Are extreme droughts the new reality? According to an article in Salon, the Southwest has experienced one of its driest years on record and, “as of summer’s end, 2011 was the driest year in 117 years of record keeping for New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, and the second driest for Oklahoma.” The result of these extreme droughts: rising temps, record heat, and lots and lots of wildfires.
So are we on our way towards a second coming of the Dust Bowl? Well, it’s certainly looking grim. As author William Debuys warns, “Here’s the bad news in a nutshell: if you live in the Southwest or just about anywhere in the American West, you or your children and grandchildren could soon enough be facing the ‘Age of Thirst’, which may also prove to be the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.”
Thankfully, our water resources are interconnected, so, as Debuys points out, water surpluses in other regions conspired to stave off disaster . . . for the time being. Lake mead has risen 40 feet, pumping up the Colorado River and helping hydrate the more than 30 million people who live downstream in places like Los Angeles, CA; San Diego, CA; and Tijuana, Mexico. For those of you who’ve been keeping a close eye on our coverage of conservation efforts in the Southwest, this surplus won’t come as a shock; thanks to concerted efforts by utilities like the Southern Nevada Water Agency, water use and demand has been significantly curtailed. With healthy snow packs upstream in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, supplies in Lake Mead should stabilize . . . for the time being.
But as Debuys warns, these supplies won’t stay static forever. Climate change is one factor to consider, but population growth and increasing demand in downriver states like California, Arizona, and Nevada are also enormously important factors to consider. The balance between water supply and demand is fragile, and “any departure from recent decades of hydrological abundance, even a return to long-term average flows in the Colorado River, would produce a painful reckoning for the Lower Basin states.”
Debuys breaks down his self-defined “Age of Thirst” into a “three-act tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions.” Act 1 takes place almost 100 years ago, with the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which allocated 7.5 million acre-feet to both the Upper and Lower Basins, along with another 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico. Unfortunately, actual average flow of the Colorado is closer to 14.7 million acre-feet, rather than the 17 million acre-feet initially estimated. Factor in evaporation (1.5 million acre-feet per year), and you can see how the 1922 compact set the stage for shortages over the long haul.
“At this rate,” writes Debuys, “even under unrealistically favorable scenarios, the Lower Basin will eventually drain Lake Mead.” And as the Upper Basin shrivels up and dries out, California can continue its water use unabated, thank in part to the Central Arizona Project that found Arizona subordinating its Colorado River rights in exchange for funding for a new aqueduct.
Debuys’ Act 2 of the “Age of Thirst” tragedy expands upon this first misstep, with Arizona and California battling over water rights while temperatures rise, snow packs diminish, and weather patterns become increasingly unpredictable. For Act 3, Debuys predicts that it won’t be a recurrence of the Dust Bowl that we need to worry about, but rather a second coming of the “megadrought” that could last decades.
So what do you think? If a megadrought is on its way, how can we start planning now to conserve dwindling water supplies? Could the current home mortgage crisis have a silver lining by curtailing the unprecedented growth the Southwest experienced in the last decade, and thereby inadvertently reducing water? And if we’re already in the midst of a mega drought, is it already too late?
Upcoming Forester University Webinars:
December 13th, 2011
Stormwater Inspection and Maintenance
Don’t get caught in the storm. Join Andrew J. Erickson, M.S., P.E., for Stormwater Inspection & Maintenance on Dec. 13th, a discussion of standardized stormwater inspection methods and performance assessment. Learn how to use these to assess, select, and schedule effective and financially sustainable maintenance on stormwater treatment practices (e.g., stormwater ponds, bioretention facilities, infiltration basins, swales, and filter strips).
January 12th, 2012
Planning & Executing an Effective Pavement Preservation Program
As roadway networks and commercial vehicle loading continue to increase and Municipality taxation power remains limited, the need to effectively maintain and improve our pavement infrastructure is paramount. Join David Hein, V.P. of Transportation for ARA, to explore the key concepts of an effective pavement preservation program, program implementation needs and guidelines, and common roadblocks to successful implementation.
January 26th, 2012
5 Steps to Creating a Successful Public Outreach Campaign
Change starts with people. Whether your focus is stormwater pollution, energy conservation, pavement restoration, or recycling, a successful public outreach campaign resonates with your target audience and leads to long-lasting behavior change. Join Erica Hooper of SGA to explore a proven 5-step approach to crafting a successful outreach campaign based on real-world examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
February 9th, 2012
Differentiating & Monitoring Groundwater Plumes
Threatened by various plumes of mobile contaminants, urban potable groundwater resources require groundwater professionals to not only determine the source of individual plumes, but apportion the contributions of multiple sources within a composite plume. Join William G. Soukup, P.G. of Cornerstone Environmental Group LLC to discuss the analytical and interpretive techniques for differentiating plumes and their sources, as well as tips to improve long-term plume monitoring and management.