NOTHING TO SEE HERE

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.

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39 Responses to “NOTHING TO SEE HERE”

  1. svnski Says:

    Ah, the good ol' water shortage. We got it bad here in Australia as well. The Murray Darling river system is drying up while different states fight over who owns what water. They're growing cotton in western Queensland, for fucks sake.

    I've also never understood the desire for a green lawn in these sorts of climates. And we can't mandate installation of water tanks (let alone solar panels or even a simple thing like eaves) 'cause SOCIALISM!!!

  2. Dbp Says:

    What if instead of shipping water to the south, what if we just shipped southerners further south?
    Surely one way plane tickets must be cheaper than continuously shipping all that water down there.

  3. jjack Says:

    Two things: Lyndon LaRouche, mega genius he is, has as one of his pet crackpot ideas a North America-wide canal system to bring water from Alaska & Canada southward.

    Also, speaking of water in Arizona; the Phoenix water utility has a pressure zone dedicated specifically for Alice Cooper. The only reason public water is available in the vicinity of his home is because he's Alice fucking Cooper and if he wants public water at his house the taxpayers of Phoenix will pay for it god damn it.

  4. Nan Says:

    There's been talk about piping water from the Great Lakes to the arid Southwest for decades. No one ever seems to consider sending the industry and people back this way, even though that would seem to be the logical and much, much cheaper solution.

  5. c u n d gulag Says:

    Many of us have been warning about the coming 'Water Wars.'

    The US has been securing other countries water rights when they ask us for economic aid.
    And that's been going on for decades.

  6. Middle Seaman Says:

    California is going through the worst drought in a decades. The state isn't only the huge metropolis of LA and San Diego, it's also the inner valley were most of the country gets it produce from. A move to the Midwest cannot solve the produce problem.

    I read somewhere that in Israel, big cities recycle their water. The consumption of fresh water has dropped to manageable levels and dependence on rain in a semi-arid land, very much like the West, isn't much of a problem anymore.

    When desalinization is added to recycling, water stops being a problem. The price goes up, short of the roof though, but the problem disappear.

    Will we come up with similarly ambitious solutions to the water problem?

  7. John Danley Says:

    GE will save us by building a U.S. version of the Baltic Canal, but only Peter Thiel will have access.

  8. April Says:

    20 years ago when I first started teaching was also when it became popular for people to buy bottled water. I used to tell my students that it was a good thing for them to get used to buying water because when they got to be my age water would be more expensive than oil.

    They would look at me with those condescending faces the young use to humor the old farts who are clearly just a few days away from dementia. Ya know, sometimes it really SUCKS to be right!

  9. Anubis Bard Says:

    I suppose the silver lining to the utter collapse of democratic will and vision in this country is – although we can't constructively solve any of our problems – at least we won't manage idiotic mega-projects either.

  10. Misterben Says:

    Won't it be interesting when the water authorities in places like Atlanta and Dallas ask for more tax money to pay for desperately-needed improvements, and the local wingnuts say no, and then the municipal water systems start to crack under the pressure?

  11. Anonymouse Says:

    Hey, don't pick on Buffalo! My spouse is from that area, and it's actually very beautiful (natural and man-made scenery) and the schools and society in general function way better than the southern hellhole I'm currently trapped in. If we could figure out how to get jobs around the Buffalo area, we would be there because the weather is nice, the houses are affordable, and the people are educated (moreso than here, Teatard central).

    As I type this, my work is closed for…rain. Seriously. We're expecting snow later, around the time my building will open for the day. The last time I was up north it was for a funeral in the spring, when a freak storm dumped 18 inches of snow overnight. Where I live, schools would be closed for weeks and the grocery stores would have been looted clean. There? The roads were plowed, the sidewalks were clean, and people went about their business.

  12. Anonymouse Says:

    Re: water. About 10 years ago, the buzz where I live was all about Las Vegas and Phoenix, and how they were the cities where the streets were paved with gold and life was suuuuuuuper! Lots of people were moving out there. I saw that Phoenix averages seven inches of rain a year and has a whole lot of days over 100 degrees, and thought…nope. The hot tubs and triple-showerhead lifestyle can't last forever.

  13. el mago Says:

    As a westerner who has studied and observered water trends for around 40 years, the worldwide crisis is no surprise, nor is it a surprise that water is the gold and oil of the 21st centuries. The money boys know that. They've been privatizing wells in the 3rd World since at least the nineties.

    Twenty years ago I wrote a thesis paper on desertification; it was scary then and worse now.

    A pity humans are too stupid to steward natural resources–the only animal to foul its own nest.

    Recommended reading: that old chestnut "Cadillac Desert".

  14. Major Kong Says:

    Whiskey's for drinkin', water's for fightin' over.

  15. Funkhauser Says:

    Two minor points:

    1. With higher variability in weather, winter's also gonna get a lot nastier around here (currently in Western New York).

    2. The ruin of Detroit wasn't all occasioned by flight to the SW. Assholes moved to Oakland County too, per that New Yorker article about its extremely punchable county exec.

  16. Major Kong Says:

    @Funkhauser

    Quite true. There's no shortage of money in the Detroit area – it's just all moved out to the suburbs.

  17. Greg Says:

    May I suggest reading Cadillac Desert for a depressing summary of all we can look forward to? Out of date by now but you can just round up…

  18. TomW Says:

    @ Middle Seaman – Produce is only a problem in that we've come to expect the full range of produce to be available at reasonable prices year round. Many of the produce items currently grown in California can be grown just fine in other parts of the country, just not year round. And seasons can be extended in many places with the use of greenhouses, but at a much greater cost. If California can't provide produce, it will be come profitable for farmers in other areas of the country to shift production and perhaps build some greenhouses. But we'll all have to get used to eating frozen vegetables all winter or shelling out big bucks for the luxury of a greenhouse salad in January.

  19. Anonymouse Says:

    @TomW, Barbara Kingsolver wrote about a cafe in Vermont that buys produce from a greenhouse, so it's indeed do-able, but as you say, it won't be cheap to feed the country like that.

    Another concern I have; why are we destroying our potable water with fracking?

  20. Kulkuri Says:

    The Pentagon has been working on plans for water wars for many years. That's one of the things they are working on because of climate change. Of course, climate change ain't happening, so not to worry.

  21. Sarah Says:

    I'm taking bets on the first proposal to build a pipeline to move water from the Great Lakes southward.

    Don't think they wouldn't try it.

  22. Rich Says:

    Native Clevelander and I( like making fun of Atlanta (which is beginning to be a thing). Atlanta has had droughts for years despite having periodic downpours. The clay soil is even less helpful than the Midwestern clay. they're dependent on one big reservoir (Lake Lanier) and the Chatahoochee River (not a "river" in the same sense as say the Ohio or Potomac). The Atlanta area has numerous rather small counties, all filled with sprawl and basically politically bought off by developers.

  23. Nick Says:

    Thirding the recommendation of Cadillac Desert. It's a bit outdated but still the most comprehensive exploration of the West's water issues I've read. It should really be required reading in all Western states, if not everywhere–maybe we'd have fewer politicians advocating that we build more pipelines out of the already overtaxed Colorado and drain aquifers under Western Utah/Eastern Nevada to keep feeding the fountains and golf courses in Vegas.

    Then again, aquifers don't pay as much as golf courses, so probably not.

    Anyway. Utah is already predicting that we might have to ration water this summer, due not only to overuse of existing water supplies but significantly lower than average snowpack this year (it's been below average the last few years but not this bad). And yet we keep sprawling out into the suburbs, selling and buying huge lots covered in Kentucky bluegrass. If people are going to insist on continued suburbanization of the desert, we need to start mandating xeriscaping and water recycling. But of course, that would involve the government meddling in people's lives, as well as the ability to consider the impacts of policies more than two years into the future, so it's unlikely to happen before it's too late.

  24. Xecky Gilchrist Says:

    Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.

  25. Alan Says:

    California's already miles ahead of you (and China). In 1953, the LA Department of Water & Power "dewatered" the Owens River Gorge, piping the entire flow of the river 300 miles south through the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Then there's the California Aqueduct, the Delta-Mendota canal, the Colorado River Aqueduct … you get the picture.

    But the water still has to come from somewhere, and even Northern California and the Sierra are drought-stricken. Last week the Department of Water Resources announced the amount of water to be delivered to SoCal from NorCal under the State Water project: Zero. Nada. Zilch. No water for agriculture, no water for commercial purposes, no water for residential use. The California Aqueduct is going to be bone dry.

    Gonna get interesting…

  26. Will Says:

    The big issue here is agriculture, not the people who live in arid places. Reform over water rights so that farmers pay for the water that they use could solve this issue entirely — though I am not confident that's going to happen.

  27. blahedo Says:

    I've been saying for years that the rising-star city of the 21st century is going to be Chicago (or rather, the Milwaukee-Chicago-Gary metroplex): basic infrastructure is already in place, so they're not building from scratch and can absorb a lot more moving and returning industry, and vastly more freshwater than anywhere else in the country. The other cities you point out have the water advantages but not quite as much established infrastructure.

  28. erase Says:

    the great lakes are already experiencing dropping water levels – they no longer have extra water in them to send south. at the same time, the great lakes are covered under treaty by canada and the us (neither partner can start using more water than they already have laid out by treaty), which would just make it even harder to make any water diversion to the south happen.

  29. mothra Says:

    Well, this is a subject I live, since I live in Albuquerque. One point: the Great Lakes are losing water, too, so aside from it being patently ridiculous to try to pipe water down from them, there might just not be water to pipe down.

    Believe me, our water utility is watching our water supplies like a hawk. Conservation is heavily promoted. We have water restrictions from April through October. Homeowners can get rebates from the water utility for switching to xeriscaping–although a lot of people just have been letting all their landscaping die, which has led to the odd phenomenon of the water authority begging people to water their trees… But the thing is that we just cannot support a massive population. Deserts were not meant to support casts of thousands. We're just too stupid and short-sighted to pay any heed.

    You'd think that Chaco Canyon would serve as a grim reminder for folks, but noooooo.

  30. bb in GA Says:

    The US has about 1.9E09 acres in the lower 48 states. From easily handy 2002 data about 440E06 acres were in crops (assuming rows, orchards, patches, etc.) which was about 23%. There were 584E06 acres in 'grassland, pasture, and range' (31%) and 559E06 acres in 'Forest land use' (30%)

    I'm not going to look up the acreage that was in the 'soil bank' but it is tens of millions of acres.

    Assume that most of the land used for real agriculture is the best dirt out there. We have not even begun to fight as far as growing stuff goes with the less than outstanding acreage available to us to dry land farm if necessary.

    For example, I live on acreage that was cotton farmed until about 50 years ago. You can still see the terraces in the now pasture land. Dig down half a foot and it's red clay. I'm planning on dry land farming about an acre of cantaloupes (muskmelons) this year. Organic melons should produce over $3500 revenue for my acre.. Hardly anyone in my county grows them. They grow well, I have produced them on a much smaller scale.

    This is semi-crappy Georgia Red here….I can be duplicated in a wide variety of crops all over the USA using rain water. Maybe I'll dig a surface water well for a little emergency back-up, if I feel frisky.

    The US is far from being at the mercy of everyone else for food if we just get-r-done

    Oh, if things get too expensive to import, we just might not be able to have all the melons all the time (say from Chile.) Back in the day we had 'seasonal' crops.

    //bb

  31. paintedjaguar Says:

    I suppose everyone has read about places in the US that have passed laws prohibiting private collection and use of rainwater — cuts into the profits of local water utilities…

    It's right in line with the push to prohibit municipal construction and ownership of wireless or fiber networks. Rentiers uber alles.

  32. Xynzee Says:

    Jerry Brown is solely responsible for California's drought. The last severe drought was when? You guessed it, mid-late 70s under Jerry Brown. I bet he was in on it w/ Carter!!!! It's all lining up! Out of my way Beck(erhead) and let me at that chalk board. It all makes sense. Brown and Carter were in cahoots to prepare us for the caliphate of Obama!!! Can't you see!! Are you blind?!!

    Oops sorry not sure what came over me there ;)

  33. Xynzee Says:

    @svnski: I live out in rural NSW. Everyone has a rainwater tank if not two. Right now it's dry as. They're saying we most likely won't see rain until May out here.

    Climate change or no climate change, Australia has *always* had sustained periods of drought. It's only been 5-6 years since the end of the last one. You would think that this country would lead the world in water conservative and water reclamation. Storage, storm water capture and clean up, grey water tanks.

    What I don't get is that the people who are *most* opposed to these are those who claim to be wild-eyed, foaming at the mouth free-markets and job creators types.

    Even if climate change turns out to be BS, think about the money making potential here. Water-tanks, extra plumbing, water purification and filtration for storm water…the list is endless. And the jobs!

    But as long as we have Bunny the Bridge Street zealot enjoying martinis overlooking the Opera House in his budgie smugglers from Kirribilli House we're all f—ed!

  34. eau Says:

    @Xynzee: Hey! Back off, hippy!

    Our very serious, very adult* PM and his very serious, very adult government is very, very busy investigating the greatest danger currently facing our country: Wind Farm Syndrome!

    And anyway, as Svnski mentioned, we need that water up here in Queensland, so we can grow cotton. Heavily subsidised cotton. For the free marketz. And I heard Cubby Station is running at like, 88% capacity or something. Oh, the humanity!

    *I really think the Sex Party should sue. Surely they were the original "adult" party.

  35. albanaeon Says:

    Couple things come to mind.

    First, we should probably go ahead an euthanize sod farms now. Spending huge amount of water to grow stuff that simply requires more water is madness in today's world, let alone in a drier future.

    Second we should go ahead and invest in desalinization now. It'll be expensive, but far less than wars and riots over water. And you know permanently guaranteeing we can grow food seems like common sen… er NATIONAL SECURITY idea.

    Still, that's its evil socialism means we couldn't possibly do these, because the Invisible Hand would never ever give humanity the finger…

  36. Diana Says:

    Hey, paintedjaguar, I'm guessing you'll not be surprised to add electric utilities to the list of water utilities and the municipal/cable companies that are going to great lengths to ensure that a useful and sustainable future will never be built:

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-12-26/utilities-feeling-rooftop-solar-heat-start-fighting-back.html

    Rentiers uber alles, indeed.

  37. terraformer Says:

    I wonder how states in the Great Lakes Compact will deal with this. That's where water is, and could be one of the first fronts.

  38. moderateindy Says:

    People are dreaming if they think the great Lakes are any type of option. Il & IN have already been telling suburbs in their own states that want to get Lake Michigan water to go pound sand. None of those states are going to give up their huge natural resource advantage that can help draw business to them. And that doesn't even begin to bring in the treaty problems with Canada. It's a non-starter, pure and simple.

  39. Neumanic Says:

    Keep in mind that 4 of the 5 Great Lakes lie partially in Canada. And Canada has vast freshwater reserves. Talk has already begun about water rights and how NAFTA affects these. The issue of moving water out of the Great Lakes watershed won't just be a domestic issue.