The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made an historic announcement today: It is cutting its water releases from Lake Powell to their lowest levels since the giant reservoir on the Colorado River began to fill in the 1960s.
Thanks to increasing demand for Colorado River water, and decreasing supply resulting from profound drought, Lake Powell has dropped to less than half full. To help slow the decline, the Bureau of Reclamation will reduce the amount of water Lake Powell releases downstream toward Lake Mead in 2014 by almost 1 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is roughly the amount of water a U.S. household uses in a year.
But that means Lake Mead, the other giant hydrological savings bank on the river — and the supplier of 90 percent of the water used by Las Vegas — could be headed for even more serious trouble in coming years.
That prospect has prompted the water czar for southern Nevada to float the idea of asking for federal disaster assistance to cope with dwindling water supplies. Quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, compared the drought and its effects to Hurricane Sandy, which inundated large parts of the Northeast in fall of 2012:
“This is as much an extreme weather event as Sandy was on the East Coast. Does a drought not rise to the same level as a storm? The potential damage is just as bad.”
I started to write a comment there, found it turning rather long, so figured I might as well share my thoughts here.
This news should make it clearer that our mortgage payment on all the thoughtless and heedless development in the Cadillac Desert (Marc Reisner’s evocative phrase) which is based on borrowing resources from nature without finding ways to replenish them, is now due (or overdue). And so we have to figure out a way to back out of the ongoing unsustainable development of cities and farms throughout the US southwest.
It is interesting to think of Vegas seeking federal disaster relief assistance to deal with this water crisis, although I’m not sure what federal dollars can do if the natural water supply itself is dwindling. What do those seeking federal assistance have in mind for the money they may get from taxpayers elsewhere? Is it for changing the landscape and nature of development to reduce water use, or to put in more/longer straws deeper down into the reservoir so we can suck it dry faster? Does this request for federal disaster relief funds also mean that we are acknowledging that Vegas itself (and other cities like it) is a man-made disaster, not this decade-long drought which is part of what happens in desert regions?
Yulsman also links to this time-lapse animation of satellite images from Google’s Earth Engine to show the dramatic growth of Las Vegas over the past 3 decades, mirrored (in a manner of speaking) in the shrinking waters of Lake Mead over the same time period. Here’s the last frame of this animation, from 2012:
Does that look like a natural disaster to you? Or more like the not-so-gradual unfolding of a man-made disaster? One that anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the ecology of the region should have anticipated, but no one in any position of power thought to stop or even slow down. And now, after a decade-long drought (which, in a desert, is a surprise to whom, exactly?), we are being asked to treat the completely foreseeable (Cadillac Desert was published in 1993!) water shortage as a natural disaster on par with Hurricane Sandy, and therefore deserving of federal assistance?
While some of the socioeconomic effects of droughts may be similar to those of storms, in as much as they inconvenience the conduct of business as usual, our response to drought cannot be the same because there are fundamental ecological differences between these natural phenomena. It is possible (if ill advised) to recover from storms and hurricanes by rebuilding infrastructure and houses, and to pick up the pieces. It is also possible to redesign those cities with architectural and engineering solutions that might increase resilience to future storms. Many civilizations/nations have managed to survive / thrive in hurricane-prone areas for long periods of time throughout history, because those disasters, while causing damage, do not fundamentally reduce the amount of natural resources available for our use; if anything the heavy rainfalls can actually enhance the fertility of the regions for agriculture. Prolonged droughts, which are characteristic of desert regions, on the other hand, have a tendency to wipe out civilizations that build up beyond their natural resource means. The very name of Phoenix, Vegas’ big brother to the east and rival to the affections of Colorado river water, is testimony to cities past that have crumbled in the desert.
Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, many smaller cities, as well as major farm areas like Imperial Valley, have all flourished over the past half a century owing largely to dams and canals and pipes that have allowed us to harness and redistribute water across the entire region in defiance of natural hydrological cycles. Did we really think we could get away with this forever without paying some cost? If we build cities and farms that consume more water than is naturally available (remember why these parts are called deserts!), it is inevitable that we will face such “disasters”, and once the rivers and aquifers are sucked dry, we won’t really have anywhere else to turn. The American Southwest is littered with archaeological sites that are testimony to such overreach by past civilizations which eventually bit the proverbial dust in these deserts.
We really have to face up to that long-term history and the ecological reality of living in and building a civilization in a desert region. There is no way to sustain any city in the long run if its water footprint exceeds the natural supply, however many straws we stick into the aquifers. Any long-term solution has to incorporate serious changes to the nature of development in the region, which must reduce water use and incorporate better ways to conserve water and try to replenish the aquifer instead of continuing to grow as these cities have been doing for some decades now.
I rather doubt that’s what they have in mind for the federal disaster relief dollars: a rethink and reorientation of the entire pattern of development in the region, with the goal of actually halting further growth and bringing our use of natural resources back in line with the natural rate of replenishment of those resources. If society intends federal disaster relief funds to mitigate the effects of such disasters and to try to prevent their recurrence, I have a humble suggestion for Las Vegas: use the funds to shut down or move the casinos and golf courses and other excessively thirsty unsustainable businesses (and the people working in those sectors) out of the area. That would be a good start towards avoiding future disasters, no?