Water wars in New Mexico

Posted on March 29th, 2013 in Climage Change,Environment by Robert Miller

Dry Pecos River in 2012 (From NYT)

We will have to get use to this: the NYT has an article on a water war in Carlsbad, New Mexico where the local water board ruled that farmers in the region would get one tenth of their normal water allotment this year. On hearing the news one farmer stood up and declared a water war on the farmer’s upstream neighbors and said “I say we push back hard now.” Water runoff has lowered the Pecos river, which serves the farmers in Carlsbad, to a trickle and they blame a region to the north by claiming that their more abundant water, obtained through artesian wells, diminishes the water runoff in Carlsbad. The Carlsbad region is experiencing the worst drought on record and other water resources, such as the Colorado River are already over subscribed for water distribution claims. Global climate change has the Southwest United States in drought conditions that have not been seen since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s.

The basic principal of water distribution throughout the West is based on the concept that those who arrived first have priority for water. In most cases this means farmers. The difficulty with this rule is that it was a formula developed in the 19th Century and since that water principal was established, our country changed from a rural to an urbanized society and more people live in cities than on farms. The new wars in the west will not be between land developers and environmentalists, but rather between those that have and those that don’t have water. Last year the Pecos river was dry for 77 days. But while state laws favor farmers over urban dwellers as written into the state constitution of New Mexico,  no state is going to shut the water off for cities. Farming puts huge demands on water: throughout the West, farming represents 1 percent of the economy, yet they need 80 percent of the water. There is a double whammy taking over the supply of water in the Southwest United States. First there is the normal hydrological cycle for which tree ring data goes back to about 800 AD and reveals that long before humans began adding greenhouse gases on a major scale, beginning with the industrial revolution, severe droughts were present which drove early inhabitants out of the region. This took place in the presence of a more or less constant level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Global warming conditions mean that an additional force has been added to the equation for water availability. As the temperature rises, the hot air can hold more moisture and removes it from the soil, while enhancing water evaporation from lakes and water storage dams. That’s only for starters: the Hadley Cell in which hot, moist air rises from the equator and comes down as dry air (which forms many of the deserts north and south of the equator) is projected to increase in size, effectively increasing the dry air that spreads to more northern and southern polar regions. This is not the first water war and it will certainly not be the last.  Everyone in the Southwest who is at all concerned with water availability now understands the forces that are at work and the uncertainty of the water supply, which for the moment, has no obvious solution. No easy source of water augmentation to the region has yet been identified.

After the Civil War, John Wesley Powell (for whom Lake Powell is named) explored the Colorado River and emerged as the nation’s first “bioregional thinker” (William deBuys). Powell later became a federal scientist and was head of the United States Geological Survey. He provided insight about how suitable western lands were for habitation. The Homestead Act of 1862 promised 160 acres for each settler to turn into an liveable plot of land. Many settlers took advantage of this act to fulfill their dreams of land ownership and a sustainable life from the soil. Powell’s long experience with the arid land of the West made him an expert on what it would take to make a living off the land. In more eastern lands, where humidity and rainfall were more plentiful, he argued that the 160 acre farmstead made sense—in those regions a family could create a decent life from the soil because the average rainfall was twenty or more inches each year. But in the West he argued that, except for bottom lands fed by irrigation, the 160 acre land plot could lead to tragedy. His dividing line between success and failure ran through the eastern boundary of the Texas Panhandle—at the 100th meridian. East of that line enough rainfall took place each year that the 160 acre plot of land of the Homestead Act could provide what was hoped for. But West of that meridian, Powell argued that a 160 acre plot of land would ruin lives because of a lack of rainfall. Powell’s message went unheeded, but history proved him right as advancement onto the Great Plains in the late 1800s, moved backwards towards the East during severe droughts and then again in the 1930s Dust Bowl era, hundreds of thousands Americans became homeless. There were many homesteading failures throughout the West and we are now witnessing the limits of a reliable water supply in many regions of the Southwest United States, even though we have substantially increased the water distribution to provide rich farming lands in some areas. In our own time, we attempted to provide improvements in irrigation and created vast stretches of tillable soil. The boom years for Settlements in the Western United States, by rerouting the Colorado River has reached its limit. Lake Mead could be dry by 2026 and thus far, a long-term solution to find a source of water to augment the Colorado Basin region has not met with success.


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Trends in Global Climate Change: when will Phoenix die?

Posted on March 14th, 2013 in Climage Change,Culture by Robert Miller

Arid Land: Phoenix of the Future?

William deBuys, who wrote the highly recommended book “A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest,” (Oxford University Press, 2011) has written a TomDispatch article, Phoenix in the Climate Crosshairs: We Are Long Past Coal Mine Canaries. A bit earlier I posted an article on the new projections for water runoff in the southwest, which seemed to have Arizona as a special target. Different climate models converge for the Southwest and project that by mid-century the state will experience a 20-40 percent decline in river runoff and this in an already parched region of the country. While my article focused on Arizona, deBuys’ article describes the city of Phoenix, which is already leading the nation as the trend-setter for global climate change and oddly serves as a hotbed for climate change denial. In 2011 the city set a new record of summer days with the temperature over 110 degrees: it had 33 of them; routinely Phoenix has 100 days with temperatures over 100 degrees. It is characteristic of the desert, that while temperatures during the day can get very hot, at night one can often experience uncomfortably cool if not cold evenings. But Phoenix is built on an asphalt-laden sprawl. Nighttime temperatures that didn’t get above 90 degrees sixty years ago, before the urban expansion began in earnest, are now routinely above 100 degrees, because the city is built on a heat sink. Black asphalt traps heat. Every driver has experienced the wavy lines appear just above the distant asphalt on a hot summer day, created by thermal radiation. The asphalt stores heat energy during the day and radiates it at night.

Writer deBuys is an authority on the Southwest—he lives there. The details of his book rely on conversations with scientists who study the archeology of the region and he confers with global climate change models relevant for the Southwest. His book details the history of the region going far enough back to cover how Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde experienced a drought which forced the occupying people to move—archeological evidence suggests it got very ugly in the end. And this happened before humans changed the heat equation. It was part of the normal weather pattern, simply a low probability event perhaps in the extreme. But the drought lasted long enough to force a once vibrant community, with perhaps as many as 19,000 people spread throughout the region, to walk away because the cost of staying got too high. Given what we know about Phoenix, with its anti-science, pro-Christian fanaticism, characterized by deep paranoia over illegal immigrants, it is hard to imagine the city facing global climate change with any sense of intelligence and deBuys comments on the character of the city that does not imbue a sense of wholesome predictions about the outcome. As he points out, floods come on suddenly and force people to band together and aid each other in finding safety,  but heat is different. It isolates and gives rise to an uncertainty about broad participation in finding solutions for everyone.  End of Days believers may tough it out until the very end. Is there such a thing as human extinction created by excessive ideology? If so, what is the archeology of such an event? I suppose it would include Christian burial sites for all involved, with orderly human skeletons lacking evidence of blunt instruments penetrating the skull, something akin to the archeology of Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and buried citizens while they slept, resting peacefully, asphyxiated no doubt by instant heat and toxic fumes. Somehow I can’t imagine the citizens of Phoenix going gently in the dark of night. But heat, more arid, parched land conditions and less water have just gotten underway. Right now Phoenix lives on air conditioning to abate summer temperatures, but this requires lots of electricity and the grid supporting electric current in the region is also under enormous stress, such that a nightmare for the city is a hot day with no electricity, bringing on regrets about our failure to invest in infrastructure.


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Why Americans don’t get angry about wealth distribution in America: they don’t know how skewed the curve is

Posted on March 6th, 2013 in Culture,Economy by Robert Miller

Mashable website presentation of Norton-Ariely survey on American’s knowledge of wealth distribution in America

How can Americans get angry about the pathological distribution of wealth in their own country if they don’t know how egregiously skewed it is? About a year and a half ago, I posted an article based on a study by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, two academics who published a paper “Building a Better America—One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” which appeared in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. The study was based on a huge sample (5,522), with a median income that matched that of the United States. The study illustrated how Americans completely misjudged the distribution of wealth in their own country; the majority thought that wealth distribution in America was more like that of Sweden, which it definitely is not. Last night, a friend and colleague (Dr. Kent Parker, Department of Psychology, University of West Virginia) sent me a link to a new, remarkable graphic illustration of the Norton-Ariely results which demonstrates that while you can argue whether a picture is worth a thousand words, an elegant graphical presentation of a complex study is worth far more. You can see the graphic summary of their results on the Mashable website here. This graph was posted on YouTube and started going viral on Friday. If every American got infected by this deservedly viral graph, perhaps enough anger would be aroused to begin a discussion that should have started thirty years ago!

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