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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