The latest report by the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has received considerable attention recently, in part because of its dire predictions concerning the consequences of global warming (though even these may be overly optimistic). If the IPCC is right, we may begin to feel these effects surprisingly soon here in the American West, and in particular the Southwest (New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California).
We may be feeling them already.
To fully grasp the what the IPCC's work means for the West, we first have to understand the role water plays here. Water is a source of constant preoccupation for Westerners in a way that's seldom grasped by those who don't live here. Our newspapers follow the winter's snowpack as if it were a sports team, and no matter how much we may complain about a snowy or rainy day we almost invariable add the caveat "but we could use the water." It's not just that there's so little water here --- it's that, at some level, all of us understand that there's not enough of it.
A recent article in The Nation states:
In startling testimony before the National Research Council last December, Richard Seager, a senior geophysicist at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, warned that the world's leading climate modelers were cranking out the same result from their super-computers: "According to the models, in the Southwest a climate akin to the 1950s drought becomes the new climate within the next few years to decades."
This extraordinary forecast --- "the imminent drying of the U.S. southwest" --- is a byproduct of the monumental computational effort that has been mounted by nineteen separate climate models (including the flagship outfits at Boulder, Princeton, Exeter and Hamburg) for the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
But, as Seager emphasized in Washington, the IPCC simulations point to something very different from the arid episodes catalogued in Lamont's North American Drought Atlas (a state-of-the-art compendium of tree-ring records from 2 BC to the present). Unexpectedly, it is the base climate itself, not just its perturbations, that is changing.
Moreover, this abrupt transition to a new, more extreme climate ("unlike any in the last millennium, and probably in the Holocene") arises not out of fluctuations in ocean temperatures but from "changing patterns of atmospheric circulation and water vapor transport that arise as a consequence of atmospheric warming." In a nutshell, the dry lands will become more arid, and the humid lands, wetter. And the drying of the West will be accompanied by blast-furnace heat: IPCC's new report includes an astonishing prediction that temperatures in the American West will increase by an average of nine degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.
Seeger is even less sanguine in a Denver Post interview about his work, simply stating that "the next century, it will be like a permanent 1930s or 1950s drought." (Even more details can be found over at LiveScience.com.)
While the Southwest may be in for the worst of it, the West as a whole is also getting thirstier. The entire region has been facing an on-again, off-again drought for the better part of the last decade, and while the recent winter has improved the outlook somewhat, the situation remains grim. As water budgets get tighter, the Western states have begun to plan (and sometimes fight) amongst themselves. As the New York Times details,
[t]he scramble for water is driven by the realities of population growth, political pressure and the hard truth that the Colorado River, a 1,400-mile-long silver thread of snowmelt and a lifeline for more than 20 million people in seven states, is providing much less water than it had.
According to some long-term projections, the mountain snows that feed the Colorado River will melt faster and evaporate in greater amounts with rising global temperatures, providing stress to the waterway even without drought. This year, the spring runoff is expected to be about half its long-term average. In only one year of the last seven, 2005, has the runoff been above average.
Everywhere in the West, along the Colorado and other rivers, as officials search for water to fill current and future needs, tempers are flaring among competing water users, old rivalries are hardening and some states are waging legal fights.
In one of the most acrimonious disputes, Montana filed a suit in February at the United States Supreme Court accusing Wyoming of taking more than its fair share of water from the Tongue and Powder Rivers, north-flowing tributaries of the Yellowstone River that supply water for farms and wells in both states.
Preparing for worst-case outcomes, the seven states that draw water from the Colorado River --- Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in the upper basin and California, Arizona and Nevada in the lower basin --- and the United States Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river, are considering plans that lay out what to do if the river cannot meet the demand for water, a prospect that some experts predict will occur in about five years.
There are good reasons to approach these plans with skepticism, however; most of them address how best to divide up a diminishing water pie, but few (if any) acknowledge that the pie is already too small. By itself the West's explosive, sprawling growth is a recipe for environmental disruption, but the states' reliance on fossil water (particularly the rapidly disappearing Ogallala Aquifer in the plains) to supplement their needs is absolutely disastrous. And yet few seem to be questioning either of these decisions.
That the West's water management is almost always associated with the words "dire", "disastrous", and "grim" should tell us something. And it's all too easy to add the word "hopeless" to the list (The Nation certainly seems willing to). But there is reason to believe that we will make it through this particular environmental bottleneck. Humans have survived and prospered in this region for thousands of years, all without the technological prowess and predictive abilities we now possess. It can be done.
10 Things You Can Do
1. If you have a swimming pool or fountain, leave it empty. The air is dry enough here in the West (and especially in the Southwest) that any standing water quickly evaporates. In other words, a swimming pool is great if you're interested in humidifying the local atmosphere, and not such a good idea if you're at all concerned about water conservation. Fountains are even worse, especially ones that create a fine mist of water. They may look pretty, but the added surface area only serves to increase the evaporation rate.
2. If you garden, pay special attention to what you plant. Try to pick up drought-resistant plants, or varieties that require less water. If you have the money, install a drip irrigation system rather than using sprinklers to water your plants; by delivering water directly to the roots of your plants, drip irrigators help to minimize evaporation and runoff. Baring that, take the time to water your plants by hand.
3. Look in to xeriscaping your yard. The Nation notes that in Phoenix "luxury lifestyles consume 400 gallons of water per capita each day;" much of this water is dedicated to keeping lawns of thirsty Kentucky bluegrass alive. Xeriscaping can significantly reduce, if not entirely eliminate, a yard's water requirements. At the very least, replace any Kentucky bluegrass you may have with a species that requires less water. Be aware that some housing developments have covenants that prohibit xeriscaping. Changing this will require you to raise the awareness of your neighbors about these issues.
4. Try to reduce the amount of meat in your diet. It takes 50 to 100 times as much water to produce a pound of meat compared to a pound of grain. Even more water-intensive crops compare favorably against meat, so there's really not much of an excuse.
5. Take a general inventory of the ways you can reduce your water usage around the home. As previously mentioned, replacing your sprinklers with drip irrigation systems (where feasible) can help. Simply making sure that any sprinklers you do have are properly adjusted and not watering the sidewalk can also be surprisingly effective. If your sprinklers are on a timer, have them run at night or in the early morning when the air contains the most moisture and the temperature is coolest to further reduce losses from evaporation. Low flush toilets and low flow shower heads can make a small but measurable difference. Companies such as Gaiam now offer replacement lids for your toilet tank that include a built-in faucet that refills the toilet bowl with the water used to wash your hands.
6. Look into reusing your greywater. Much of the water we use once can be used again --- for example, the water we use to shower can be reused to flush our toilets, and water leftover from cooking might go towards watering our plants. This is a topic that has to be approached with some thought and care, since greywater can sometimes still contain environmentally harmful contaminants, and the legality of its use varies widely. Effectively reusing greywater can also require a significant investment of time and labor (building storage tanks, for example). Despite this, the reuse of greywater is a topic that should probably receive more personal and political attention than it currently does. Find out what applications of greywater are permitted in your community, and if its use is entirely prohibited see what you can do to change the situation.
7. A significant amount of water is lost every year to leaking pipes and valves in public water systems. In the United Kingdom, for example, more than a fifth of the water pumped through its system is lost to leaks. Older pipes and public water systems are more prone to leaks, but even modern systems can develop significant leaks if not properly maintained. What kind of shape are your community's pipes in? If they're in need of repair, is the budget adequate? If not, why not? It's easy for cities to let this sort of maintenance be neglected --- don't let it happen in your community!
8. If one had to point to a single "water demon", something that was at once both symbolic of the misuse of water in the West and of questionable utility itself, it would be the modern golf course. Drenched in fertilizer, planted in visually appealing but water-intensive grass species, and constantly cut to an unnaturally short length (cut grass requires even more water because of evaporation from its wounds), it's as if the traditional golf course was designed to be as wasteful of water as was humanly possible. Worse yet, golf courses are increasingly becoming the focal points of new housing developments in the United States, which means that there's more of them every day. Opposing the construction of new golf courses can not only a method of preventing additional waste of water, but can also become an opportunity to create a broader dialog about water conservation in our communities.
9. Just as a home's water use can be significantly reduced by xeriscaping or planting less water-intensive grass species, so can a city's by a consideration of how it plants and manages its parks. If your community doesn't already give a high priority to native or drought-resistant plants when designing its parks, make it an issue.
10. Finally, and perhaps most generally, find ways to fight sprawl. While cities are by no means water-efficient utopias, suburban and exurban development is by far the more thirsty affair. Swimming pools. Golf courses. Thirsty, photogenic lawns of Kentucky bluegrass. All of these things are emblematic not only of the West's water woes, but also sprawl. Slowing, and eventually halting, this pattern of development is probably one of the most important things we can do in the long run as a society to conserve water (and the environment in general!). It is also politically, and personally, one of the hardest. Many of us live in the suburbs ourselves, or have friends and family that do. People want to live there, developers want to build there, and nobody wants to face up to the fact that sprawl is a pattern of growth that embodies all that is wrong in our relationship with the Earth. Raise your voice and vote with your feet.
The West's water woes aren't going to be over any time soon, and confronting these issues successfully will take a great deal of personal and political ingenuity. What other things can we do, at the individual, community, or state level? What things have you tried? What's worked, and what hasn't? What hasn't been tried, but should be? Let us know in the comments!