The Southwest is going dry

A great story from Rebecca Solnit: the huge dams that were erected in the 1950s are failing. Not in a catastrophic sense, but in the sense that the water is going away, leaving them useless, due to a combination of aggressive consumption by humans (Las Vegas and Phoenix are going to face huge problems) and climate change — less rainfall, more evaporation. It’s not entirely a bad thing.

When the Sierra Club pronounced Glen Canyon dead in 1963, the organization’s leaders expected it to stay dead under Lake Powell. But this old world is re-emerging, and its fate is being debated again. The future we foresee is often not the one we get, and Lake Powell is shriveling, thanks to more water consumption and less water supply than anyone anticipated. Beneath it lies not just canyons but spires, crests, labyrinths of sandstone, Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs, and burial sites, an intricate complexity hidden by water, depth lost in surface. The uninvited guest, the unanticipated disaster, reducing rainfall and snowmelt and increasing drought and evaporation in the Southwest, is climate change.

So at the same time that Florida and all those coastal cities face inundation, the desert boom is going to die the slow death of dehydration. Don’t imagine that you’re living someplace where nothing will change, though; it’s going to hit us all.

The idea is that climate change doesn’t merely increase the overall likelihood of heat waves, say, or the volume of rainfall — it also changes the flow of weather itself. By altering massive planet-scale air patterns like the jet stream, which flows in waves from west to east in the Northern Hemisphere, a warming planet causes our weather to become more stuck in place. This means that a given weather pattern, whatever it may be, may persist for longer, thus driving extreme droughts, heat waves, downpours and more.

I wonder what the economic cost of shutting down the golf courses of Scottsdale and the fountains at the Bellagio might be? And then of course there are the unpredictable disruptive effects as millions of people living in a place temporarily made habitable by futile exercises in short-term hydroengineering find themselves having to migrate elsewhere.

Don’t come to Minnesota! We’re probably going to experience an arctic vortex now and then and plunge into the deep freeze for a month at a time, alternating with winters that barely happened (like this recent one), and overall we’re going to turn into Kansas North.


  1. Larry says

    Marc Reisner wrote the seminal book on water and the arid west in his 1986 book, Cadillac Desert. In it, he basically lays out the current scenario being experienced throughout the states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, and California. 30 years ago, AGW and climate change weren’t even factors to be considered. It was all based on trying to stretch too little water across too much area. When the geniuses who wrote the water sharing agreement between these states did their allocations, they based them upon recent years which were some of the wettest recorded rather than average rainfall years. As a result, the water does fall, is already over-subscribed. As the droughts deepen, it only gets worse. Further, during dry periods, the underground aquifers are being drained (or “mined” as Reisner puts it) and never being replenished. The result is the need to drill deeper and, ultimately sinkholes and ground subsidence. This is already happening in California’s San Joaquin Valley and in central Arizona.

    We, here in California, feel giddy as we experienced an extremely wet winter which basically erased the obvious effects of our 5 year drought. However, those who believe that we’re headed back to normal years of wet need to realize that alternating drought with wet is normal for the west. With climate change, its only going to get wilder and more unpredictable.

  2. archangelospumoni says

    Each time this subject actually makes it into the public’s eye down there, somebody makes noise about a pipeline from the Columbia River to Arizona. YIKES.
    Their typical “thought process” goes: you have something that I want.

  3. Joey Maloney says

    we’re going to turn into Kansas North.

    Who’s going to be Sam Brownback North?

  4. davidc1 says

    Larry@1 Hi ,i agreed great book ,i got my copy from the visitors center at Mono lake in 2012 .
    I think California will have to rely on getting fresh water from sea water ,might be a tad expensive .
    Has anyone been to The Salton sea ?,was there in August 2012 passing through and it stank to high heaven .

  5. jaybee says

    There is an easy solution. Spending a few tens of millions of dollars per year to support PBS will harm the economy so it must be cut, but we will be able to fund a multi-hundred billion dollar trans-national water distribution system to keep those desert cities alive. After draining the great lakes of their fresh water, we will use coal-powered desalination plants to feed the beast.

    More seriously, I also read Cadillac Desert. One interesting point it made is that the Colorado river carried millions of tons of silt downstream. The still water above the dam cause that silt to settle. Not only does the lack of silt affect downstream ecosystems, but the trapped silt is slowly filling up the basins. Even if the lake Powell dam structurally could last for a couple centuries, the utility of the dam will be minimal before getting there.

  6. fusilier says

    In _A Sand County Almanac_, Aldo Leopold wrote about canoeing through the Colorado River delta as it emptied into the gulf of California.

    A century later the green lagoons do not exist. They will not return – but the Cuyahoga will catch fire, once again.

    James 2:24

  7. busterggi says

    If I were a theist I’d believe that somewhere in Hell, Sam Kinnison is laughing.

  8. says

    I’ve been saying for years that people 100 years from now will look back and shake their heads about how Las Vegas ever became anything more than a small rest stop in the middle of nowhere. They’ll probably have some unkind things to say about Southern California getting as populated as it did as well.

  9. brett says

    I have a ton of fond memories of Lake Powell, from going boating and swimming there with my extended family when I was a kid. But I think it would be a good idea to drain the lake now, to build the bypass tunnels around Glen Canyon Dam to avoid dumping the silt backed up behind it down the river. Removing the dam itself would be incredibly expensive, and it doesn’t need to be removed anyways if it’s been bypassed. It would just stand there as a monument to a different time (as well as an incredibly scenic place to take pictures from and drive over the canyon).

    @8 timgueguen

    They’re going to have to build either massive water pipelines, or some enormous cisterns for storing water grabbed in wetter years (and from the storms that will be increasingly common as climate change progresses).

  10. madtom1999 says

    When I moved to my current house in SW England, a dozen miles from the coast, I was greeted by my next door neighbour who had a weather station and informed me we average 70″ of rain a year – a little more than I’d expected from climate records. For the last 5 years we’ve exceeded over 120″ a year!
    Its hard to predict what the jet stream will do long term but the irony of it could be that California gets all the water it needs. And much much much more.

  11. leerudolph says

    From PZ’s second (WaPo) blockquote:

    the jet stream, which flows in waves from west to east in the Northern Hemisphere

    There is also a jet stream in the Southern Hemisphere, and it too flows from west to east—which should come as no surprise, but apparently would have done so for the WaPo reporter, Chris Mooney. One might even have hoped that an editor would have caught that. Oh, well.

  12. Trickster Goddess says

    A good SF novel on this subject is The Water Knife by Poalo Bacigalupi. The drying out of the Southwest leads to shooting wars between Nevada, Arizona and California. It also contains many references to Cadillac Desert.

  13. cavebear says

    For a more recent look at the Colorado River and its issues I strongly suggest the book “Water is for Fighting Over — and Other Myths about Water in the West” by Albuquerque journalist John Fleck. While Cadillac Desert is a great history and polemic, I think you’ll find the present-day situation a little more nuanced.

    It is easy to talk about other people living ridiculous lives. I could just as easily criticize the Upper Midwesterners for living in a place that requires so much heating and cooling — just look at your carbon footprint! It’s almost twice California’s, per capita. Oh, and that Chicago heat wave that killed 700 people? Surely more of those to come with global warming. Why would anyone build a city there?

    Seriously, when it comes to climate change impacts in the US I am far more concerned about heat (+humidity) mortality, disease vector spread, wildfire, wholesale ecological disruption and sea level rise and flooding than about dwindling water supply in the West.

  14. says

    I wonder what the economic cost of shutting down the golf courses of Scottsdale and the fountains at the Bellagio might be?

    That’s a price Trump is willing to make you pay. Remember that the 70k coal miners and his own profit in DAPL are much more important than the lives and livelihoods of millions (billions globally) of people.

  15. markr1957 says

    Living in Louisiana as I do I often hear people talking about how we’ll never run out of water because we live in a swamp. I have to keep reminding them that we could so easily run out of land here (and I live on the high ground at 34ft above MSL).

  16. Callinectes says

    Several nations around the world are quietly assessing options for relocating their citizens when the ground water dries up and the countries run out of water. The current refugee crisis is a teeny weeny trial run for the near future.