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The Age of Thirst in the American West

Posted on Dec 5, 2011
U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder

Firefighters extinguish a hot spot to prevent a forest fire from reigniting at Camp Bullis, Texas.

By William deBuys, TomDispatch

This article was produced and published by TomDispatch.

Consider it a taste of the future: the fire, smoke, drought, dust, and heat that have made life unpleasant, if not dangerous, from Louisiana to Los Angeles. New records tell the tale: biggest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona (538,049 acres), biggest fire ever in New Mexico (156,600 acres), all-time worst fire year in Texas history (3,697,000 acres).

The fires were a function of drought.  As of summer’s end, 2011 was the driest year in 117 years of record keeping for New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, and the second driest for Oklahoma. Those fires also resulted from record heat.  It was the hottest summer ever recorded for New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, as well as the hottest August ever for those states, plus Arizona and Colorado.

Editor’s note by Tom Engelhardt: The good news? While 2010 tied for the warmest year on record, 2011—according to the U.N.‘s World Meteorological Organization (WMO)—is likely to come in 10th once November and December temperatures are tallied. In part, this is evidently due to an especially strong La Niña cooling event in the Pacific.  On the other hand, with 2011 in the top ten despite La Niña, 13 of the warmest years since such record-keeping began have occurred in the last 15 years. Think of that as an uncomfortably hot cluster. ... (continue reading)


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Virtually every city in the region experienced unprecedented temperatures, with Phoenix, as usual, leading the march toward unlivability. This past summer, the so-called Valley of the Sun set a new record of 33 days when the mercury reached a shoe-melting 110º F or higher. (The previous record of 32 days was set in 2007.)

And here’s the bad news in a nutshell: if you live in the Southwest or just about anywhere in the American West, you or your children and grandchildren could soon enough be facing the Age of Thirst, which may also prove to be the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.  No kidding.

If that gets you down, here’s a little cheer-up note: the end is not yet nigh.

In fact, this year the weather elsewhere rode to the rescue, and the news for the Southwest was good where it really mattered.  Since January, the biggest reservoir in the United States, Lake Mead, backed up by the Hoover Dam and just 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas, has risen almost 40 feet. That lake is crucial when it comes to watering lawns or taking showers from Arizona to California.  And the near 40-foot surge of extra water offered a significant upward nudge to the Southwest’s water reserves.

The Colorado River, which the reservoir impounds, supplies all or part of the water on which nearly 30 million people depend, most of them living downstream of Lake Mead in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Tijuana, and scores of smaller communities in the United States and Mexico.

Back in 1999, the lake was full. Patricia Mulroy, who heads the water utility serving Las Vegas, rues the optimism of those bygone days.  “We had a fifty-year, reliable water supply,” she says. “By 2002, we had no water supply. We were out. We were done. I swore to myself we’d never do that again.”

In 2000, the lake began to fall—like a boulder off a cliff, bouncing a couple of times on the way down. Its water level dropped a staggering 130 feet, stopping less than seven feet above the stage that would have triggered reductions in downstream deliveries. Then—and here’s the good news, just in case you were wondering—last winter, it snowed prodigiously up north in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

The spring and summer run-off from those snowpacks brought enormous relief. It renewed what we in the Southwest like to call the Hydro-Illogic cycle: when drought comes, everybody wrings their hands and promises to institute needed reform, if only it would rain a little. Then the drought breaks or eases and we all return to business as usual, until the cycle comes around to drought again.

So don’t be fooled.  One day, perhaps soon, Lake Mead will renew its downward plunge.  That’s a certainty, the experts tell us.  And here’s the thing: the next time, a sudden rescue by heavy snows in the northern Rockies might not come. If the snowpacks of the future are merely ordinary, let alone puny, then you’ll know that we really are entering a new age.

And climate change will be a major reason, but we’ll have done a good job of aiding and abetting it. The states of the so-called Lower Basin of the Colorado River—California, Arizona, and Nevada—have been living beyond their water means for years. Any departure from recent decades of hydrological abundance, even a return to long-term average flows in the Colorado River, would produce a painful reckoning for the Lower Basin states.  And even worse is surely on the way.

Just think of the coming Age of Thirst in the American Southwest and West as a three-act tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions.

The Age of Thirst: Act I

The curtain in this play would surely rise on the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which divided the river’s water equally between the Upper and Lower Basins, allocating to each annually 7.5 million acre-feet, also known by its acronym “maf.” (An acre-foot suffices to support three or four families for a year.) Unfortunately, the architects of the compact, drawing on data from an anomalously wet historical period, assumed the river’s average annual flow to be about 17 maf per year.  Based on reconstructions that now stretch back more than 1,000 years, the river’s long-term average is closer to 14.7 maf.  Factor in evaporation from reservoirs (1.5 maf per year) and our treaty obligation to Mexico (another 1.5 maf), and the math doesn’t favor a water-guzzling society.

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By Marian Griffith, December 9, 2011 at 3:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

@mr Freeze
—-No, this situation is only going to get worse and the only thing that’s going to stop the machine is when the water finally runs out.—-

That will be an interesting day ...

You probably want to call in sick for work when that happens. Or maybe be on another continent.

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By EntropyGlut, December 9, 2011 at 12:52 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When I drove big rig trucks, I would pull loads of bottled water out of Cabazon,CA near Palm Springs. This water is pulled out of the ground where nearby aquafers are recharged by Colorado River water. I would take these loads north through vegas then east through Utah and then the Rockies to Denver,CO. As I’m climbing the Rockies pulling 45,000 lbs of water, I could see the Colorado River falling downhill in the opposite direction. It would occur to me, “don’t they have plastic bottles in Denver? Why am I bringing water back to where it originated after being put into plastic bottles? Who is in charge in this world of ours? Who is making such stupid decisions?” I also took similar loads to the Sacramento delta area from where Southern California also imports water via a man made canal.

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By prosefights, December 8, 2011 at 4:51 pm Link to this comment

The EPA found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath a Wyoming community where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals.

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By SoTexGuy, December 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm Link to this comment

This is an above average, fact filled article. Congratulations to the author and TD for hosting it.

The insanity is real and ongoing.. I’ve driven by the huge hard rock copper mines near Christmas (no joke) Arizona many times since the ‘70s .. 24 hours a day huge plumes of pulverized earth thrown into the air.. quelled by monstrous water cannons.. spewing enough ground water to sustain who knows how many
homes and farms and more? .. the poisonous runoff goes who knows where. Back into the earth, I guess, since the water table of entire valleys is lowered to hades by these operations..

And there’s the 1800’s era mining act allowing anybody in the world to stake claim and mine our wild lands and heritage and pay nothing.. welcome Rio Tinto and the Chinese or whosoever wants that stuff.

America is gutting herself..


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By berniem, December 8, 2011 at 2:39 pm Link to this comment

Hey, if you want more water just “drill, baby, drill”!

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, December 8, 2011 at 9:18 am Link to this comment

“...heat waves are on the increase. And if we don’t do anything about climate change, then those heat waves, which have been taking place, let’s say, recently, once in 20 years, by the end of the century will be once in two years. So, in other words, it’s not merely a slow and steady increase in temperatures that one is worrying about; one has to be concerned about an increase in the frequency of heat waves, which obviously cause very serious results.”

— Dr. Rajendra Pachauri
Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

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By prosefights, December 8, 2011 at 6:51 am Link to this comment

Hurricane Irene, tornadoes as well as flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers contributed to a record of U.S. weather-related disasters costing at least $1 billion this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A total of 12 natural calamities killed 646 people and caused about $52 billion in damage, exceeding the previous all- time high of nine disasters in 2008, NOAA reported today.

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By Outraged, December 6, 2011 at 6:50 pm Link to this comment

The problem of money in our political system will be
the death of us all in the end. What’s so foolish is
that in their fervor for the almighty dollar, they
simply ignore the reality of their decisions. They
like to use the excuse that if they didn’t do this or that someone
else would. A lame excuse, meant to soothe their own conscience for the evils they commit.

They release misinformation, they buy off politicians
to tout their lies and suddenly things are turned
upside down. The foxes are in charge of the hen-house
and they’re hungry.

Top level management has to be made responsible to
the law. The laws need to be written and then
enforced, it is obvious business will not do this of
their own accord.

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By diamond, December 6, 2011 at 3:45 pm Link to this comment

And now BP is accusing Halliburton of having had modeling that showed their cementing process on the drilling rig that caused the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was faulty and also claims that Halliburton has destroyed the evidence. I was always told there was honor among thieves, but I was misled.

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By mrfreeze, December 6, 2011 at 8:48 am Link to this comment

2 things - First, Cyr…..give it a rest…...same old, same old from you…

Second, I grew up in UT during the 70’s & 80’s. Even then, the fact that Southern CA and AZ were sucking the Colorado River and other huge rivers dry was a fact of life. This issue has been well-known and well-documented for decades. The mismanagement and outright corruption surrounding water issues in the Inter-mountain and south-west US are legion.

Ultimately, it’s all about money, greed and power….Who exactly is going to turn the spigot off to LA, Phoenix, LV, etc.? No, this situation is only going to get worse and the only thing that’s going to stop the machine is when the water finally runs out.

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By David J. Cyr, December 6, 2011 at 6:23 am Link to this comment

QUOTE, University of Arizona climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck:

“unless we do something about these greenhouse gas emissions, the megadroughts of the future are going to be a lot hotter than the ones of the past.”

Well, “something about these greenhouse gas emissions” and depleted water resources is being done.

The corporate owned federal and state government “environmental” agencies (with support from funding motivated liberal “environmental” organizations and mindless corporate (R) & (D) party voters’ mandates) are permitting Halliburton’s insane fracking process to be used to permanently remove vast quantities of water from the natural water cycle; allowing corporate persons to have and abuse water rights to rip tiny remnants of methane gas from stone, while converting water into toxic waste in desperate attempts to maintain our fossil-fuel dependency as long as possible… increasing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating catastrophic climate change.

Jill Stein for President:

Voter Consent Wastes Dissent:

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