The emerging crisis

Analysis of any number of mass events in human history will turn up any number of causes but beneath the surface motivations, the root cause is often—in one way or another—resources.

Exploration is often motivated by a search for resources: silk, gold, oil, slaves.  Wars often are the result of a search for resources or access to them.  Religious activity is often motivated by resources or the lack of them.

Our social and archaeological visits to the Southwest that have generated those evaluations and have exposed us to a coming crisis is shaping up there today—and there are signs that the crisis is not in that part of the country alone.  There are worries in Missouri already.

Our work in finding and recording ancient pueblo societies in the Four Corners area has involved an exploration of their movements and the reasons for their movements as well as the apparent reasons for some of their behaviors.

The ancient pueblo people who created the cliff dwellings and their fates appear less mysterious than popular culture portrays when the archaeological evidence is examined.  Your correspondent has no scholarly credentials to offer to this discussion, but we have listened to and read numbers discussions by scholars.  (Kind of like, “I’m not an archaeologist but I stayed at a hotel full of them once” type of thing.)

One line of thought is that those people a thousand years ago left the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings area and the great cities such as Chaco Canyon’s communities because they used up the resources.  A combination of increased population produced by improved diets and a 45-year drought forced people to abandon their river-valley dwellings and move to alcoves in cliffs that were more secure in increasingly troubled times and offered better protection for the food supplies they harvested in the valley and on the cliff tops.  As things became more desperate there seemed to have been a rise in religious activity, some of it sacrificial, in an effort to please the gods that had withdrawn the means of survival for some reason.   At the same time, the various competing societies became more militant and combative in their quest for the limited resources available.

It’s a human story repeated many times throughout the world.  The availability of resources motivates us as a species, often in ways that overcome reason and humanity.

There are those who think a crisis that could produce conflicts at various levels is shaping up with water. We already are seeing skirmishes.  You might have noticed some already.  Some old-timers will recall the upheaval that was caused by a proposed South Dakota plan to pump water from the Missouri River to Wyoming’s coal-producing areas where it would be mixed with coal to produce a slurry that would flow in another pipeline to powerplants in the southeast.

The issue is growing serious in the Southwest again.

The newspaper in Casa Grande, Arizona that we read a few days ago carried an Associated Press story that the flow of the Colorado River, “the most important waterway in the American Southwest,” is almost twenty percent less than it was before a drought now in its eighteenth year.

Researchers Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, in The Journal of Water Resources, note seven states and part of Mexico are served by the Colorado’s 246,000 mile basin.  The area includes forty million people and 6,300 acres of farmland.  But the two great impoundments from which water is drawn by various communities and other entities are stressed.  They find water storage levels at Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, and at Lake Powell, behind the Glen Canyon Dam is  forty-two and forty-six percent.  There are fears that Lake Mead could drop so far that cuts will soon have to be made in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada, the first states to feel the shortage under multistate water use agreements.

(How far has the water level in Lake Mead dropped?  Consider the town of St. Thomas, Nevada.  It was flooded in 1938 by water backing up behind Hoover Dam.  At one time, water about sixty feet deep covered the tallest remaining structures on the site.  Today, you can walk the streets of St. Thomas, Nevada again.  It’s on National Park Service Land.)

What’s causing this?  Udall and Overpeck say precipitation was 4.6 percent below historic averages in the fifteen years through 2014.  The temperatures during that period were 1.6 degrees above historic averages.  That, they calculate, amounts to about two-thirds of the decline.  They think most of the rest is the result of a warming atmosphere that causes more evaporation from the snowbanks, plants, and soil.

The long-term outlook:  Rain and snowfall will have to increase by FOURTEEN PERCENT FOR THE REST OF THE 21st century to offset the effect of anticipated rising temperatures.

Arizona is considering what to do.  Reporters Ethan Millman and Morgan Wheeler of the Casa Grande Dispatch wrote in the same issue that Arizona leaders have started a push to abolish a 2001 prohibition against letting some people drink recycled wastewater by the end of the year.  A state regulatory council has to approve the plan to turn toilet, shower, and other treated water used for drinking. Officials know a substantial change of public perception will be needed and the recycling is more likely to be used in smaller towns rather than the major cities of Tucson and Phoenix.

Reclaimed water already is vital to a major part of Arizona’s popularity.  They write that eighty million gallons of reclaimed water is used on the golf courses of just one county, Maricopa, home of Phoenix, EVERY DAY.  A ski area near Flagstaff makes snow out of it.  One vineyard uses it to irrigate the grape plants that ultimately produce wine.

Not a worry in Missouri?  Oh, but it is.

And if it were not for federal laws four or more decades ago there would be major, major problems.  The Clean Water Act forced cities to stop dumping sewage directly into our rivers and their tributaries.  So, in truth, Missourians already are drinking former sewage that was processed before it went into the rivers and is processed when it is drawn out of them.  We who live along the river cannot collect enough rain water nor drill enough deep water wells to sustain our homes, our businesses, and our health without those processes.  Or our golf courses.

The Corps of Engineers worries about the inflow of water from the Missouri River upstream mountain-snowmelt and precipitation—but those areas also are dealing with long-term drought.  The impoundments on the Missouri not only provide commercial value in the Dakotas and Montana, they also provide the water needed to maintain navigation on the Missouri and, ultimately, on the Mississippi Rivers that is vital to a major segment of our economy.

Then there is this:

We started seeing news reports in August 2009 that the Ozark Aquifer is drying up. A United States Geological Survey report that month that a four-year study at Missouri Southern State University indicated the aquifer could go dry in places “if demand increases by as little as one percent annually over the next 50 years” and that it could be emptied near some cities.  Among the first to feel the shortage: Carthage and Noel, towns with industries that use a lot of water.  Joplin and Miami Oklahoma would be next, then Pittsburg, Kansas.

The study covered 7,340 square miles in Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. As of 2006, eight-seven percent of the water drawn from the aquifer was used in Missouri—

8,531,520 cubic feet per day. There are about 7.5 gallons in each cubic foot of water.

A year later, John Goldsmith at Emporia State University reported groundwater in the

region’s aquifers was being polluted by coal beds in the Tri-State area and other factors. But industry and state government actions were slowing the contamination.  Remediation and cleanup, he said, is expensive and difficult.

John Thomas, who bills himself on his website as “The Mad Hedge Fund Trader,” wrote in 2010, “If you think that the upcoming energy shortage is going to be bad, it will pale in comparison to the next water crisis.”

We spend a lot of time discussing this or that crisis here or in another nations. But we have one developing right under our feet.  And unlike those ancient people of the Colorado plateau, we can’t just walk away to another place.

(photo credit: raisethestakes.com)