Will a thirsty Southwest put the Midwest underwater?

In 2068, tensions remain over the Great American Connector pipeline and a weather meddling program isn’t helping.

 

This fictional short story is part of our Speculative Journalism Issue, where we imagine stories from a West under climate stress in 2068.

Many here in Las Vegas see Brett Robertson as the patron saint of the Southwest. With his keen ear for messaging and a veritable army of lobbyists, Robertson, heir to the Adelson gambling empire, has kept the water flowing to this desert oasis despite a decades-long drought and growing threats to the Great American Connector pipeline.

On an early April day, he stepped up to a gilded lectern, framed by the all-too-prescient pyramids of the Luxor Las Vegas. A fine dust blew across the crowd as onlookers awaited his announcement. “People of the Southwest, I am you. … I am with you and won’t bow to our Midwestern friends,” said Robertson. With a slight smirk and a note of not-so-thinly veiled contempt, he continued, “Who would see us die of thirst rather than get their boots wet?”

While Robertson’s speech was filled with more rhetoric than specifics, documents obtained by High Country News from whistleblowers in the Sands Corporation detail his history of attempted meddling in weather patterns in the Midwest. After years of limited success generating precipitation in the Southwest, Robertson turned the focus of the “Rainmaker Project,” as it’s called in internal documents, eastward with a series of drone-operated cloud-seeding expeditions. Legal experts say the project violates a host of federal and state laws, and some meteorologists question whether it’s even having that much of an impact. Still, Midwestern farmers, currently suffering the worst flooding in decades, say the plan feels like an attack on their region and their future.

For decades now, the chronically waterlogged Midwestern plains and perpetually parched Southwestern cities have enjoyed a mostly happy balance when it comes to the management of the Great American Connector pipeline. The pipeline, which broke ground in 2027, on the centennial of the Great Mississippi Flood, was part of the Blue New Deal package. It pulls water from a dozen points along the Mississippi River via a series of feeder pipelines, which connect to the mainstem of the Great American Connector pipeline just south of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The water then heads west through pipes covered by a 30-foot-wide and 15-foot-tall tapestry of solar panels and wildlife overpasses. After reaching the Continental Divide, the pipeline enters a series of in-line hydroelectric facilities before depositing its “blue gold” in the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado.

But cracks are growing in the symbiotic relationship between the Midwest and Southwest. Increasingly unpredictable weather events, and fears that some of the most extreme deluges, which have overwhelmed the project’s flood-control capabilities, have been exacerbated by Robertson’s weather meddling, have prompted outrage. Amid calls for calm and compromise, Midwesterners have formed makeshift militias that monitor air traffic, watching for drones over their region.

For farmers like Shauna Greene, who grows fruits and nuts in Davenport, Iowa, the escalating tension, along with the return of the flood conditions that wiped out her grandfather’s crops, makes her question her family’s future. “We’ve undergone massive changes to adapt, both to reduce flooding and store carbon on our farm,” Greene said in a video interview, as she stood in calf-high water near a chestnut tree. “My family has spent years totally reshaping how we manage the land and doing all we can, and some fat cat in Sin City has the audacity to try and sink us even further. It makes me sick.”

Upstart Iowa Senate candidate Jim Holfe is also seeking redress for Robertson’s meddling, running on a “No More Floods” platform. “For too long, this great state’s politicians have been bought off by water-thirsty outsiders,” a social media advertisement for his campaign proclaims.

Even as Midwesterners vow to fight Robertson, he remains a folk hero in the Southwest. As the unrelenting spring sun bore down on her, Lydia Aguaseca spoke of the hardships her family faces in St. George, Utah. “We can barely eke out a living and deal with heat and thirst every day,” she said. “We are out here maintaining the solar systems that keep your lights on.”

Robertson denied repeated interview requests from HCN, but internal documents reveal a pattern to the deployment of his silver iodide-loaded drone fleet. Leaked files show that the Rainmakers typically fly from Las Vegas to staging areas in eastern New Mexico when the conditions for Midwestern storms develop. From there, they deposit their cloud-seeding payload just ahead of the storms.

As the jet stream caroms from the Gulf of California to the Great Lakes, cutting a swath between cooler air to the West and warmer air in the East, the conditions are ripe for devastating storms across the Midwest. An Iowa militia member, who spoke on background, told HCN: “If they keep trying to bring us rain, we’ll show them thunder.” 

Carl Segerstrom, assistant editor for the High Country News North Desk, has a growing sense of climate dread, and the need to get things growing. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

STORY NOTES: The Northern Great Plains will experience highly variable climate in the future, with flooding expected to worsen and agriculture forced to adapt. The Southwest, which currently generates one-eighth of U.S. energy, is going to be hotter and drier, experiencing severe droughts. Cloud seeding is already a widespread practice around the West, but its actual impact is up for debate: “Operational cloud seeding continues in nearly a dozen western states, despite a lack of any strong physical evidence supporting its effectiveness.”

Sources: Conant, ibid. French, J. R., Friedrich, K., Tessendorf, S. A., Rauber, R. M., Geerts, B., Rasmussen, R. M., . . . Blestrud, D. R. (2018, February 06). Precipitation formation from orographic cloud seeding.

Gonzalez, P., G.M. Garfin, D.D. Breshears, K.M. Brooks, H.E. Brown, E.H. Elias, A. Gunasekara, N. Huntly, J.K. Maldonado, N.J. Mantua, H.G. Margolis, S. McAfee, B.R. Middleton, and B.H. Udall, 2018: Southwest. In Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II[Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 1101–1184.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...