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.

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