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William deBuys, Goodbye to All That (Water)

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Martha and the Vandellas would have loved it.  Metaphorically speaking, the New York Times practically swooned over it.  ("An unforgiving heat wave held much of the West in a sweltering embrace over the weekend, tying or breaking temperature records in several cities, grounding flights, sparking forest fires, and contributing to deaths.") It was a "deadly" heat wave, a "record" one that, in headlines everywhere, left the West and later the rest of the country "sweltering," and that was, again in multiple headlines, "scary."  The fire season that accompanied the "blasting," "blazing" heat had its own set of "record" headlines -- and all of this was increasingly seen, in another set of headlines, as the "new normal" in the West. Given that 2012 had already set a heat record for the continental U.S., that the 10 hottest years on record in this country have all occurred since 1997, and that the East had its own sweltering version of heat that wouldn't leave town, this should have been beyond arresting.

In response, the nightly primetime news came up with its own convenient set of new terms to describe all this: "extreme" or "severe" heat.  Like "extreme" or "severe" weather, these captured the eyeball-gluing sensationalism of our weather moment without having to mention climate change or global warming.  Weather, after all, shouldn't be "politicized."  But if you're out in the middle of the parching West like TomDispatch regular William deBuys, who recently headed down the Colorado River, certain grim realities about the planet we're planning to hand over to our children and grandchildren can't help but come to mind -- along with a feeling, increasingly shared by those in the sweltering cities, that our particular way of life is in the long run unsustainable. Tom

Never Again Enough
Field Notes from a Drying West
By William deBuys

Several miles from Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon, Arizona, April 2013 -- Down here, at the bottom of the continent's most spectacular canyon, the Colorado River growls past our sandy beach in a wet monotone. Our group of 24 is one week into a 225-mile, 18-day voyage on inflatable rafts from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. We settle in for the night. Above us, the canyon walls part like a pair of maloccluded jaws, and moonlight streams between them, bright enough to read by.

One remarkable feature of the modern Colorado, the great whitewater rollercoaster that carved the Grand Canyon, is that it is a tidal river. Before heading for our sleeping bags, we need to retie our six boats to allow for the ebb.

These days, the tides of the Colorado are not lunar but Phoenician. Yes, I'm talking about Phoenix, Arizona.  On this April night, when the air conditioners in America's least sustainable city merely hum, Glen Canyon Dam, immediately upstream from the canyon, will run about 6,500 cubic feet of water through its turbines every second.

Tomorrow, as the sun begins its daily broiling of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, and the rest of central Arizona, the engineers at Glen Canyon will crank the dam's maw wider until it sucks down 11,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). That boost in flow will enable its hydroelectric generators to deliver "peaking power" to several million air conditioners and cooling plants in Phoenix's Valley of the Sun. And the flow of the river will therefore nearly double.

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It takes time for these dam-controlled tidal pulses to travel downstream. Where we are now, just above Zoroaster Rapid, the river is roughly in phase with the dam: low at night, high in the daytime. Head a few days down the river and it will be the reverse.

By mid-summer, temperatures in Phoenix will routinely soar above 110 -F, and power demands will rise to monstrous heights, day and night. The dam will respond: 10,000 cfs will gush through the generators by the light of the moon, 18,000 while an implacable sun rules the sky.

Such are the cycles -- driven by heat, comfort, and human necessity -- of the river at the bottom of the continent's grandest canyon.

The crucial question for Phoenix, for the Colorado, and for the greater part of the American West is this: How long will the water hold out?

Major Powell's Main Point

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Every trip down the river -- and there are more than 1,000 like ours yearly -- partly reenacts the legendary descent of the Colorado by the one-armed explorer and Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell. The Major, as he preferred to be known, plunged into the Great Unknown with 10 companions in 1869. They started out in four boats from Green River, Wyoming, but one of the men walked out early after nearly drowning in the stretch of whitewater that Powell named Disaster Falls, and three died in the desert after the expedition fractured in its final miles. That left Powell and six others to reach the Mormon settlements on the Virgin River in the vicinity of present-day Las Vegas, Nevada.

Powell's exploits on the Colorado brought him fame and celebrity, which he parlayed into a career that turned out to be controversial and illustrious in equal measure. As geologist, geographer, and ethnologist, Powell became one of the nation's most influential scientists. He also excelled as an institution-builder, bureaucrat, political in-fighter, and national scold.

Most famously, and in bold opposition to the boomers and boosters then cheerleading America's westward migration, he warned that the defining characteristic of western lands was their aridity. Settlement of the West, he wrote, would have to respect the limits aridity imposed.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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