Americans move to 22-year drought-stricken region
“WEAT WAS the ultimate arbiter of the American West, ”wrote Marc Reisner in“ Cadillac Desert, ”his book on the water there, published in 1986. Reisner thought of the great white winter of 1886, which devastated the breeding farm livestock, and the scorching drought that followed. . But 135 years later, the sentiment still rings true. The West is in the throes of a 22-year mega-drought that is the second worst in 1,200 years.
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The effects are being felt throughout the West. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, is at its lowest level since it was first filled in the 1930s. Water levels are so low that the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the Department of Interior declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River on Aug. 16. Reduced snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada turned forests into powder magazines and fueled forest fires. Joshua’s trees, although native to the desert, are withered and dying.
The West, a mountainous region where three deserts meet, is used to drought. Building cities in a place that can resemble Mars required skillful engineering and a lot of capital. However, the “millennial drought” is different from its predecessors. Drought refers to a dry period that eventually ends. But now, two longer-term trends are at work: climate change, which is making the region hotter and drier, and population growth, as Americans move west. Most of the fastest growing cities are in the southwest. Phoenix, which receives 18 cm (7 inches) of rain per year, has grown faster than any other large we city over the past decade.
What can be done? Appropriate pricing would help. Few things are more precious in the West than water, yet local governments and utilities provide it cheaply. This removes the incentives to conserve, apart from the neighborhood commitment to the public good. A system that billed people, farms, and businesses based on usage, and was subject to the laws of supply and demand, would encourage retention among the more libertine users and keep costs from skyrocketing for those who may not be able to afford the cost of water. in an open market, such as poor rural towns or Native American tribes. Such a system would need better counting. If Americans could use an app to see how much water they are using, they would find that they consume more per person than people in any other major country.
For pricing to work, the West’s outdated water rights system will need an overhaul. Agriculture absorbs 70% of the water flowing in the Colorado River, which serves 40 million people in the southwest. But in many states, farmers or ranchers lose their water rights if they don’t use them. Such “use or lose” clauses mean that the reward for conservation may be the loss of one’s livelihood. A law recently passed in Arizona will allow people to leave water in rivers without compromising their rights. Similar projects are multiplying in the region. The water trade is also promising. The physical movement of water is tricky, but trade within basins, like Australia does, could benefit farmers and cities.
The conservation needed to water the West will require more than just market solutions. Policymakers must accept that a few wet seasons will not save them. One of the reasons water rationing for the Colorado River Basin could be so painful is that the rights were awarded based on overly optimistic assumptions about the river’s flows. Some officials would still prefer to plan more dams or aqueducts rather than taking into account the reality of dwindling reservoirs. Instead, they should focus on reducing water consumption. In Las Vegas, each person uses 47% less water than in 2002, reducing overall use even as the population grows.
America is rich enough to recycle water and maintain its watersheds. This will help mitigate the effects of climate change. But drought is not a problem unique to the American West. The World Health Organization estimates that water scarcity affects 40% of the world’s population. The West can be either an example of resilience or a warning to the rest of the drought-stricken world. The region has long been inhospitable. It must not become uninhabitable. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Megadry”