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The Age of Thirst in the American West

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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 3)

By contrast, the drought that brought the civilization of the ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, centered at Chaco Canyon, to its knees in the twelfth century, by contrast, lasted more than 30 years. The one that finished off Mesa Verdean culture in the thirteenth century was similarly a “megadrought.”

Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona who played a major role in the Nobel-Prize-winning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, tells me that the prospect of 130° F days in Phoenix worries him far less than the prospect of decades of acute dryness. “If anything is scary, the scariest is that we could trip across a transition into a megadrought.” He adds, “You can probably bet your house that, 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.”

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Other scientists believe that the Southwest is already making the transition to a “new climatology,” a new normal that will at least bring to mind the aridity of the Dust Bowl years. Richard Seager of Columbia University, for instance, suggests that “the cycle of natural dry periods and wet periods will continue, but… around a mean that gets drier. So the depths—the dry parts of the naturally occurring droughts—will be drier than we’re used to, and the wet parts won’t be as wet.”

Drought affects people differently from other disasters. After something terrible happens—tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes—people regularly come together in memorable ways, rising above the things that divide them. In a drought, however, what is terrible is that nothing happens. By the time you know you’re in one, you’ve already had an extended opportunity to meditate on the shortcomings of your neighbors. You wait for what does not arrive. You thirst. You never experience the rush of compassion that helps you behave well. Drought brings out the worst in us.

After the Chacoan drought, corn-farming ancestral Puebloans still remained in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. They hung on, even if at lower population densities. After the Mesa Verdean drought, everybody left.

By the number of smashed crania and other broken bones in the ruins of the region’s beautiful stone villages, archaeologists judge that the aridifying world of the Mesa Verdeans was fatally afflicted by violence. Warfare and societal breakdown, evidently driven by the changing climate, helped end that culture.

So it matters what we do. Within the limits imposed by the environment, the history we make is contingent, not fated. But we are not exactly off to a good start in dealing with the challenges ahead. The problem of water consumption in the Southwest is remarkably similar to the problem of greenhouse gas pollution. First, people haggle to exhaustion over the need to take action; then, they haggle over inadequate and largely symbolic reductions. For a host of well-considered, eminently understandable, and ultimately erroneous reasons, inaction becomes the main achievement. For this drama, think Hamlet. Or if the lobbyists who argue for business as usual out west and in Congress spring to mind first, think Iago.

We know at least one big thing about how this particular tragedy will turn out: the so-called civilization of the Southwest will not survive the present century, not at its present scale anyway. The question yet to be answered is how much it will have to shrink, and at what cost. Stay tuned. It will be one of the greatest, if grimmest, shows on Earth.

William deBuys is the author of seven books, including the just published A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), and The Walk (an excerpt of which won a Pushcart Prize). He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses the water politics of the American West click here, or download it to your iPod here


Copyright 2011 William deBuys



New and Improved Comments

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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. 

http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/energy/environment/story/2011-12-08/epa-fracking-pollution/51745004/1

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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..

Adios!

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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

http://www.democracynow.org/2011/12/7/nobel_winning_ipcc_chair_rajendra_pachauri

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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.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-07/u-s-hit-by-12-weather-disasters-costing-1-billion-each-in-11-most-ever.html

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Outraged's avatar

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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mrfreeze's avatar

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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David J. Cyr's avatar

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.

http://un-naturalgas.org/

Jill Stein for President:

http://www.jillstein.org

Voter Consent Wastes Dissent:

http://chenangogreens.org/home/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=498&Itemid=1

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