Water, Water--Not Everywhere

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.

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 (https://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
that has tracked fires since

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 (https://www.waterencyclopedia.com/Oc-Po/Ogallala-Aquifer.html).

Meanwhile, a recent study by the Nature Conservancy (https://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 (https://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

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 (https://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 (https://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 (https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/hourly/mead-elv.html)
and it now holds only 60 percent of its capacity (https://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 (https://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 (https://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601109&sid=a_b86mnWn9.w)
and it has even looked into diverting floodwaters from the Mississippi
River westward (https://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

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
    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
    practice and theory. The young people in these institutions are the
    ones who will have to live in the resource-depleted twenty-first
  • The U.S. Congress must get on board with effective and
    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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