Monday, October 22, 2007

Drying out the West

The New York Times Magazine has cast its gaze beyond Newark to take a look at water politics in the West. The thrust of the article is that — whether you believe it’s climate change or a natural cycle — the West is getting drier, but the number of thirsty residents is exploding. The Colorado River, which supplies water to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California, is limited, but all those states are growing dramatically. Looking at historic evidence from the Southwest of decades-long “megadroughts,” Aurora, Colo., municipal water manager Peter Binney warns of the potential consequences:

What that would mean today, he said, is that states would have to make a sudden choice between agriculture and people, which would lead to bruising political debates and an unavoidable blow to the former. Binney says that as much as he believes that some farmers’ water is ultimately destined for the cities anyway, a big jolt like this would be tragic. “You hope you never get to that point,” he told me, “where you force those kinds of discussions, because they will change for hundreds of years the way that people live in the Western U.S. If you have to switch off agriculture, it’s not like you can get back into it readily. It took decades for the agricultural industry to establish itself. It may never come back.”

Other experts go on to discuss the specific fallout of a prolonged — or even permanent — drought: disappearing agricultural communities, devastated tourist industries, wildfires feeding on diseased forests, and bigger mansions for lawyers.

Some 30 million people depend on that water [in the Colorado River] ... An almost unfathomable legal morass might well result, with farmers suing the federal government; cities suing cities; states suing states; Indian nations suing state officials; and foreign nations (by treaty, Mexico has a small claim on the river) bringing international law to bear on the United States government.

It just goes to show the world won’t end with a bang or a whimper, but with a lawsuit.

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