Issue XIII: Cadillac Dixie?

6 Jan

I’ve written about the possible collapse of the United States in Issue VIII mostly based on economic mismanagement and poor political leadership after reading Jared Diamond’s great book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I forgot to mention environmental mismanagement and failure to adjust cultural attitudes in the specific cases of the Southwestern United States, and I’ve been inspired to write after reading about the current Georgia drought and the growth of the American West while the northeastern and Midwestern United States dies slowly from depopulation.

One of the top 100 nonfiction books of the 20th century is a book called Cadillac Desert: American West and Its Disappearing Water written in 1986 by Marc Reisner. In it Reisner shows how the entire United States western United States has developed on faulty assumptions and premises that were known to John Wesley Powell, the man who first mapped the region. The western United States, basically, is a desert civilization. But unlike Egypt, backed by the huge Nile, the entire region has to rely on the shitty Colorado River which most years doesn’t even empty out into the sea.

Meanwhile
millions upon millions of people move to the driest states in America while the water laws used (and the assumptions of plentiful rain behind these laws) in these areas come from British common law and the eastern United States. Furthermore, the people who move from the East to the West want to maintain grassy lawns and play golf all year long, using scarce water in a region that in no way could possibly support the population it has much less the lawns and tremendous agribusiness that has developed on irrigated land. Meanwhile fish and marine estuary life suffer from too much river water being diverted so big agribusiness can grow sugar beets in the desert WHILE we pay farmers in the east to not grow crops because there is a crop surplus.

Little known fact: California’s number one industry by billions of dollars is not movies, music, software, or defense contracting. It’s agriculture.

California, and Los Angeles in particular, are a fiction built from imported water from dams on the Colorado River and the other puny rivers in the area. California itself wouldn’t really exist without federal government support via the Bureau of Reclamation and the aqueducts which the LA Department of Water and Power built at the turn of the century. Reisner describes the first aqueduct made by Commissioner Mulholland (ever heard of Mulholland Drive?) as being the work of the anti-Moses. “Instead of parting the sea to bring his people to the desert, he parted the desert to bring water to his people,” he wrote.

The aqueducts deliver spring water from the mountains which have ice packs that melt in the spring, but I wonder if with global warming, the amount of ice that lasts the winter would reduce the amount of water at the time that the population is growing.

And apparently Georgia has the same problem too! No planning for the future population swelling in the past is blamed for the water shortages in Georgia, not to mention incredible traffic headaches.

What’s the solution? Move back to Michigan and the Midwest where there is plenty of water, and no people. Northerners can’t move south and west and expect to take their water with them. Or can they?

Links:
Salon.com – “How to solve America’s water problem
Salon.com – “Turn on the lights Michigan
Washington Post – Kenya to lose drinking water in 25 years when Mount Kilamanjaro glacier melts away
Wikipedia – California water Wars
Jared Diamond – “What is your Consumption Factor?

Oh, and see Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. It’s about water in LA too. And badass wardrobe.

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One Response to “Issue XIII: Cadillac Dixie?”

  1. Benn Fronk January 8, 2008 at 3:46 pm #

    Another good issue and analysis Anand. I like that you’ve brought out issues that tend to be ignored in the popular media. Every once in a while you hear something about the Georgia/Alabama water war but it seems that the news organizations are more interested in telling us about Britney Spears or some other non-sense. I like that you’re focusing on issues too. Everyone in the US seems to be focused on the left/right one-dimensional politics and forgeting important issues like this- maybe that’s because it’s election time and its more about rhetoric than issues.

    These are issues that should be talked about, discussed, debated, etc.

    It my view there are probably two different classes of ways to go about fixing this issue. System vs. Market.

    The System way says we change the rules so that water is managed appropriately- the extreme form of this would be forced migration of people to more hospitable locations. This has some constitutional rights issues to say the least.

    The Market way says as water is scarce it should come at a higher price and if you (individually) can’t pay it then move some where you can. The extreme form of this would leave the poor out-of-luck: Since water is a component or needed for nearly everything the price of everything and the cost of living skyrockets. When this comes to food and healthcare it is a humanitarian nightmare.

    You talk about LA. I think that’s fine. Las Vegas is another example. I lived in Las Vegas for a while before I went to Peru. The thing that kept coming back to me was that mankind has no business being there. There’s no reason for people to live there- there are no natural resources, little water, and it’s depressingly ugly. But Las Vegas has a lot of people now and the people themselves have become the resource that attracts more and more business to the area and the businesses attract more and more people- they have critical mass on a chain reaction to population growth- even though there never was a good reason for people to live there.

    The mormon way of solving water in Utah worked great for farming because of a bunch of different reasons- 1. They had a sense of community so a System type of solution worked without feeling like it was imposed from the outside. 2. They had an efficient government, again because they felt it was theirs- everyone wanted to make it work. 3. They didn’t have any other options. When the mormon pioneers got to Utah it was a complete desert- but it was outside the boundaries of the US (before the fiasco of the Mexican war), and nobody else wanted that land- it was in all respects theirs, so they had to make it work. The mormons used a System solution to handle the little water they had. They worked as teams to build irrigation canals and made their own aqueduct systems to divert more of the mountain run-off. But that sense of community was vital to all of this. I don’t think it would quite work the same way in LA or Las Vegas.

    So I think we need a solution somewhere between the System and Market. If we don’t, the Market will win by default and the poor will be screwed.

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