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William deBuys: The Age of Thirst in the American West

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The good news? While 2010 tied for the warmest year on record, 2011 -- according to the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) -- is likely to come in 10th once November and December temperatures are tallied. In part, this is evidently due to an especially strong La Niña cooling event in the Pacific.  On the other hand, with 2011 in the top ten despite La Niña, 13 of the warmest years since such record-keeping began have occurred in the last 15 years.  Think of that as an uncomfortably hot cluster.

And other climate news is no better.  A recent study indicates that Arctic ice is now melting at rates unprecedented in the last 1,450 years (as far back, that is, as reasonably accurate reconstructions of such an environment can be modeled).  As the Arctic warms and temperatures rise in surrounding northern lands -- someday, Finland may have to construct artificial ski trails and ice rinks for its future winter tourists -- a report on yet another study is bringing more lousy news.  Appearing in the prestigious science journal Nature, it indicates that the melting permafrost of the tundra may soon begin releasing global-warming gases into the atmosphere in massive quantities.  We're talking the equivalent of 300 billion metric tons of carbon over the next nine decades.

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Recently, Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency, suggested that, by century's end, the planet's temperature could rise by a staggering 6 - Celsius (almost 11 - Fahrenheit).  International climate-change negotiators had been trying to keep that rise to a "mere" 2 - C.  "Everybody, even the schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us," was the way Birol summed the situation up.  If only it were so, but here in the U.S., none of the above news was even considered front-page worthy.  Nor was the news that, in 2010, humans had pumped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than at any time since the industrial revolution began: 564 million more tons than in 2009 to be exact.  We're living today with just less than a degree of those six degrees to come, and the results in extreme weather this year should have made us all stop and think.

If you want to focus in on damage here in the U.S., consider Rick Perry's Texas, where, according to scientists, "daily temperatures averaged 86.7 - in June through August -- a staggering 5.4 -F above normal."  According to the WMO, that's the highest such average "ever recorded for any American state."  And still global politicians yammer on and do little; still, the U.S. shuffles its political feet, while Canada's government has announced that it will make no new commitments and may even be preparing to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol, and countries with booming developing economies like China, India, and Brazil hedge their bets when it comes to action.

In the meantime, nature doesn't care whether or not we do anything.  It's on its own schedule.  And when it comes to the American Southwest, that schedule looks daunting indeed as William deBuys makes clear.  His new book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, is the definitive work on the subject of water and the West (and, as with all of his work, a pleasure to read). So get yourself a glass of water while you still can and settle in for a dose of the Age of Thirst. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses the water politics of the American West, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

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The Age of Thirst in the American West
Coming to a Theater Near You: The Greatest Water Crisis in the History of Civilization

By William deBuys

Consider it a taste of the future: the fire, smoke, drought, dust, and heat that have made life unpleasant, if not dangerous, from Louisiana to Los Angeles. New records tell the tale: biggest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona (538,049 acres), biggest fire ever in New Mexico (156,600 acres), all-time worst fire year in Texas history (3,697,000 acres).

The fires were a function of drought.  As of summer's end, 2011 was the driest year in 117 years of record keeping for New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, and the second driest for Oklahoma. Those fires also resulted from record heat.  It was the hottest summer ever recorded for New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, as well as the hottest August ever for those states, plus Arizona and Colorado.

Virtually every city in the region experienced unprecedented temperatures, with Phoenix, as usual, leading the march toward unlivability. This past summer, the so-called Valley of the Sun set a new record of 33 days when the mercury reached a shoe-melting 110 - F or higher. (The previous record of 32 days was set in 2007.)

And here's the bad news in a nutshell: if you live in the Southwest or just about anywhere in the American West, you or your children and grandchildren could soon enough be facing the Age of Thirst, which may also prove to be the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.  No kidding.

If that gets you down, here's a little cheer-up note: the end is not yet nigh.

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In fact, this year the weather elsewhere rode to the rescue, and the news for the Southwest was good where it really mattered.  Since January, the biggest reservoir in the United States, Lake Mead, backed up by the Hoover Dam and just 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas, has risen almost 40 feet. That lake is crucial when it comes to watering lawns or taking showers from Arizona to California.  And the near 40-foot surge of extra water offered a significant upward nudge to the Southwest's water reserves.

The Colorado River, which the reservoir impounds, supplies all or part of the water on which nearly 30 million people depend, most of them living downstream of Lake Mead in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Tijuana, and scores of smaller communities in the United States and Mexico.

Back in 1999, the lake was full. Patricia Mulroy, who heads the water utility serving Las Vegas, rues the optimism of those bygone days.  "We had a fifty-year, reliable water supply," she says. "By 2002, we had no water supply. We were out. We were done. I swore to myself we'd never do that again."

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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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