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Climate Change: Water in the US West

Dry West

Peter Gleick, a.k.a. “The Water Guy”, has an unnerving post up at ScienceBlogs, Peak Water in the American West, that I can’t recommend more enthusiastically:

It is no surprise, of course, that the western United States is dry. The entire history of the West can be told (and has been, in great books like Cadillac Desert [Reisner] and Rivers of Empire [Worster] and The Great Thirst [Hundley]) in large part through the story of the hydrology of the West, the role of the federal and state governments in developing water infrastructure, the evidence of droughts and floods on the land, and the politics of water allocations and use.

But the story of water in the West is also being told, every day, in the growing crisis facing communities, watersheds, ecosystems, and economies. This isn’t a crisis of for tomorrow. It is a crisis today. What is, perhaps, a surprise, is that it has taken this long for the entire crazy quilt of western water management and use to finally unravel. But it is now unraveling.

The old adage of the blind men describing an elephant based on their experience touching different parts of it applies to western water. In the past few years, we’ve seen bits and pieces of the puzzle: a well, and then two wells, and then a town goes dry. A farmer has to shift from water-intensive crops to something else, or let land go fallow. Vast man-made reservoirs start to go dry. Groundwater levels plummet, yet the response is to try to drill new and deeper wells and pump harder, or build another dam, or move water from an ever-more-distant river basin. Competition between industry and farming increases. And politicians run back to old, tired, half-solutions rather than face up to the fact that we live in a changed and changing world.

Gleick then provides some hair-raising details about how things are unfolding, and it isn’t pretty. But please do go read it all.

In particular, he points out that we’re doing the same thing over and over, such as pumping ever more groundwater and thereby depleting the “fossil water” reserves which don’t recharge nearly fast enough. We’re also getting ready to throw huge amounts of money at the problem in the form of very expensive desalination plants and water pipelines.

He also gets bonus points for not dredging up (pun not intended) the old (Twain?) quote about how out West whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.

Which brings me, yet again, to something I’ve said many times: The primary vector for the impacts of climate change will be water. Rising sea level, floods, and droughts will all carry devastating prices.

One of the things we can all do is help spread the word about this situation. Lay people who aren’t engaged with climate change simply don’t think in terms of disruptions of the hydrological cycle. They think about heat waves — it is global warming, after all — and they don’t normally see the cascading effects from that “little bit of warming” to water and food and beyond. Perhaps that’s, to borrow a cliche, an opportunity for a teaching moment.

Photo Credit: Dry West/shutterstock

Lou Grinzo's picture

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Elias Hinckley's picture
Elias Hinckley on Aug 24, 2013 12:45 pm GMT

This story can’t be over-told. We are just starting to see some very real impacts from a drying Southwest that will begin to have ramifications for the whole country.  We had a pretty good discussion on this here if you’re interested on some other thoughts on water challenges.

Wilmot McCutchen's picture
Wilmot McCutchen on Aug 24, 2013 5:26 pm GMT

Each kWh of electricity from thermal power plants (coal and nuclear) costs 1.8 liters of fresh water evaporated into the atmosphere.  The Navajo Generating Station evaporates 32 million cubic meters (26,000 acre-feet) of Lake Powell water per year supplying electricity to the parched cities of the SW.  Fracking wwithdraws and ruins fresh water, and injection of salty frack flowback underground endangers the little groundwater that remains.  There is no Department of Water, and water policy seems to be in the control of energy experts who seem to be oblivious despite the growing alarm over the drought.   Water waste by power plants and fracking might get the attention it deserves if DOE would finally publish the water-energy nexus report that Congress has been waiting for since 2005.

Andrew Kazantsev's picture
Andrew Kazantsev on Aug 24, 2013 6:39 pm GMT

It may be a new source of salvation – the energy and water from the clouds

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