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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

(Page 2)

Nonetheless, the states of the Lower Basin have been taking their allotment as if nothing were wrong and consequently overdrafting their account by up to 1.3 maf annually.  At this rate, even under unrealistically favorable scenarios, the Lower Basin will eventually drain Lake Mead and cutbacks will begin, possibly as soon as in the next few years.  And then things will get dicier because California, the water behemoth of the West, won’t have to absorb any of those cutbacks.

Here’s one of the screwiest quirks in western water law: to win Congressional approval for the building of a monumental aqueduct, the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which would bring Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona agreed to subordinate its Colorado River water rights to California’s.  In that way, the $4 billion, 336-mile-long CAP was born, and for it Arizona paid a heavy price. The state obliged itself to absorb not just its own losses in a cutback situation, but California’s as well.


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Worst case scenario: the CAP aqueduct, now a lifeline for millions, could become as dry as the desert it runs through, while California continues to bathe. Imagine Phoenix curling and cracking around the edges, while lawn sprinklers hiss in Malibu. The contrast will upset a lot of Arizonans.

Worse yet, the prospective schedule of cutbacks now in place for the coming bad times is too puny to save Lake Mead.

The Age of Thirst: Act II

While that Arizona-California relationship guarantees full employment for battalions of water lawyers, a far bigger problem looms: climate change. Models for the Southwest have been predicting a 4ºC (7.2ºF) increase in mean temperature by century’s end, and events seem to be outpacing the predictions.

We have already experienced close to 1º C of that increase, which accounts, at least in part, for last summer’s colossal fires and record-setting temperatures—and it’s now clear that we’re just getting started.

The simple rule of thumb for climate change is that wet places will get wetter and dry places drier. One reason the dry places will dry is that higher temperatures mean more evaporation. In other words, there will be ever less water in the rivers that keep the region’s cities (and much else) alive. Modeling already suggests that by mid-century surface stream-flow will decline by 10% to 30%.

Independent studies at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in California and the University of Colorado evaluated the viability of Lake Mead and eventually arrived at similar conclusions: after about 2026, the risk of “failure” at Lake Mead, according to a member of the Colorado group, “just skyrockets.” Failure in this context would mean water levels lower than the dam’s lowest intake, no water heading downstream, and the lake becoming a “dead pool.”

If—perhaps “when” is the more appropriate word—that happens, California’s Colorado River Aqueduct, which supplies water to Los Angeles, San Diego, and the All-American Canal, which sustains the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, will go just as dry as the Central Arizona Project aqueduct. Meanwhile, if climate change is affecting the Colorado River’s watershed that harshly, it will undoubtedly also be hitting the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

The aptly named Lester Snow, a recent director of California’s Department of Water Resources, understood this. His future water planning assumed a 40% decline in runoff from the Sierras, which feeds the California Aqueduct. None of his contemplated scenarios were happy ones. The Colorado River Aqueduct and the California Aqueduct make the urban conglomerations of southern California possible. If both fail at once, the result will be, as promised, the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.

Only Patricia Mulroy has an endgame strategy for the demise of Lake Mead. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is, even now, tunneling under the lake to install the equivalent of a bathtub drain at close to its lowest point. At a cost of more than $800 million, it will drain the dregs of Lake Mead for Las Vegas.

Admittedly, water quality will be a problem, as the dead pool will concentrate pollutants. The good news, according to the standard joke among those who chronicle Sin City’s improbable history, is that the hard-partying residents and over-stimulated tourists who sip from Lake Mead’s last waters will no longer need to purchase anti-depressants. They’ll get all the Zoloft and Xanax they need from their tap water.

And only now do we arrive at the third act of this expanding tragedy.

The Age of Thirst: Act III

Those who believe in American exceptionalism hold that the historical patterns shaping the fate of other empires and nations don’t apply to the United States. Be that as it may, we are certainly on track to test whether the U.S. is similarly inoculated against the patterns of environmental history.

Because tree rings record growing conditions year by year, the people who study them have been able to reconstruct climate over very long spans of time. One of their biggest discoveries is that droughts more severe and far longer than anything known in recent centuries have occurred repeatedly in the American Southwest. The droughts of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, of the 1950s, and of the period from 1998 to 2004 are remembered in the region, yet none lasted a full decade.

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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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