Water Wars On the Horizon

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Today’s U.S. Drought Monitor shows a growing area of deep brown covering portions of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. It indicates an area suffering an exceptional drought – the worst possible. Spots of brown also appear in Oklahoma, west Texas and southwest Kansas.

Areas suffering an exceptional drought experience water emergencies, water rationing, the loss of cropland and pastures. They see streams and small bodies of water drying up. Their reservoirs fall to dangerous levels. Wildfires become a persistent hazard. Livestock herds have to be reduced or sold off.

Surrounding the brown areas is an even larger area of deep red indicating extreme drought conditions. Farmers in these areas also find it impossible to grow crops. There are widespread water shortages; surface waters are disappearing.

Next is the orange area indicating a severe drought, which reaches even farther out taking in southern California and southern Nevada. It extends into northern Texas, encompasses much of Oklahoma and southern Kansas.

Drought conditions ranging from exceptional to abnormally dry cover nearly the entire Southwest. It is a drought that has been developing for 17 years, and 2018 is expected to be among worst years.

What is frightening for people living in the Southwest is that this extended drought may be in its early stages. NASA  computer models indicate the possibility of a 50-year mega-drought for the region. The odds of a mega-drought are considered very high due to the increasing amount of carbon emissions we throw into the atmosphere – they reached a record level this May.

The parched Southwest is exploring all manner of options for addressing its worsening water crisis from the expected half-measures to ideas that seem like pure fantasy. They don’t focus on sustainability; instead they explore options that would keep the region’s unsustainable population growth rolling along. Strictly limiting water use harms industrial expansion, urban growth, and agriculture – none of which a politician seeking re-election is going to support. So those politicians and water planners look to other solutions.  

Multi-billion-dollar desalination plants to turn salty ocean water into potable water shipped through hundreds of miles of pipeline for thirsty crops, livestock and humans have been proposed.

“Then there’s a plan to spend gazillions to capture several of Alaska’s free-flowing rivers with a grand network of dams, canals and tunnels to divert water south to the Colorado basin. It seems that the drought is getting serious enough so that even far-fetched ideas get a look,” Ron Way, a former Star Tribune reporter who covered environment and natural resources, writes.

Perhaps the most feasible of the mega-billion-dollar plans involves running a water pipe from the Great Lakes to the Southwest, he says.

“Lake Superior is big, all right. It and the other Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the whole world’s fresh water and, get this, hold enough to submerge the continental U.S. under 10 feet,” Way writes.
“Those far-off onlookers thirst mightily for the Lakes’ 6.5 million billion gallons of fresh water that, to them, just sits there before running off to the ocean. Wasted.”

We dismiss the possibility of this far-fetched plan to become a reality at our peril, Way warns. The Southwest’s growing population gives it increasing political clout in Washington, D.C. It’s agricultural industry, the biggest user of water, is a powerful lobbying force.

“And so, a prediction: Within the lifetime of today’s newborn, Great Lakes water will be piped to the Colorado basin to relieve a region that by midcentury will be in the throes of an unimaginable water crisis,” Way writes.

Or, perhaps, we could see a replay of the Dust Bowl years in the 1930s when as many 2.5 million people were displaced, their land turned to desert, and their communities ghost towns as livelihoods disappeared. These refugees, written about in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, moved west to California looking for jobs. But today California’s already dense population, drought conditions, and heavy agricultural economy put an unsustainable demand on it limited water resources.

Any grab for Great Lakes’ water will result in lengthy and bitter legal battles, political and public clashes, and violent protests that could rip the country apart.

A suggestion by New Mexico’s governor in 2007 to tap the Great Lakes for water was quickly shut down. It led to the eight states with Great Lakes shoreline to draft a compact prohibiting diversion of water. President George W. Bush signed it, Way writes.

And don’t forget that all five Great Lakes also have a border shoreline and waters belonging to Canada. It likely wouldn’t stand for drawing down the Great Lakes to satisfy glutinous water use in the U.S. Southwest.

 “On several levels, it’s frankly absurd to pipe water across the country to bail out overbuilt cities and nourish water-intensive crops in bone-bleaching desert,” Way writes. “But growth-driven Westerners dismiss such talk. This war would come down to raw power politics, and it’s only a matter of time before the West’s political influence prevails.”

We don’t entirely agree with this pessimistic outlook. The power of our U.S. senators offsets the gains made by the Southwest in the U.S. House. Overcoming international objections to drawing down the Great Lakes is a significant hurdle. Legal challenges can take decades. The Southwest will have to come up with a solution long before the objections are overcome.

 “We have an optimistic view of human ingenuity and resilience and infrastructure and what we’re trying to do is not scare people but to be realistic about what the risks look like in the future,” Toby Ault, earth and atmospheric sciences professor at Cornell University, who studies drought conditions says.

 “Human ingenuity and resilience and infrastructure,” are part of the problem. We always rely on our ability to create a crisis and figure a way out of it that avoids addressing what caused the problem in the first place – overuse our water supply and carbon emissions that heat the world.

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