“A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest”, the recent book written by William deBuys, is getting some attention. The NYTimes summed up the book by quoting the author: “The story of the West is essentially a story about water”. The reporter paused then quoted deBuys again: “and its lack”.
DeBuys can write and he obviously loves the area. The book is a story of how people have coped with living in the desert in the American Southwest in the distant past, the present, and how climate change complicates what they will have to cope with in the future.
DeBuys understands some climate science. Those interested in how to flesh out their case that something needs to be done about global climate change will find he has vividly described how the first big impact on a region in a rich country might develop. He lays it all out calmly and backs it with impressive references.
At one point he describes the prospects for “the Sun Corridor” of Arizona. He defines this area as: “a broad swath of central Arizona running from Prescott northwest of Phoenix to Nogales and Sierra Vista hard against the border south of Tucson”. About 5 million people live there. Planners were confidently projecting 16 million for not long after 2030.
There’s a roadblock up ahead for this place almost everyone pretended could not be there. Denial was so firmly entrenched the first formal study factoring climate change into the Lake Mead water calculations did not take place until 2008.
Now anyone who ever looked into the water issue in Arizona knows there was a problem before discussion of climate change came up: Arizona doesn’t have solid rights to the water that makes the existence of the Sun Corridor possible. Their rights are subordinate to the rights of California. When push comes to shove, as Lake Mead dries up, at some point California gets the legal right to turn off Arizona’s tap.
Before Sun Corridor development could take off, Arizona needed to build infrastructure to move water it was as entitled to at the time as California was to its water, to the area. It found it couldn’t get the federal funds it needed unless it could cut a deal with California. California demanded this concession. Arizona signed its rights away. It got water where it wanted it now with no assurance that it would get water later. The plan was to get rich quick now. Maybe they thought after they were all rich they could move to La Jolla. The Sun Corridor got decades of phenomenal economic growth out of it.
Lake Mead was never supposed to dry up.
Without Colorado River Basin water, unless a magic wand turns up, the Sun Corridor starts to die. Even if you don’t factor climate change into the picture, DeBuys explains, this deal is not looking good in the long term for Arizona.
The original Colorado River Basin water rights allocated in 1922 were based on invalid data. Now that the full 20th century record of actual water flows exists it is clear there isn’t going to be water in the quantities they thought were assured when they decided things in 1922. Las Vegas newspaper editors sneered at that 2008 study that factored climate change into projections for the Lake Mead water level. Now the city is putting a drain into the bottom of Lake Mead, “to ensure the Las Vegas Valley’s water supply” until the last drop. Well before that last drop heads to Las Vegas, Arizona gets cut off
There are tree ring studies going back 1000 years and more, all of which indicate that the 20th century, the one that was supposedly drier than they thought one could be in 1922, was a century that was wetter than the normal century in the region. The paleo studies also turned up this wild card: there were droughts of far longer duration than anything US citizens have ever seen that hit the region repeatedly. Arizona’s second class water right means that in any unprecedented Colorado River Basin drought situation Arizona gets hit first.
You can’t expand at the pace the Sun Corridor has been expanding for decades into an area where the supply of water is tight and diminishing. Throw climate change in on top. What will happen as the climate changes?
DeBuys says when he wrote to Tim Barnett at Scripps one time he included a sentence introducing himself which explained his purpose in writing his book: “I am not trying to write a good guys/bad guys story, just trying to understand how we got into this fix and what our chances are for getting out.” Barnett took this as a question: what are our chances for getting out of this?
He wrote back: “NIL. If climate change scenarios are reasonably correct.”
One interesting aspect of this situation is that, according to the NYTimes, “the region’s politics tend to embrace the idea that collective action of any kind is inherently suspicious or even evil; government is the problem, never the solution; and regulation is the bane of economic growth”.
People like this are the most likely to deny the obvious by declaring the preposterous: that climate scientists, worldwide, almost all of them, are corrupt or stupid, and their science is half baked or a hoax. I wonder what they’ll say after the last drop in Lake Mead is gone. I expect they will be beating on the doors of Congress telling us that government-is-evil stuff wasn’t meant to say they don’t deserve to be bailed out. They can hope they are the first big casualty: if not, they’ll have to take a number, and wait in line.