Water Wars Brew Here

I grew up in the 1960s, and back then the popular myths defining the American West were pretty clear-it was the land of opportunity, a region of dreams, the place those poor Southern mountaineers in “The Beverly Hillbillies” headed after they struck oil.

Marc Reisner’s now classic 1986 study, “CADILLAC DESERT: The American West and its Disappearing Water,” moved the myth back into reality. All the Jed Clampetts who moved west better watch out. The prosperity and growth of our driest region is built on allotted water pumped in from far away and limited supplies of underground water that can’t be quickly replaced. The big desert rivers, like the Colorado, are being sucked dry by the growth of Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The huge ancient Ogallala Aquifer under Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Texas is being emptied at a pace far too great for recharge.

If all that’s not bad enough, the great dams, like Hoover, built in the 20th century to bring prosperity to the West, are silting up, and irrigated farm land is losing its productivity because of accumulated salts. The power from the vast hydro network isn’t even a fraction of what is needed to light Phoenix sprawling into the desert around it.

Reisner didn’t know much back then about global warming. He stuck with the usual suspects for human disaster: raging growth, poor government planning, greed, dishonesty. Just this week in THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE’S cover story the Western drama was updated in an article called “The Perfect Drought.” In that timely piece Jon Gertner asks, “Will population growth and climate change leave the West without water?”

Anyone who has watched the news or The Weather Channel lately knows where I’m headed with this. Water is no longer just a western problem. The ugly truth is we have our own water wars right here, and they’ll most likely get much worse in our lifetimes.

We are in an extreme drought, and just to our south, only three watersheds away, Atlanta’s supply of drinking water is in desperate shape. They have only 90 days of water left in vast Lake Lanier with no end to the drought in sight. The Georgia governor is blaming it all on the Corps of Engineers for releasing a vital supply of water downstream to maintain the economies of Alabama and Florida. He’s hopping mad because the Federal Endangered Species Act assures river flows for mussels and sturgeons while Atlantans can’t water their lawns and wash their cars.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better and the bone-headed politicians will yell louder it’s somebody else’s fault.

It’s not only the West that has its myths. Many politicians still want to believe that the South is verdant and there’s plenty of water to do with as they please. They want to believe that growth equals success and rising population is a indicator of prosperity.

It’s not true. A little research would show the Georgia governor that the South has suffered severe droughts on a regular basis throughout recorded history. We are a wet region, but only periodically. Sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t. Cross our unpredictable rains with the changes underway from global warming, the absurd growth of our region, and the Southern disdain for planning and regulation, and “the perfect drought” is brewing for the South as well.

As I write this column it has begun to rain. It sounds so nice on our tin roof, a sound so many native Southerners love, and I want to believe all is well in our little corner of the piedmont. We might get a little and we might get a lot out of this system as it moves through. One thing is for sure though: rain or not, we are deep in a drought of epic proportions, and we’ll probably end the year down 15 inches over our normal precipitation accumulations.

How long can we continue to irrigate our lawns and cool our coal-powered electric plants to light our suburbs? Those coal-powered plants lose 10 million gallons of river water a day to evaporation. Are we willing to sacrifice our rivers and our native wildlife to an outmoded model of prosperity? How long before our own South Carolina politicians go into crisis mode and start blaming the engineers and the federal laws instead of our own lifestyles? To paraphrase Pogo from long ago, if there is an enemy in this water war, it’s not only the weather. It’s us.

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