Monday, March 08, 2004

Dry, Dry West

While the most dramatic effects of overpopulation are showing up in other countries--the massive dust bowl that has appeared in China's overgrazed northern prairies, or the disappearance of rainforests in Southeast Asia and South America--the American West may be facing environmental limits to growth as well.

The West has historically gone through prolonged phases of drought, lasting for decades. These droughts appear to be affected by changes in ocean currents in the Atlantic and Pacific.

The West is now entering the sixth year of drought; the year 2002 was the driest of the past 100 years in Arizona and the second driest for Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The effects of this drought could be far reaching.

Americans saw spectacular effects of the drought last fall, when wildfires raged across Southern California, killing 24 people and destroying $3 billion in property.

Less obvious, but more profound, are other impacts. Los Angeles' reservoirs are dwindling, the water table beneath Las Vegas is disappearing, and millions of trees in Arizona and New Mexico are dying off.

A continuing drought could wipe out farmers and ranchers throughout the West, from pinto bean growers in New Mexico to cantaloupe farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley. And it could stifle the sprawling growth of the West's swimming-pool-dotted suburbs.

Scientists say this present crisis may reflect the true character of the West - an arid land that Americans have not inhabited long enough to fully understand.

The most infamous American drought, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, led to a collapse of farming across much of Kansas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. The plowed-up ground that had once been prairie was turned to dust and picked up by the wind. Earlier and more severe droughts probably led to the abandonment of major Indian settlements such as Mesa Verde in Colorado in the 13th century.

Residents of the Southwest have responded with increasingly ambitious schemes to pipe in water from other parts of the country. Southern California's reliance on water from Northern California has been longstanding. But now the Colorado is drying up before it reaches the ocean due to overuse and water tables are dropping. Water is emerging as another limiting factor to growth perhaps as serious as the limits of energy production.


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