Like other regions across the southern United States, Arizona's water supply is dwindling while its population grows like wildfire
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
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June 23, 2007 at 1:14 AM EDT
NEAR FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Standing on the top of Deadman Butte, the damage spreads as far as the eye can see.
Across the broad, parched plain below, stands of dead pinyon pine trees mingle with still-living junipers, grey death amidst green life.
"This used to be a pinyon and juniper woodland," Neil Cobb, an ecological research scientist at Northern Arizona University, remarks sadly. "Now it's just juniper."
To the south and west, the San Francisco Peaks are slashed and even denuded from forest fires, which have been increasingly intense and numerous in recent years.
A bleached 'bathtub ring', the result of a six-year drought that has dramatically dropped the level of the reservoir, shows on red Navajo sandstone formations near Last Chance Bay at Lake Powell on March 26, 2007 near Page, Arizona. Lake Powell and the next biggest Colorado River reservoir, the nearly 100-year-old Lake Mead, are at the lowest levels ever recorded. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Two items on the inventory of a decade of drought in northern Arizona: stressed trees that are succumbing to beetle infestations — die-off, it's called — and tinder forests at risk of fire. Every year it gets worse.
This is not simply a question of a local ecosystem at risk. These dead, scrubby Arizona pines are ecological mine canaries, early warning of the consequences of an imminent, permanent water shortage threatening all of the southern states, which are the very magnets of the country's population and economic growth.
Nor is it just the Southwest that could be drying out. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that 50 per cent of the United States is currently experiencing unusually dry or drought conditions.
More than anything else, lack of water could define the limits to America's future growth.
Cyclical droughts are an ancient feature of the U.S. Southwest. They come and go in 20- to 30-year cycles, and within each cycle there are good years and bad years.
But scientists such as Prof. Cobb have accumulated convincing evidence that this latest drought is worse than its mid-20th-century predecessor.
The region's pinyon pine population has been essentially eradicated. Ponderosa and other species are dying off in places where die-off has never been seen before.
"It's a plausible hypothesis that man-made global warming is contributing to worsening drought in the Southwest," Prof. Cobb proposes. "The thing is, we might not know for sure until the end of the century. And by then it might be too late."
The southeast, where drought has traditionally been much less frequent, has suffered through the driest spring on record.
All Alabama farmland is drought-stricken. Forty per cent of it has been classified as experiencing D4 or "exceptional drought," the worst possible kind. Streams have disappeared, ponds dried up.
In Florida, the vast waters of Lake Okeechobee — second in size only to Lake Michigan among the freshwater lakes of the contiguous states — have receded so severely that parts of the lakebed recently caught fire.
Worst of all for some, the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., has warned it may have to reduce or suspend production, because the iron-free spring waters on which it relies are flowing as much as two-thirds below normal.
Earlier this month, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue asked the people of his state to pray for rain.
"We don't need government's help, we need God's help," he declared.
If global warming, manmade or otherwise, is contributing to a drying out of both the Southeast and the Southwest, then that's trouble, because those regions are where people are headed: older people, in search of cheap land and dry heat, and younger people chasing jobs in high-tech industries that are shifting south, attracted by lower taxes and laissez-faire state governments.
Arizona is the fastest-growing state in the union. Its population increased by 3.6 per cent last year. Nevada is No. 2: Its population grew by 3.5 per cent. Both are mostly desert.
Tuscon and Phoenix — with populations of a million and four million, respectively — are sprawling toward each other, and are expected to merge in the next decade. Planners project a Phoenix-Tucson population of 10 million within 30 years. Even without worsening drought, that will exceed the capacity of existing water supplies — and Phoenix has supplemented its groundwater supplies by diverting rivers, such as the Colorado. Further increasing Phoenix's water capacity could mean impoverishing water supplies elsewhere.
Los Angeles, another major centre of population growth, is experiencing the driest year on record, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa„© has asked residents to reduce their water consumption by 10 per cent. The population of California is expected to grow by 30 per cent over the next two decades: That would mean adding three cities the size of Los Angeles to the state.
The long-term prospects for Southern California are deeply troubling. A recent study by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University warns that global warming, though it will actually increase precipitation overall, will entrench current dry conditions in the American southwest permanently within a couple of decades, by forcing an early snowmelt that feeds the river systems that supply water to the southwestern states, including California. This spring, the snow pack in the Sierra Nevadas was a pathetic 29 per cent of normal, prompting warnings of possible water rationing across the state this summer.
Yet in many places, local politicians continue to assume water is, and always will be, plentiful. In certain Florida municipalities, as Cynthia Barnett, author of Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern United States told National Public Radio, recently, "many homeowners associations in Florida not only require sod, but they have guys in golf carts driving around measuring the shade of green. And if you don't have the right shade, you get a nasty letter from the homeowners association and a fine." Such practices continue even as overuse of aquifers in some parts of the state have caused seawater to seep in, contaminating the water supply.
Part of the problem is age-related. Retirees, who are behind so much of the south's population growth, are often the most skeptical of long-term projections and the most unwilling to conserve.
Part of problem is economic. Developers press local councils relentlessly to grant zoning exemptions for new subdivisions and condominiums, and both local and state politicians are instinctively averse to limiting growth for the sake of something as intangible as future water availability. Some developers even get away with what are known as "wildcat subdivisions," built in defiance of local authorities through clever exploitation of legal loopholes.
Part of the problem is scientific skepticism. As Prof. Cobb observes, "There is a lot of pressure on ecologists to determine what linkages might exist between natural disasters like droughts and storms and climate change, because of concern over the potential ecological impacts if what we suspect might be happening actually is happening."
But that pressure to reach conclusions leads politicians, and even some scientists, to complain that governments are being asked to limit growth based on incomplete data and what could turn out to be unsubstantiated fears.
What is real, however, is the drought, and the shift in population, and the stress on regional water supplies. Global warming or no, there will be future droughts, and no one expects anything other than continued growth in the southeast and southwest.
Some Canadians fear that the shrinking domestic water supplies in the United States will tempt the Americans to ask for, and tempt Canadians to sell, water from our abundant supply of lakes and rivers, through some sort of diversion scheme. Such concerns are far-fetched. In most cases, the engineering obstacles alone would price such water out of any conceivable market.
But local and state governments are taking more practical action. For California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, that means a controversial $4.5 billion project to construct two new dams. (Too expensive, say some critics; bad for the environment, say others.) In southern Florida that means proposals, which are being hotly contested, to impose year-round restrictions on lawn watering, a first step in encouraging a culture of water conservation.
In Nevada, which is adding new residents at a rate of 80,000 a year, that means a daytime watering ban in Los Vegas, bans on new artificial lakes, water recycling plants at the big resorts, and incentives to get people to rip up their lawns and convert to desert landscaping.
But it also means plans to pipe in water from rural Nevada, prompting howls from farmers and local communities, who see their future starved of water to slake Las Vegas' thirst.
That's something Americans can expect more of: competition within states for control over scarce water resources; competitions among states for a greater share of regional watersheds.
Optimists place their hopes on new technologies to recover water, especially desalination plants, which convert salt water to fresh water. But desalination is expensive (though getting cheaper) energy intensive (more greenhouse gases) and the leftover salt injected back into the sea can have severe impacts on local marine life.
For Gregg Garfin, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona, the real question is whether governments should be pursuing new sources of fresh water, or instead considering limits to growth.
"The questions for me are: Where is the public debate about whether to grow at any cost, or to adopt lifestyles that may require some pain?" he asks. "If we retire agricultural lands to save the water they use, will these lands become more housing subdivisions? Do we, as a society, want to make such trades? Do we all want to live in a world where we accept the fact that we've depleted our water supplies to such an extent that we are willing to accept desalination as a fact of life, even if it means that our ecosystems are more vulnerable to drought, insect infestations and fire?"
Until Americans are ready to have that debate, in earnest, they will simply have to cross their fingers and hope (or in Georgia's case pray) that the droughts end, that temperatures don't rise too much.
They will have to hope that the pinyon pine is just a sad little story in northern Arizona, and not a harbinger of the great dry to come.
Things aren't shaping up well the environment just cant sustain this level of population we are going to run into the limits of growth very soon.