I spent this morning reading and thinking about an article I read courtesy of one of the Facebook pages I follow. It was called The Day We Set the Colorado River Free, and while it left the hard science up to the scientists, it did talk a great deal about the recent pulse flood experiment that took place in March of this year. So, that’s my starting point, the impacts that a successive chain of massive dams have had on the ecology of the region, the fact that the Colorado River has not regularly completed its journey to the sea for the last six decades, and the results of this development.
Archaeology and Climate Perspective
I took a Master’s degree in archaeology at UNM, but it wasn’t so much my class load as the people I talked to that have informed my perspectives about climate–other archaeologists, paleoclimatologists, paleoethnobotanists, you name it; their thoughts and understandings about the way things were a long time ago have shaped how I see our current cultural models. You see, the 20th century was an unprecedentedly moist period in the much longer story of the Southwest. From the vantage of student, reading thousands of pages a week, I watched vast cultures rise, blossom, and fade; watched them overexploit their resources until the merest incident caused them to topple.
This, of course, is the nature of human cultural cycles. We see it everywhere and throughout (pre)history. Perhaps the greatest commonality is that any culture in question never sees it coming. Even maize-based agriculture that supported unprecedented numbers of humans in the Southwest had its cost. Cribra Orbitalia, an iron-deficient disease that leads to bone lesions on the skull and the softening of the bones surrounding the eye, is just one malady we find in those who ate corn and little else–in other words, those who could not afford or were not accorded the right to consume prestige foods in any quantity. These cultures had stripped the surrounding landscape of edibles, cultivated maize to the extreme, and while they did consume other foods, it just wasn’t enough. Naturally, that’s an oversimplification, but you’ll forgive it in light of a need for some sort of brevity.
Why is the diet of ancient pre-Columbian populations of any importance in this entry? Let’s talk about water. Let’s talk about drought and salt content of the soil. Let’s talk about resource scarcity and the connection it bears to the development and normalization violent ideology and action within cultures. Now, are things becoming a bit clearer? They should be, because in the Southwest, there’s a crisis looming large. It’s apparent enough that even the deniers of climate change are being forced to accept it as a reality. Because it’s going to hurt them as well, not just all those little people they never think about and couldn’t care less for.
The 20th Century Was the Exception
Just so. The American Southwest experienced the wettest period in thousands of years precisely during one of the largest booms in American expansion. People flocked to this desert region, and in response, the government instituted vast construction of dams in order to reroute the then-abundant resources of water and power to these flourishing desert cities. Our thinking was shaped by the perception of the Colorado as a version of the Mississippi River running through canyon and desert. Explorers chronicled the lushness of the terrain, the explosive biodiversity present in and around this vital resource.
It also shaped the current body of laws that impact how the river’s resources are allocated today, how farmers can “use it or lose it” and what cities are permitted to draw for their expanding and thirsty populations. A region never meant to sustain such numbers is now expected to sustain them and their lawns, swimming pools, and imported urban forests, massive cropland for animal feed and luxury foods as well. We are still living in a way that assumes the ready liquid capital, the never ending font of water. In order to do so, a succession of dams and diversionary canals has slowly cropped up, rendering the river a dry and dessicated landscape before it ever leaves U.S. soil. But that hasn’t taken into account the increasing aridity, the evaporation and over-utilization apparent in the ever-increasing shortfalls chronicled against the walls of Lake Mead. The problem is, we aren’t changing those laws to suit the new circumstances. We are blithely continuing to consume a resource as if there will be no end.
Let’s Talk About Snacks, Baby
Water is essential to human life, directly because we need to drink something at some point, but also indirectly because we require snacks; some of our snacks require snacks, too. In light of the fact that The Dust Bowl is less than a century in our past, how are we blithely committing ourselves to make a similar mistake? Just how can that be? Social memory is awfully short. At one point, the Great Plains were touted to be endless breadbaskets, overflowing with natural goodness that would never run out. Our perception was largely the result of an extended wet period in the weather cycle of that region, coupled with the lack of European agriculture and development. The lushness the first pioneers perceived was a blip on the ecological radar, and one that was due to fade all too quickly.
So, why are we increasingly reliant on regions that were never intended to support intensive agriculture in the first place? Because it’s what we do, we humans. We’ve done it before and we see no reason to change now. Never mind that the Imperial Valley and Baja California are sinking as we deplete the natural reservoirs beneath them. Never mind that the Colorado River just can’t handle the everyday needs of the populations of several states, much less water our crops and livestock at the same time. We’ve trapped ourselves into a self-perpetuating cycle of “use it or lose it” never understanding that part of losing it is precisely tied to our cavalier abuse of a natural resource.
Don’t Drink the Water
Let’s look a little farther afield, now, and take a sample of the consequences of our myopic allocation of water in the Southwest. Due to decreasing snow pack in the Rockies, there’s less melt water finding its way into the watersheds. In spite of this understanding, conservation of resources has not quite caught on in the urban and agrarian Southwest–Las Vegas being a rather notable exception with its gray water measures and subsidizing of ecologically responsible landscaping efforts. So, what does this mean for everywhere south of the last dam in the string of water diversions along the Colorado?
As the article I read this morning stated, “It’s been 50 years since the Colorado River regularly reached the sea.” Think about that. If you’re one of those people who has difficulty seeing beyond the immediate state of things, one set of variables, or the interconnectedness of the world, this section is really for you. Every ecosystem develops under a specific set of circumstances–rain, no rain, a river, a mountain side, a bog, a plateau–and those circumstances in turn render things favorable for an interconnected web of plant and animal life to develop. Remove one, and the web alters, perhaps a little or perhaps a great deal.
Now, in the particular case of the riparian environment (seasonally wet and dry, subject to annual flooding) historically present along the banks of the Colorado River, what effects do you think a sudden absence of water might presage? Keep in mind that precipitation in this region is less than two inches per year. Many people I’ve encountered would take the stance of “It’s the desert. Nothing grows there anyway.” They couldn’t be more mistaken about the delicate and diverse nature of desert ecosystems, but there are other points to argue, here.
For the Birds
First, let’s look at the fact that there are human settlements that once lay directly along the path of the Colorado that no longer receive any water directly. This has a decided impact on their culture. In a way, the cultural desertification mirrors the ecological trend. Places that were once thriving with diverse plant and animal life now only harbor the weedy invader of Tamarisk. Sure, some creatures do eat it, but it is largely a sign of a dying environment. Nothing else can survive in the saline, arid soil. When we remove the water, human communities also suffer. How can people who fish as a subsidy to their daily nutrition do so in a dried up riverbed? As well, within the salty Tamarisk barrens, criminal activities of a wide variety find a foothold, because who’s there to stop them or see them? Water, quite literally, is safety in this sense. Healthy communities are less likely to permit criminal activities such a comfortable seat.
In another way, water is safety. Here, we look at something a little broader in scope. The Pacific Flyway is what those science-y types like to call the migratory path for thousands of birds, and it stretches from the Arctic Circle to Patagonia. It consists of a chain of stopping points and environments that offer food, water, and a reasonably sheltered resting place for these birds each year. Guess what used to be a part of that chain? That’s right, the area south of the last dam. But now, birds must face the disastrous development that what was once an okay series of rest-stops are now hundreds of miles of certain death from dehydration and starvation–and it’s right in their path. There are no diversions. It’s do or die, and more often than not, too many die.
So, in summary, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by continuing to blithely follow political and legal precedents that are no longer applicable to the current resource scenario in the Southwest. We are, in a way, repeating the mistakes made by many other cultures, and even some we just made, but have apparently forgotten all about, now. Why should you care about it, living somewhere else? Because it will impact you, too. It’ll just take longer and you probably won’t see it coming. Here are a few salient points to consider, and a chain of effects.
People continue to move into the region at their present rate. They eat, drink, bathe, reproduce, and so forth. Nothing changes on the political and legislative front and its business as usual for as long as the water lasts. Scottsdale keeps its swimming pools and lawns until the water’s all gone. The agricultural centers of the Southwest continue to put baby spinach and fresh fruits out of season on your table for perhaps another decade or two. Then, after that, the water runs out. Cue mass migrations out of the Southwest. Cue a complete and essential shift in the agricultural patterns and produce of the United States, which will have an impact on the world market as well as the domestic one. Finally, the entire region becomes a more expanded version of the hazard bird populations already face when taking their annual migrations and I don’t even know what would happen then.
So, I’ve just handed you the gloomiest possible version of the future in brief. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like that at all. Not only do we have the power to change that possible outcome, it’s simpler than anyone might have imagined–stop doing what you’re doing and do something different. Who knew? Water conservation measures are infinitely available for city planners. Agriculture can be designed along smarter, less thirsty lines, which also use fewer chemicals to keep pests at bay. Small changes on the parts of individuals do add up–don’t grow a lawn, eat just a little less meat (and so less fodder is cultivated), turn off the water when brushing your teeth, use shower gray water to water your house plants, and many other wonderful things that are completely doable.
Perhaps the entire point of today’s segment is that even with such a comparatively small region–which is only a single aspect of the overall scheme of, you know, the planet, life, and other stuff–we’re only sitting ducks for catastrophe if we choose to be. By allowing elected officials and mega-corporations to continue doing business as usual is tantamount to handing them all loaded guns and standing in front of a target. We are all at risk, here in the Southeast, in the Midwest, in Canada…in Belgium or Sri Lanka, come to think of it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this again and then give some thought to where you’re getting your food, who depends on the profits from you buying your food from them, and all the myriad considerations that go into the successful continuance of life as you know it. What’s it cost and, ultimately, who’s footing the bill?
Here are a few links, though by no means an exhaustive sampling: