Taking a warning on water from the West

The July/August issue of Orion (one of my favorite green pubs) has plenty of food for thought, as usual, but for my money the most eye-opening piece was James Powell’s account of the impending disaster on the Colorado River. I’ll try to sum it up briefly, though the full story’s well worth reading:

The Colorado has two tall dams on it: Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell, and the Hoover Dam, which created Lake Mead. These structures drastically alter the character and flow of the river, including in the Grand Canyon, which lies between the two dams. They also make human habitation possible in much of the arid Southwest. In fact, the Colorado River is completely used up by human needs, no longer flowing into the ocean.

The piece lays out the problem: Lake Powell is filling in with silt, faster than anyone expected. Meanwhile, because of falling supply and rising demand, the water level in the lake is dropping. Within 55 years at the outside, the author predicts, the lake will be full of mud instead of water.

"Some of the driest states–Nevada, Arizona, and Utah–are among the fastest growing and none plans to slow down," Powell writes. "Take a desert, add water, stir in money–that will continue to be the Southwest’s definition of success until it fails, until whole subdivisions stand empty because they have no water."

Why should we, far away in the humid East, care? Well, falling water supply and rising population are conditions we share. We may have a wetter climate, but we don’t have infinite water–as both sides in the local water-supply debate are well aware. As we watch Westerners grapple with this looming crisis, we’d do well to take a lesson: we can’t rely on manipulations of our natural watersheds to supply any number of new houses, golf courses and strip malls. In other words, we can’t simply grow forever.

Anyone else read this piece? What are your thoughts on local water supply?

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