Not Just Another Drought: The American West Moves From Dry To Bone Dry

The second choice appears imminent as water authorities across several states are preparing to activate a drought response plan this summer when Lake Mead (the lake behind Hoover Dam) is expected to reach a level that triggers the plan. All those receiving water from the Colorado River and its tributaries are likely to be affected. Again, a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor demonstrates that the drought extends far beyond the Colorado River basin, west to much of California, east into New Mexico and West Texas and north into parts of Oregon.

There is a third path which I haven't mentioned because in polite company and official circles it is unmentionable: People could leave. And, they may do so as the costs and consequences of living with less water mount—especially for those in water-intensive pursuits such as agriculture. Those in the cities may leave, too, as the cost of provisioning water for urban areas rises and supplies are curtailed. That would, of course, hit water-intensive businesses and their employees the hardest.

All of this was prophesied long ago by Marc Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert, the acknowledged classic treatment of water in the American West. The subtitle of the book is "The American West and Its Disappearing Water."

Of course, the boosters of growth in the West will tell us that these things are cyclical and that soon the rains will return. But, the West has been waiting for over 20 years. Unfortunately, a positive mental attitude does not trump the physics of climate change—which, in this case, has been combined with a return to what the historical and geological record show is far closer to the norm in the West.

That does not bode well for a people and a culture used to getting its way with nature—something, it turns out, that was really just luck, the luck of having populated and reconfigured the West in a period that was particularly wet in relation to the millennium that preceded it.

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Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular ...

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