Not just another drought: The American West moves from dry to bone dry

Originally published in Resource Insights

Featured image: Colorado river floating into Lake Mead
NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


By Kurt Cobb

The American West is having a drought. So, what else is new? And, that’s just the point. The American West has been in an extended drought since 2000, so far the second worst in the last 1200 years. Here is the key quote from the National Geographic article cited above:

In the face of continued climate change, some scientists and others have suggested that using the word “drought” for what’s happening now might no longer be appropriate, because it implies that the water shortages may end. Instead, we might be seeing a fundamental, long-term shift in water availability all over the West.

That is what climate scientists have been warning about all along. The problems we are now experiencing are not just cycles or fluctuations—although those continue to be important—but rather, permanent changes in the climate (that is, on any timeline that matters to humans).

I wrote about this drought when it was only 10 years old. (For a sense of how bad it is now, see the U.S. Drought Monitor.) Back then it did not seem that residents and businesses were taking it seriously, even if some water officials were. There have been ups and downs in the intervening years, but mostly downs.

There is a reason that most major cities are located near water and not in arid regions. Water is heavy, fluid and not easily transported—though vast and expensive water projects do just that. Water cannot be easily created from its constituents elements, oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen is abundant everywhere on Earth. But hydrogen in its elemental state is not readily available and must be extracted from other sources such as natural gas. The cost of manufacturing water is prohibative or we’d likely be doing it already.

That leaves society with two paths: Bring ever greater amounts of water to arid regions which continue to grow in population and water-intensive activities such as farming OR conserve dramatically in order to live within the available water supply.

The second choice appears imminent as water authorities across several states are preparing to activate a drought response plan this summer when Lake Mead (the lake behind Hoover Dam) is expected to reach a level that triggers the plan. All those receiving water from the Colorado River and its tributaries are likely to be affected. Again, a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor demonstrates that the drought extends far beyond the Colorado River basin, west to much of California, east into New Mexico and West Texas and north into parts of Oregon.

There is a third path which I haven’t mentioned because in polite company and official circles it is unmentionable: People could leave. And, they may do so as the costs and consequences of living with less water mount—especially for those in water-intensive pursuits such as agriculture. Those in the cities may leave, too, as the cost of provisioning water for urban areas rises and supplies are curtailed. That would, of course, hit water-intensive businesses and their employees the hardest.

All of this was prophesied long ago by Marc Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert, the acknowledged classic treatment of water in the American West. The subtitle of the book is “The American West and Its Disappearing Water.”

Of course, the boosters of growth in the West will tell us that these things are cyclical and that soon the rains will return. But, the West has been waiting for over 20 years. Unfortunately, a positive mental attitude does not trump the physics of climate change—which, in this case, has been combined with a return to what the historical and geological record show is far closer to the norm in the West.

That does not bode well for a people and a culture used to getting its way with nature—something, it turns out, that was really just luck, the luck of having populated and reconfigured the West in a period that was particularly wet in relation to the millennium that preceded it.


Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights.

2 thoughts on “Not just another drought: The American West moves from dry to bone dry”

  1. That “unmentionable” (that people could leave) has a close friend, called “people could stop breeding.”

    Admittedly, I never had the impulse. It never occurred to me that I should spend the best years of my life and half of my income producing more people, when the population of the world was already going to double, between the time of my birth and my 40th birthday.

    If you have an insatiable nurturing impulse, adopt someone or something that already needs a home. Solve a problem, instead of causing one. Become a teacher, forest ranger, or conservationist.

    Society today is in denial. A gerontologist on “60 Minutes” this week said — with a straight face — that over half of the children born today in Europe and North America will live to the age of 103.

    This prediction, of course, was made without considering the fact that the greed of people already here has made sure that the coastal cities of Europe and North America will ne underwater in 103 years. The aquifers responsible for most food production will have been drained. Billions of people will be on the run from hunger, resource wars, and unbearable climate change. And 103-year-olds aren’t particularly good runners.

  2. As with every other environmental issue, the problems here are overpopulation and overconsumption.

    As to overpopulation regarding this issue specifically, arid regions like the western U.S. only support small populations naturally (i.e., without stealing water from other ecosystems and pumping it in). Phoenix is probably the worst example of this, millions of people living in an extremely arid area that could only naturally support hundreds.

    As to overconsumption, Phoenix again leads the way regarding personal overconsumption with its lawns that need watering and its swimming pools in an area that naturally provides very little water. California and Las Vegas lead the way with commercial/industrial wasting of water. California grows large amounts of alfalfa for its cattle, which are extremely harmful in the west for this and many other reasons. It also allows growing water intensive crops like almonds even in the driest portions of the Valley that are geologically classified as deserts. Las Vegas uses the Hoover dam(n) to power its massively wasteful lighting for its 24 hour casinos, wrecking the downstream portions of the Colorado River (not the only big dam(n) on the river, but each one is a big problem).

    But Phoenix is only the worst of it. Every city in the west is even more grossly overpopulated and even more grossly overconsumptive than cities in the east, because there is far less naturally available water in the west. Option 3 in this essay is going to become a reality for many in the west, whether it’s tomorrow or 20 years from now. Governmental bodies like water regulators can only kick the can down the road so far, and conservation alone will do virtually nothing to alleviate this problem that has much deeper root causes.

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