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Water, Water—Not Everywhere

by Olga Bonfiglio

Without water, nothing can live.  And in the Western United States, there isn't much of it because the region is a desert.

"Everything yearns to be alive in the desert," says Riley Mitchell, a park ranger at Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah. 

For example, short, clumpy trees grow in the cracks of rock where they find even the least bit of soil.  Look a little closer and you see vegetation surviving in this land and that includes many flowering plants.  Lizards scurry across your path in order to alter their body temperature, which gets too cold under a rock or too hot in the sun.

In the desert everything living screams for water, including your own body.  You don't sweat in its dry heat.  Your lips crack and your skin dries as your body dehydrates.  If you haven't taken care to consume enough water you'll know it because you'll feel faint.   

Consequently, the key concern of the West is water.  Patient and persistent rivers have largely carved the topography of this region over millions of years until today they are gentle streams or silvery sheens of leftover salt and gypsum lying on a dry riverbed glistening in the sun.  Here a river valley is said to be any place where water might have run through it over the past 100 years. 

More of these dry river valleys are appearing as the decade-long drought continues.  Some people claim this drought is the worst on record--and maybe over the past 1,400 years (http://forestfire.nau.edu/drought.htm). 

For example, the waterfall of Emerald Pool at Zion National Park is supposed to gush over a ledge.  Today it amounts to only a trickle. 

Fires that have raged through the forests are "more catastrophic" than ever before because the forests are unable to recover, according to a University of Northern Arizona website (http://forestfire.nau.edu/statistics.htm) that has tracked fires since 1916. 

Last week California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Los Angeles and Monterey counties after five wildfires burned 13,000 acres and more than 3,000 people were evacuated from their homes.  The area has been experiencing dry hot, dry weather with temperatures higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) because in reality, California is a semi-arid place that has largely depended on irrigation and other water projects for its sustenance.

The Ogallala Aquifer, which covers 174,000 square miles (450,000 km) of the semi-arid Great Plains and yields about 30 percent of America's ground water for irrigation, can't replenish itself fast enough to meet the increasing demands of agriculture, industry and municipalities.  If withdrawals are not abated soon, some researchers expect its depletion in 25 years (http://www.waterencyclopedia.com/Oc-Po/Ogallala-Aquifer.html). 

Meanwhile, a recent study by the Nature Conservancy (http://www.nature.org/initiatives/climatechange/features/art29432.html?src=news) predicts that temperatures across the country will increase from 3 to 10 degrees by 2100 due to climate change.  Hardest hit will be Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, which depend on the Ogallala Aquifer and make this region the "breadbasket of America."  Nevertheless, some senators in those states refuse to sign legislation to address this problem after having supported the "No Climate Tax Pledge" being pushed by the group, Americans for Prosperity (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/08/27/small-midwestern-states-t_n_270540.html).    

Modern life and prosperity have put yet another strain on the West's water supply.

"Condos are dotting the [southern Utah] landscape with 10-acre ranchettes on land that was formerly the home of coyotes, deer, and other wildlife," said Mitchell.  "Their environmental impact may have potentially a more long-term effect."

Such development also inadvertently hurts people, she said, like when one person's well drilling depletes someone else's water down the line. 

So what attracts people to the dry and dusty deserts?

"I'm an old newcomer after 20 years here," said Mitchell.  "We like it here because we want to live in a clean, remote, crime-free area where we don't have to lock our doors and where community is close." 

Other newcomers have built homes in the desert, some of them second homes or retirement homes, and they want the green lawns, swimming pools, golf courses and fountains they are used to having.  Unfortunately, these amenities require water.

For example, since 1990, St. George, UT, has been one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States.  The city is 119 miles (192 km) northeast of Las Vegas on I-15, one of the major north-south highways of the West.  It provides year-round golf, access to Nevada casinos and scenic vistas with several nearby national parks for outdoor activity.  U.S. News and World Report named this area "one of the best places to retire," which active Baby Boomers have found particularly appealing.  In 2007, the area had 140,908 residents with projections of a sixfold increase by 2040, according to the St. George Chamber of Commerce (http://www.stgeorgechamber.com/EcDev/future_vision.htm). 

While most newcomers have a social or economic connections to the land, others have an emotional or religious one. 

The nineteenth century Mormons, a people nobody wanted, settled on land nobody wanted and turned it into a "Promised Land."  By applying their belief that stewardship required care for the land and its resources, which were put there by God, they created a sustainable life there for themselves.  However, the drought has caused some in the Basin to realize that even God's resources are finite.

Las Vegas, which lies in the southern-most tip of Nevada next door to Utah uses water with reckless abandon despite all the warning signs, according to energy resources journalist Kurt Cobb (http://www.energybulletin.net/node/49927). 

Lake Mead, which provides 90 percent of the city's water, is down 120 feet from its peak in October 1998 (http://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/hourly/mead-elv.html) and it now holds only 60 percent of its capacity (http://www.azgfd.gov/h_f/edits/lake_levels.shtml).  The white "bathtub ring" around the lake caused by deposition of minerals on the lake floor dramatically illustrates the lake's depletion, which is even visible from the air.    

The Southern Nevada Water Authority (http://www.snwa.com/html/) (SNWA) is working hard to lay pipe for a new intake to provide 40 percent of the city's water by 2012.  However, this project illustrates the desperation officials feel in finding enough water for the city, a desperation that seriously affects the rest of the country. 

For example, the SNWA is also making plans for a $3.5 billion, 327-mile (525-km) underground pipeline to tap aquifers beneath cattle-raising valleys northeast of the city, according to Bloomberg (http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601109&sid=a_b86mnWn9.w) and it has even looked into diverting floodwaters from the Mississippi River westward (http://www.snwa.com/assets/pdf/wr_plan_chapter3.pdf). Such plans incite people from the Great Lakes region to quiver over the prospect that their precious water may be tapped for a pipeline to the West. 

According to Mark Reisner in Cadillac Desert, this region initially watered itself through diverted rivers and irrigation ditches.  The 1930s saw the construction of huge water projects like the Hoover Dam that were largely financed with federal tax revenues.  In the 1960s, long-distance pipelines were first conceived by Western-born federal officials, including those donning the environmental mantle.

Where all of this will end up is unknown but the future does not look very promising especially as a variety of adverse environmental forces are now coming together.  However, the American people as a whole are unresponsive, perhaps because they are unaware of the dangers while many Westerners are clearly in denial of the problems.  Perhaps a few suggestions will help.

  • We must come to grips with the fact that most of the United States west of the Mississippi River is arid or semi-arid and that attempting to "green it" with water projects is ultimately a losing battle with serious and expensive consequences on the entire country.
  • We must learn to organize our communities around regional systems like water and climate rather than only geographical political units in order to respond to regional problems. 
  • Sustainability must be everybody's concern.  Making a profit through cheap water resources, for example, must now take a back seat to being able to live well on our planet.
  • Schools and colleges must promote sustainability programs both in practice and theory.  The young people in these institutions are the ones who will have to live in the resource-depleted twenty-first century.
  • The U.S. Congress must get on board with effective and deliberate water and climate change legislation.
During the June commencement exercises at my college, one student wore a sign:  "We didn't start the fire."  I later learned that the sign referred to the 1989 Billy Joel song of the same name.  The sign also alluded to the environmental problems the next generation will face.

Baby Boomers have benefited the most from twentieth century industrial society, where unlimited supplies of fresh water (and other resources) were taken for granted.  Hoping for technology to fix the depletion of water is no longer a strategy.  The water is running out!

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