big Oil, the protagonists in this drama are the rest of us, our collectivity, the commonweal."


How are we responding? Reducing lawn watering doesn't answer these kinds of problems. DeBuys refers to a 2010 American Psychological Association report: "The list of mental obstacles to action identified by the APA report reads like a catalog of biblical afflictions: Ignorance, Uncertainty, Mistrust and Reactance (i.e., mulishness), Denial, Habit, Impotence ('What can I do?'), Tokenism, Conflicting Goals, and Belief in Devine Intervention."


"An insightful body of analysis holds that sudden catastrophes, like earthquakes, fires and great storms, bring people together. They pitch in, cooperate, and ignore the economic and social divisions that previously held them apart. But drought is different. It is gradual and drawn out. An earthquake shudders and is over; a fire blazes and dies; a storm finally passes. But a drought creeps on. Drought doesn't dissolve differences in the shock of thunderbolt change; it gives people plenty of time to erect defenses, pick sides, and meditate on the defects of their neighbors. Drought divides people, a fact that should remind us that solving the conundrum of water, growth, and hardened demand is work best done in the present, before the curve of rising need and the downshifting line of limits slam together."


DeBuys summarizes, "When it comes to longer-term problems that engage reason alone while leaving the emotions and adrenal glands at rest, humans are not much better than the legendary frog in the gradually warming pot."


And the temperature is ever rising.

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* In 2011 run-off from a good winter snow pack and diversions from Lake Powell brought that depth up from 1082 feet to 1110 feet, but the designated drought level for the lake is 1125.


* In 2011 run-off from a good winter snow pack and diversions from Lake Powell brought that depth up from 1082 feet to 1130 feet.-- Gerry Rising