Saturday, January 13, 2018

The American West and its Disappearing Water

Couple centuries back the call “go west, young man!” propelled settlers and homesteaders into the Louisiana Purchase and beyond into New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California. Our mythic vision of “conquering” the west envisioned cowboys and ranches with cattle and crops abundant. Indians were resettled onto reservations, although many did not go quietly. Fast forward to today, with many millions of people inhabiting oasis cities like Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, sustained by dams and water projects that funnel water from far away out for irrigation, and cause rival special interests to lobby for rights to dwindling supplies. Farmers, ranchers, and the general voting public still yearn to maintain the values represented by “taming” the west, six gun in holster, cattle lasso at the ready. It is a powerful image, and not one easily refuted. What refutes it? Science. The west is drying up, due in part to climate change, growing populations using up underground water that fell as rain centuries earlier (when no one lived there), cattle production, and dams redirecting river water to irrigate fields instead of replenishing underground reserves. Those who think short-term and expect the government to solve the problem are in for a big surprise. According to the author of Cadillac Desert (a classic examination of the history of water in the west) “unless people change, the desert will reclaim the west. The desert cities will see a mass exodus.” This must hear audiobook by Marc Reisner is read by Francis Spieler and Kate Udall, and contains an apocalyptic postscript by Lawrie Mott. California wildfires and droughts will increase in time, while flooding and hurricanes will dominate the eastern seaboard. Some of the points made by the book, whose subtitle is “The American West and Its Disappearing Water,” are: 1) Instead of cattle we should raise bison, which require much less water. (Settlers killed bison for sport by the thousands from trains.) 2) Dams on rivers exist in the thousands, but are not sustainable, and kill untold millions of fish like salmon. Some are dangerous, such as several located near earthquake faults in California. A wall of water twenty stories high coming down main street is not something a non-superhero could survive. 3) No single politician has or will ever be able to solve this problem. It is too complex. Just ask Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie Chinatown. (The Owens Valley water wars that inspired the film are but one of the scandals explored in the book.) No one can predict when exactly it will happen, and few want to plan ahead. Short term profits beat long term solutions in American politics, as everyone scrambles for their cut before the bowl goes dust.  

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