Posted in Rants on February 3rd, 2014 by Ed

The Week has a very informative, concise overview of the water problems that are becoming more central to the lives of Southwesterners. There are some amazing facts here, both positive and negative. I had no idea, for example, that Arizona is currently using the same amount of water as in 1955 despite its population having grown 1000% since then. I've written a number of times about the folly of building megacities in a desert and the explosive population growth in places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Southern California. But this isn't a problem limited to the Southwest; the Deep South has experienced similar population growth and major cities like Atlanta will be out of water in a decade or two as well unless drastic changes occur.

There's a macabre element to all of this from the perspective of a Midwesterner. As the country points and laughs at the crumbling once-great cities of the Rust Belt – More Detroit ruin porn! More Cleveland jokes! More potshots at Buffal…well, ok, Buffalo sucks. – will they be laughing in 20 years at the cities and regions they are now rushing to de-populate? The quest for cheap, compliant labor has led the nation's economy to reallocate people to Texas and Alabama and Florida and their neighbors. Will it reallocate them back to Ohio and Michigan when it's 120 degrees in July across Texas? When ten or fifteen more years of drought rob the Sun Belt of the benefit of the sacred "Low cost of living"? There are solutions to a water crisis, albeit expensive ones. Desalination is the current last resort, but I'm taking bets on the first proposal to build a pipeline to move water from the Great Lakes southward.

While American politics and public policy are hardly efficient, we usually manage to do things slightly better than China. Which I mention only because China is years ahead of us on the water crisis front, and their response has fallen just a few steps short of terraforming. Entire rivers are disappearing into massive canals built to funnel water from the pastoral south to the arid north. The "South-North Water Diversion Project" – bonus points for truth in labeling, guys – essentially robs Peter to pay Paul, diverting part of the Yangtze to replenish rivers in the north that have long since been bled dry. Interestingly, the Soviet Union once considered and partially implemented a similar project only to abandon it when they realized it was a disaster in the making. Hopefully the United States can come up with a slightly less terrible idea than shipping water south.

In the end what may save this country from doing something equally stupid is not forethought but the staggering costs. China has sunk over $100 billion into its project, and canals/pipelines/etc snaked across the country would cost as much if not several times more. Unwilling to pony up the money and faced with weather that is likely to become harsher as climate change intensifies, the next half-century may bring a slow reversal of the north-south migration of the past thirty years. If water becomes expensive and in short supply, many of the economic advantages of flocking southward will disappear and those summers, which will only get longer and hotter, will seem like a much greater cost to bear.

For as much as the media and political class talk about a future with dwindling supplies of oil, I wonder if there isn't a more obvious impending shortage right under our noses.