Water in the American West: Learning from Crisis

Jon Gertner writes in The Future Is Drying Up a New York Times Magazine about Water in the American West. The articles is discusses how increases in population and decreases in precipitation are reorganizing the US inland west. It includes some insightful comments from Roger Pulwarty, a climatologist at NOAA who looks at adaptive solutions to drought. He sounds a bit like Emory University ecological management scientist Lance Gunderson:

You don’t need to know all the numbers of the future exactly,” Pulwarty told me over lunch in a local Vietnamese restaurant. “You just need to know that we’re drying. And so the argument over whether it’s 15 percent drier or 20 percent drier? It’s irrelevant. Because in the long run, that decrease, accumulated over time, is going to dry out the system.” Pulwarty asked if I knew the projections for what it would take to refill Lake Powell, which is at about 50 percent of capacity. Twenty years of average flow on the Colorado River, he told me. “Good luck,” he said. “Even in normal conditions we don’t get 20 years of average flow. People are calling for more storage on the system, but if you can’t fill the reservoirs you have, I don’t know how more storage, or more dams, is going to help you. One has to ask if the normal strategies that we have are actually viable anymore.”

Pulwarty is convinced that the economic impacts could be profound. The worst outcome, he suggested, would be mass migrations out of the region, along with bitter interstate court battles over the dwindling water supplies. But well before that, if too much water is siphoned from agriculture, farm towns and ranch towns will wither. Meanwhile, Colorado’s largest industry, tourism, might collapse if river flows became a trickle during summertime. Already, warmer temperatures have brought on an outbreak of pine beetles that are destroying pine forests; Pulwarty wonders how many tourists will want to visit a state full of dead trees. “A crisis is an interesting thing,” he said. In his view, a crisis is a point in a story, a moment in a narrative, that presents an opportunity for characters to think their way through a problem. A catastrophe, on the other hand, is something different: it is one of several possible outcomes that follow from a crisis. “We’re at the point of crisis on the Colorado,” Pulwarty concluded. “And it’s at this point that we decide, O.K., which way are we going to go?”

For some photos see NASA, and a graph of the water levels in Lake Mead showing the longterm decline in water storage.

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