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Dead Pool -- Imagining the Future of the American Southwest
Alex Steffen, 7 Aug 09


It is likely to be a source of unhappiness for us that we have taken natural bounty for granted in designing our civilization. But it is likely to prove tragic that we have assumed not only the indestructibility of nature (heck, some fossils still argue that climate change is impossible because it is not within human abilities to wreck the climate), but also that the particularly beneficial circumstances of the 20th century are what is ecologically "normal." Nowhere is this more evident than in arid regions, and nowhere is it better studied than in the American Southwest.

There, in the deserts and mountains, we Americans have built huge cities, farms and ranches, and one of the world's leading tourism industries (think Vegas) predicated on the reliability of cheap, plentiful water. This was a mistake. Water in the very near future will be neither cheap nor plentiful, and much of the Southwest is destined for real trouble.

I have not read a clearer explanation of how much trouble the Southwest is in for, or a better accounting of the flawed thinking that got us into this mess, than James Lawrence Powell's excellent Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West. Powell lays out, with devastating precision and a wealth of facts, the reality that the Southwest as we've known it over the last 50 years is already done for.

First, our assumptions about how wet the American West actually is have been based on a century that studies of tree rings show to have been anomalously wet: over the centuries, the region's usual state has been even drier than it is now.

Second, though climate change is expected to lead to more rainfall during wet years, in the West's four major river basins (the Columbia, Missouri, Rio Grande and Colorado), the number of hot years expected as climate change worsens will be several times the number of wet years.

Third, rising temperatures mean that the mountain snowpacks upon which all four rivers rely are going to continue shrinking. This is particularly a problem for the Colorado River basin, where evaporation into the desert air is so fast that "nearly 90 percent of the water in the streams must come from a virtual reservoir: the Rocky Mountain snowfields." But snow pack in the Rockies has already declined by 16 percent, and is expected to shrink far more, and far more quickly, in coming years.

Fourth, our other options for taking, storing and using water have run out. Aquifers are essentially fossil water, and are being depleted many, many times faster than they can refill. For our purposes, Western aquifers are non-renewable resources. New dams designed to catch winter and spring rain in wet years and store it for dry years are impractical in scale, financially and politically. There is, realistically, very little we can do to increase water supply, or even to keep it from disappearing rapidly.

How rapidly? Powell cites recent studies that with current water demand and even very minor climate change (which is not what we should expect now) there's a 50 percent chance that both Lake Powell and Lake Mead (the two largest reservoirs in the U.S.) will "reach dead pool" by 2021. That means so little water will be left in them that the water level falls below their dam's lowest outlets (and so no more water flows from them). As Powell notes, "A probability of 50 percent means that there is an equal chance that the reservoirs could fall to dead pool later -- or sooner." [his emphasis] The take away is that, unless profound changes are made, the desert Southwest will run out of water in the next couple decades.

"For the Colorado River basin and the Southwest," Powell says, "the threat from global warming lies not in the comfortably distant future -- the threat is here today. West of the 100th meridian, the danger derives not from the slow rise of the sea but from the more rapid fall of the reservoirs... business as usual cannot continue."

The changes needed are virtually unimaginable now. Powell shows that right now, farms in the region use 80 percent of the water, and cities use the rest -- about half of that for landscaping (which is why there are fountains in Phoenix and lawns in Las Vegas). Even cutting back agricultural use and slashing landscaping use and combining them with the most aggressive conservation efforts imaginable would still only at best buy time for a new way of life suited to a much drier, much hotter climate to emerge.

What that way of life looks like, Powell doesn't say, and I don't think anyone has even begun to imagine. The realities of living in places with high temperatures rivaling those today found only in Death Valley, where water is too scarce and too expensive to water lawns and fill swimming pools (and where higher energy prices make vast air conditioned spaces unrealistic); well, those realities are brutal. It will take some major innovation to imagine how to transform what's there now into a decent way of life in those conditions.

I expect that a lot of the desert Southwest will, in historical time, dry up and blow away. But for the foreseeable future, people will live there. If nothing else, there will be a certain percentage of the population that's just too impoverished or too old, too house-poor or too stubborn to leave. It's not too early to start imagining how to reinvent the future they're inheriting.

Feature image credit: Hite Crossing, Lake Powell, by Art Blart

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Once again, the people who flush toilets and eat food are the guilty horrible violators of the earth. Curiously, the author who either did not do his homework, or is slightly biased against humans, forgot to include mining. Mining of gold and silver, usually by non-national companies--e.g. Barrick Gold, a Canadian company whose shareholders and board members include plenty of US politios, merrily gets to pump millions of gallons out of aquifers out West to have plenty of water to pollute with cyanide for its massive mines--which strip mine Native American lands without an environmental care in the world.

They received a grant to rape and pollute the west for a mere $10,000 thanks to our own Harry Reid of Nevada, who knew a good vision when he saw one.

What about coal and methane extractions? Any idea how many millions of gallons of good water are squandered for those pursuits? Anyone ever hear of Ross Perot and how he pumped billions of gallons of water from Texas' aquifers during the 1970s, permanently altering streams, rivers and farmlands....

Pretty easy to point a finger at an outdoor swimming pool or sprinkler and say "aha!! as long as corporations are given carte blanch to despoil whole nations, the global water "shortage" will continue to prevail as more and more corporations figure out a way to charge us for the little dribbles of water they will allow to come out of our taps. If it won't be ridiculous fees added to electricity bills in the name of stopping that horrible toxin carbon dioxide, it will certainly be water fees and if enough people are made to feel guilty they will certainly shell out the money to pay without questioning where the water went originally.

Posted by: Eunice Farmilant on 6 Aug 09

Wow, Eunice, that's a pretty angry response to something I didn't say. I never said we should ignore industrial water use, or that we should put all the burden of change on individuals.

And as for mining, it represents less than 2% of total U.S. water use, so -- while I'm all for reforming mining practices -- fixing mining won't solve this problem.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 6 Aug 09

nearly 40 years ago I was looking for a place to rent out in the desert near Tucson, AZ. Twenty miles out of town, wandering on dirt roads, I came across a vineyard that seemed to be dying.I asked at the farmhouse what was happening. They said the water rights had been bought by the city of Tucson. Even back then Tucson was unsustainable. I have never been able to fathom how people flocking to the SW could believe it would NOT run out of water within their lifetimes.

Posted by: Vicki on 6 Aug 09

Dear Alex,

The point I was trying to make is that industry and mining are more often than not given a wink and nod and are seldom held accountable for squandering vast amounts of water from aquifers that have taken hundreds if not thousands of years to fill--and they do not recharge easily. It is often a one way road--water out, but no water going back in.

Also, that 2% figure of water usage is very misleading because it represents a national average--mining is often conducted in areas that are prone to being dry and arid, and water resources are less abundant. To suck water from these areas deprives not only nearby inhabitants but also animals and wildlife. And the percentages of actual water usage is much higher--sometimes exceeding 10%. I got the information from the state of Nevada's own figures...but I know from personal experience how farmers can be affected by other types of mining--in the state of Texas where I lived for 11 years, aluminum mining not far from the city of Austin not only sucked large amounts of water from aquifers, but also contributed to massive amounts of pollution from the cheap dirty coal used to process it. Industry burns a lot of coal that is not regulated because they are not operating power plants as public utilities.

Outside of Austin, people saw their wells dry up--not because of global warming,but because of global greed. I just feel that it is very easy to point figures at urban dwellers and people using cars, etc. and use the global warming scenario when it is a much more complicated situation and industry is often overlooked...

And I very seriously doubt that 2% figure of water usage by mining. Where did you find that information? I have done a lot of research on the impact of mining in the Western states, and always found a much higher incidence of water consumption by mining.
Throughout human history, civilizations have risen and fallen in proportion to the both the availability and pollution of their water resources. I never saw the catch phrase "global warming" applied to the Middle Ages when in the 12th century AD vineyards grew in England and Viking farmed Greenland. Droughts, floods, and intense weather and dramatic climatic conditions are part and parcel of the seasons that conduct their wild excesses across the globe. In Israel, the Sinai desert experiences temperatures of 140 degrees--here in Montana last winter it was 20 below for days on end--while last week it was over 100. Right now there is a violent rainstorm blowing everything not tied down around my garden--and yesterday we had l/2 inch hail.

I have experienced winter storms with 50 degree below zero wind chills in upper New York State (circa 1971) and 112 in September,1999 when I lived in Texas. In short, nothing in terms of weather surprises me anymore, but that may be because I am a bit older than you, and have been through many more summers and winters.

The southwestern United States is a desert. It really can't support all those homes, lawns, car washes, and golf courses. I am in total agreement in the lack of planning and excesses of development. I was absolutely stunned to see the vast development that is happening in El Paso when I drove through the housing developments there a few years ago--knowing how limited the water resources are in West Texas.

Perhaps the biggest problems is the continuing trend of centralization which stresses resources no matter where in the planet vast areas of land are gobbled up by urban development. Have to sign off before my power goes out---Mother Nature seems to be a bit pissed off tonight!

Posted by: Eunice Farmilant on 6 Aug 09

Perhaps like the author you mention in the second sentence of your comment who didn't do his homework, you should also do your homework. I can state categorically that Ross Perot did not, "[pump] billions of gallons of water from Texas' aquifers during the 1970s." And to leave no doubt about the preceding statement, I can make this statement, "Ross Perot did not pump or caused to be pumped any water from Texas aquifers at any time." I don't know who the person might have been, but I do know that it was not Ross Perot.

Posted by: Editor, on 7 Aug 09

You probably mean T. Boone Pickens. He was in the oil business. Perot was in the computer business, which I've never known directly to extract water, other than for mainframe and server cooling.

Posted by: Victor Escobar on 7 Aug 09

The water crisis is going to be worse than peak oil IMHO. Anyone living in the southwest who intends to stay needs to learn about "aquaponics" (aquaculture + hydroponics). You can grow your own food with VERY little water, that's why it has really taken off in Australia. Go to for a ton of good info and if you want to know more there are more and more aquaponic system designers out there like me. aquaponicdave at gmail dot com

Posted by: Dave P on 7 Aug 09

I have lived in the Phoenix area since 1988, and have witnessed first hand our long drought. I can remember the summer of 2002, when I saw the last decent Monsoon. Our Monsoon this year is so far has been anemic in comparison to last year's, which wasn't great either.

Over a thousand years ago, the forebearers of the Pima Indians (Tohono' Oodum, pardon if the spelling is not quite right), developed the Phoenix basin. They had an expansive civilization, and traded with other cultures from South America and into the mid west. They were an agricultural people, and dug canals to deliver water from the Salt River to their crop lands. Then, they suddenly disappeared (in geologically history terms). Through verbal stories handed down generations, the Pima can relate that the changes in water/season/river flow/etc caused their crops to dry up, and they were forced very rapidly to move on.

Now here we are, cementing over their canals, and using them to distribute water for ourselves. They say if you do not learn from the past, you are bound to repeat it...

Posted by: Nicole A. Moss on 8 Aug 09

I grew up in the SW, in Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, NM for over fifteen years, plus a few years in Prescott, AZ and central Utah, and a couple in southern California.

Since I haven't made the time lately to "do my homework," I'll just give you qualitative, anecdotal evidence and see if anyone out there will let that count for something.

I can't say which of the so-called facts presented are accurate, and I imagine they all are, from some source. I tend to agree with the author of the article on the basic point that human life in the SW region does need to adapt to a changing climate. The material the article is based on is anything but news. I read most of the same content several years ago in National Geographic and other publications, so I'd like to ask writers to give us a little more, recent and newer material. However, the author is basically right that much of what we've considered normal life in the SW is unsustainable.

Many of us who grew up in the SW have always known this and have laughed at and derided the delusion oasis-making in Phoenix and Vegas, which is far less rampant in my home state of New Mexico. There are certain important cultural differences. Nevada and Arizona have been settled recently largely by wealthy developers building traditional sprawl-cities, which were never sustainable, its only just starting to catch up with them. Of course we have to ditch those excesses, that's obvious with or without "breaking news."

As for the mining issue, I agree with Eunice. The massive waste of water to process minerals, and then the waste water that becomes pollution (let's see, uranium mining on the San Miguel, plutonium isotopes in the Rio Grande downstream from Los Alamos, uranium mining outside of Grants, coal strip mining near Ramah, and on Black Mesa). All of these and many other mining projects have carelessly wasted precious water. However, there is an opportunity for whomever can invent low-water mineral processing and industrial techniques, and these will be the first candidates for application. Mining has always been a disproportionately large user and waster of water, especially in the SW. And please, if you're writing an article about a region, use local statistics not national averages, seems obvious. BLM, National Forest stats, Fish and Game stats from each state, this should be easy info to find.

Plus, I have to say overall, the tone of the article was cute, and full of b.s., useless bravado, like its news or something. Please. We know. It's effin' obvious. Yes, there need to be changes. Yes, we're heading for a reckoning. Yes, our beautiful region is one the most vulnerable and I get angry thinking about any of rivers becoming dead pools. I never supported Glen Canyon dam, nor do I support the continuing existence of either Lake Mead or Powell. Those days are over, and its long been time. People have been deluded about the carrying capacity of the desert. Nature will soon show us in no uncertain terms what kind of life is possible there for people. It will still support some people, who will have to live very sustainably and in a land-sensitive, ecologically wise way. Everyone can else can simply get the h*** out. Ed Abbey said it. Let's get real and stop pretending to be surprised.

Posted by: Andrew on 8 Aug 09

Greetings, my pipeline and water tank design would supply all western states. I have been pushing this idea for 2 years to no avail! It seems we should all wait till we run out of water or our reservoirs get contaminated with toxic algae....GOT WATER?

Posted by: Richard Rosas on 8 Aug 09

I guess it's "climate change" now rather than "global warming?

Posted by: Donald Moeser on 8 Aug 09

Donald, please. They're the same thing.

Posted by: seamus on 11 Aug 09

I think those Americans living in the southwest would find the theories of Peter Andrews, a stubborn Australian landscape engineer, with unorthodox views but with a proven track record, of value.

His updated story can watched online at

I bought both his books, "Back from the Brink" and "Beyond the Brink". They explain how he turned a badly degraded rural property into a green oasis during one of Australia's worst droughts in recent times.

Posted by: Benjamin Taheny on 14 Aug 09

Excellent link there Benjamin. I really enjoyed watching the program about Peter Andrews. Man's a landscape genuis like Bill Mollison. We ought to listen, it seems pretty obvious. Just because it's not politically popular doesn't mean a thing. Seems like Australians and Americans alike could get over themselves and just start doing this sort of thing everywhere.

Posted by: Andrew on 19 Aug 09

test Yandex

Posted by: john131313 on 25 Aug 09

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