News of a parched West continues to flow


How many times must it be written that in the West, the story is water, and how many times must the story of the West's dependence on the Colorado River for its water be told?

Many readers probably know by now, but it bears repeating. The current running beneath many environmental justice stories is water. It impacts food access, it is impacted by and often depended upon for power production. Industry depends on it. Its purity impacts the heath of populations. Its availability is shaped by development and climate change.

Colorado river image courtesy Flickr user Wolfgang Staudt

No matter how many stories are told about the West's dependence on the Colorado, there will continue to be new ones, especially as the possibility that what the New York Times calls a “Day of Reckoning” when Lake Mead's water level might drop beneath a 1,075 foot demarcation line looms.

Rarely, though, does such a nuanced story get as complete a treatment as Sarah Zielinski's gave the river in Smithsonian Magazine this month. Coupled with photos by Peter McBride – including a dramatic opener depicting a 70-foot-high “bathtub ring” marking past water levels on the river's stony shores – the story depicts how the river is “a perfect symbol of what happens when we ask too much of a limited resource: it disappears.”

With it may vanish the livelihoods of the 30 million people in the U.S. and Mexico who depend upon the shrinking river. As Zielinski put it in a later blog post: “ matter how advanced we may be as a society, we're still dreadfully dependent on simple things like water and the great sponge that sits above us in the atmosphere.”

The thought of a permanently altered Southwest leaves me wanting to ask about water the question I ask so often. When is enough enough?

Of course, the question isn't really “when is enough water enough,” but “When is enough growth enough?” When have our communities grown so large that we can start focusing on bettering them, instead of increasing them? When will we develop sane population management strategies (and I'm not suggesting management of migration; ignoring the human rights concerns in immigration debates, addressing migration alone just shifts population strains elsewhere)? When will we begin to accept the dangers we've placed before us, instead of trying to invent our way out of problems.?

In fact, it's becoming clear that engineering our way out of the water crisis may even carry other threats, as noted in a Nature article describing a new study examining the relationship between water insecurity and threats to biodiversity. That article – which points out that 80 percent of the world's population lives in areas facing such threats – takes care to note that researchers found that “there does not need to be a trade-off between providing people with water and protecting biodiversity.”

It's not just wildlife that's at risk, it's a way of life. Expanding on the New York Times article about Lake Mead, Janet Zimmerman of Riverside, Calif.'s Press Enterprise reports how hydroelectric power generation is at risk. As Zimmerman reports, utilities are prepared to replace hydropower with electricity from other sources, but likely at a higher cost to consumers. Riverside, like other communities across the Southwest, has been devastated by the current recession, and any increased utility costs will sting. Even if a solution to electricity demands that doesn't raise prices can be found, though, the problems underscoring both Riverside's economic crisis and ecological one will persist.

Meanwhile, we're continue to learn more not just about how the problems of the Southwest are increasingly interwoven with the problems facing the Colorado River, but how these specific challenges are increasingly tied to problems presenting themselves in other parts of the West – not to mention other parts of the country and the world. So much was clear in Keith Schneider's Yale Environment 360 piece on how the oil and gas shale boom in the Rockies, the Great Plains and Canada will have wide-reaching ramifications. Those ramifications include the need for nearly four times as much water to produce tar sands oil as is needed for conventional oil.

The frustrating part about all this is that, in a way, none of this is news.

A photo of an Iridium flare over the Colorado river that I stumbled on while browsing NASA's Earth Sciences Photo of the Day led me to this 2003 post about findings from the agency's Earth Observatory showing elevation drops at Lake Mead. Even that story was not the first to detail the Colorado's decline. Seven years later, I wonder whether more attention and immediacy focused on such research could have lengthened the time we'd have to implement into the structural, societal changes that may be necessary to respond to our evaporating West.

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

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