Water, Population, the Southwest and Alice-in-Wonderland

    By Kathleene Parker | 4 October 2014
    Church and State

    Once a flowing, lush river, the Colorado runs dry in Sonora, Mexico. (Photo: Brian L. Frank / GlobalPost)

    The American Southwest has been wracked by drought for upwards of 20 years. What is most frightening is that this might not be drought at all, but merely a return to far drier norms.

    Okay, I stand corrected. That isn’t what is most frightening. What is most frightening is that “leaders,” a word I use advisedly, not only want to continue, but to increase the nearly unprecedentedly high immigration of recent years and the United States population explosion it drives absent any consideration of carrying capacity issues. Those include water in a desert Southwest that in prehistory saw drought cataclysms that disrupted or ended civilizations.

    Today’s city of Phoenix, for example, was so named because it was built on the “ashes” of an earlier civilization, the Hohokam civilization, with their elaborate irrigation systems diverting water into magnificent towns sprawled across the Salt and Gila river valleys. But, with drought, it all came crashing down in about 15th century, bringing famine, misery, migrations, population die offs—especially among children—and an end to what had been the glory of a dynasty in the Arizona desert.

    But theirs was a population of roughly 80,000. Today the American Southwest holds well over 50 million, with that likely—if our “leaders” get their way—to double, even as there is not enough water for those already here.

    Experts warn that the American Southwest will be hit first, worst and hardest by climate change, meaning the dry times—whether drought or norms—of recent years could worsen, even as the arid Southwest is the fastest growing region of this the world’s 3rd most populated nation behind only China and India. Also, glossed over or ignored by corporate media and “leaders” is that, during many recent years, we numbered among just 8 nations—India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the United States, China, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—fueling half of all growth on the planet.

    But what some are calling “drought” might not be drought. From 1960 to 1995 was the wettest time in the Southwest in nearly 2000 years, as evidenced by tree rings, an accurate record of precipitation, year-by-year, for centuries back. But then, in late 1995, more normal times—to mean, markedly decreased precipitation—returned, although 2000, 2002 and 2011 were stunningly dry, with winters that brought no snow. A “fifty year supply” of water in storage in the Southwest’s complicated system of enormous reservoirs—including Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s largest reservoirs—was nearly exhausted in just two dry years, but that is seemingly not of concern to President Obama or those in Congress who want to increase immigration.

    There is an assumption that the only way to tackle immigration is to increase it. Yet, immigration hovering around one million annually drove a public backlash—forcing it to be cut to about 200,000 a year—a century ago, even though we were still a mostly frontier nation less than one-third our current numbers. That today’s immigration—with legal alone at over 700,000 a year—is into a crowded, environmentally challenged and economically struggling nation, raises the obvious question of whether it benefits or harms us, another question being ignored by “leaders,” who also ignore warnings from President Clinton’s Council on Sustainability that immigration should not fuel growth and from the 1972 Rockefeller Commission, which saw a population of 300 million as “overpopulated” with all the problems overpopulated nations have. There is evidence of that in everything around us—gridlocked freeways, overcrowded emergency rooms, failing infrastructure—but today we do not link it to overpopulation’s inevitable outcome.

    The Rockefeller Commission’s in-depth study of what demographic future the nation should embrace was ignored and we already hover near 320 million—having crossed the 300 million threshold just 8 years ago—and reflects global trends, also studiously ignored.

    The Guardian reports that United Nation’s projections of a likely stabilization of the global population at 8 billion is giving way to projections that stabilization will be at 11 billion in 2100, up from today’s 7.3 billion, itself driving the largest species extinction since the die off of the dinosaurs 60 million years ago—a topic that should also receive headlines and an international discussion, but is ignored.

    One is reminded of a line from Humpty Dumpty, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”  A paraphrase might be, “We shall use the global corporate media, a.k.a. corporate propaganda machine, to create an artificial ‘reality,’ so that we gloss over and ignore the real ‘reality’ and can continue our grow-at-all-costs (even if it might kill the planet) agenda.”

    It is not just that the single greatest problem confronting the planet, population, is ignored; it is that there seems an orchestrated effort to misrepresent it, such as reports headlining a falling U.S. birth rate. Women are indeed having fewer children, but because more women than ever are having children, births still fuel 18 percent of U.S. growth. But it is immigration, not births, that fuels 82 percent of U.S. growth, a fact I think, deliberately ignored by corporate media, which are owned by economic forces with a dangerous grow-at-all-costs agenda.

    Theirs is an artificially constructed “reality,” where inconvenient stuff is ignored or deliberately distorted, even as many of us ponder just how far “the media” think they can take us into illusion and hope to retain credibility. But that’s perhaps a rhetorical questions since many people already hold “the media” in complete disdain.

    But back to the real “reality” in a drought-seared Southwest, a topic, incidentally, reported on without reference to the other main half of the equation: population. But then, when do reporters EVER mention population, despite it being a driving force behind climate change, species extinction, war, famine, the spread of disease?

    Post-1995 has been surrealistic as millions of acres of forest were consumed by “super” fires. One night in 2011 miles of the Jemez Mountains, north of Albuquerque, glowed weirdly after the blowup of the 156,000 Las Conchas Fire that, earlier in the day, burned at an acre a second. Super fires are spawned by 100-plus years of timber mismanagement—livestock grazing and fire suppression—that created “gasoline forests,” fueled by unnatural timber densities in ranges of thousands of trees per acre that should be under 100. Drought and then an inevitable spark ignited fires such as the million-acre Wallow Fire on the Arizona-New Mexico border that in 2011 sent sinister clouds of smoke wafting into Albuquerque to turn on streets lights mid-afternoon, as smoke spiraled like London fog through darkened streets, empty as people huddled indoors.

    The first super fire, the Cerro Grande, burned into Los Alamos, New Mexico, where I lived in 2000. Another, the 2002 Missionary Ridge fire, churned across several river drainages north and east of my hometown of Durango, Colorado.  Both shook me to the core as I contemplated forests, experts warn, that with global warming, might never grow back. The same drought left huge, long-familiar reservoirs, once nestled in high-mountain coolness, little more than pathetic, muddy ponds near dams, perhaps providing glimpses of the global-warming future ahead.

    And there are the nation’s largest reservoirs. The Bureau of Reclamation finally agreed with what environmentalists long warned, that Lake Powell—its dam built on the Colorado River in the 1960s that was to provide water for the Southwest for “generations”—will never reach the full line again, with the Bureau attributing that in part to the region’s exploding population. And there is Lake Mead, in recent years, teasingly rising up and down near “elevation 1075,” the trip line for the first ever Federal water emergency that will force mandatory water conservation for the seven states served by the Colorado River. This includes the over 3 million residents of the Denver area, on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, but receiving Colorado River water via trans-mountain diversions. There are projections, from multiple esteemed scientific institutions, that the Colorado River, fundamentally the only water source for much of the Southwest, could flow at only half normal levels even as the region’s population—at 55-plus million versus 3 million in 1900—will likely double by 2050.

    The future of the Colorado is uncertain, leaving the water source and the cultures along its shores in danger. (Photo: Brian L. Frank / GlobalPost)

    Yet, there is no discussion of the wisdom of continuing high immigration, as the Southwest churns toward what author William DeBuys calls “…the Age of Thirst, which may also prove to be the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.”

    It is the same on the global stage. The corporate media were positively giddy over the Egyptian revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, as they ignored the “youth bubble,” and that no matter who rules Egypt, a long-ignored—and continuing—population explosion means there are far more people than any hope of jobs. But so too are ignored the high birth rates of virtually every global trouble spot: East Africa and its Ebola outbreak, an endlessly violent Middle East, the ugly, dangerous face of terrorism.

    Which brings me to the “Coming Anarchy,” a defining article in The Atlantic in the 1990s that caught the attention of national security experts at Los Alamos. It was a gripping prediction of a world sinking into increasing anarchy, with gangs supplanting governments, increasingly disenfranchised and hopeless youth, and the general inability of civilization to survive, much less thrive. It showed a world sinking into abject misery, deprivation, poverty, exactly what an overpopulated planet should be expected to look like even as corporate media pretend population doesn’t matter.

    For anyone reality based (I mean the real reality, not the fake reality), that is clearly where we are today as leaders make policy decisions—such as on immigration—absent consideration of consequences to critical issues, like water shortages in the American Southwest, that will only worsen as the nation heads toward upwards of 460 million people by 2050 and the world heads toward 11 billion by 2100.

    “Leaders” seem to care not one fig what this year’s drought parched California would face were it not its current, albeit ghastly 38 million population, but a projected 60 million by 2050, with it of note that California’s growth—despite massive out-migrations of those fleeing overpriced housing and gridlocked freeways—is 100 percent immigration driven.

    Imagine the consequences of every city and town in the American Southwest doubled, exactly where the region is headed by 2050 absent leaders willing to consider the negative consequences of a welcome mat out to the world, meaning the addition of 2.5 million people to the nation annually, again, with that 82 percent immigration-driven.

    The Colorado River was legally over-allocated, another “reality” leaders will not face. When the Colorado River Compact, the “law of the river”—legally apportioning the waters of this relatively small desert river in 1922—16.4 million acre-feet (m.a.f.) of water were divided between the 4 Upper Basin States (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico) and the 3 Lower Basin States (California, Nevada, Arizona), a gaff of major proportions based on river measurements in an unusually wet year. But, only about 13.5 m.a.f., on average, flow in the river.

    With drought, one recent year saw a paltry 5.4 m.a.f., while there are warnings that flows in ranges of 7 m.a.f. a year—half that legally allocated—might become the norm with global warming. But, rather than address this stark possibility with courage and integrity, growth-adoring “leaders” point to water allocated on paper—what I call “fictional water”—and depict it as the same as real water in reservoirs, that would be reservoirs that look like semi-drained bathtubs.

    So, indeed, Alice, when I say a word means just what I say it means, if the Southwest does not have enough water, we’ll create a “reality” that tells people there’s water, even if it is fictional, as we get increasingly confused about what is reality and what is “reality.” That is, until we turn on the water tap, and nothing comes out.

    Kathleene Parker, who lives near Albuquerque, New Mexico, covered Los Alamos National Laboratory for a New Mexico daily 13 years and writes nationally on water, population, forestry and wildfire issues. Her family moved to the Colorado-New Mexico area in 1862, and she grew up in Durango, Colorado.

    The American Southwest: Are We Running Dry? – A Call to Action

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    2 COMMENTS

    1. As a six continent world bicycle traveler and scuba diver in all the oceans of the planet, I witnessed 50 years of accelerating degradation of this planet. Yet, no matter how consequential, the human race continues its onslaught of the planet without pause. No matter how many warning signs like 10 million children starving to death annually, rainforests being obliterated, humans killing 100,000,000 (million) sharks annually, horrendous species extinction rates (6th extinction session) ,72,000 chemicals poisons spewing in the air, land and water daily; no matter how much human misery or environmental chaos evident in 2014–the human race and its leaders refuse to speak one word, whisper one sentence or address the most pressing predicament of the 21st century: human overpopulation. Obama won't; Cameron won't; Merkyl won't; Putin won't; none of them. Thus, we human grow an added 78 million annually net gain, 1 billion added every 12 years on our way to ultimate collapse of civilizations and the natural world. America stands at the brink of its own collapse without water. Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle
      traveler and spiritual journeyman

    2. No matter how many facts, no matter how many more warning signs from the environment, no matter how many connections, no matter how much species extinction from the mechanized violence of the human race on the natural world–the human animal accelerates its devastation of the planet by adding 80 million more of itself every year, net gain, and 1 billion more every 12 years–as if Mother Nature won't become more nasty in her backlash. But as long as leaders live in cognitive dissonance, or denial of reality, we all proceed at warp speed toward our self-inflicted victimization as a species into destiny's rather brutal arms. Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle rider

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