Most of us forgot (or don’t even know) about the Dust Bowl which damaged the ecology and agriculture of the United States in the 1930s, but according to a new study, we might soon be reminded of those horrible conditions. It is predicted that similar conditions will hit the Western US in the second half of this century, hitting hard on the progress that has been made toward preserving the already scarce water supplies in the area.
The predictions are rather serious, threatening to reach an 80 percent chance of severe drought lasting a generation, provided that the greenhouse-gas emissions will not be suppressed. There is an ongoing research showing that both farmers and city-dwellers alike will have to double their efforts of using water more efficiently, according to Brian Richter, chief scientist of water markets for The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia.
The good news is that water use in the United States hasn’t increased – and may have even decreased a little – since the 1980s, even though there has been a growth in population and a significant raise in farm production. This achievement gives credit to the progress starting in 1960s and ’70s, when the Western United States and central Plains had to fight through a series of persistent droughts. This information was provided by a US Geological Survey report, which was made public earlier this year.
The bad news, however, is that all these efforts combined are not enough for stopping the predictions from coming through, especially in the semiarid regions of the country. In these areas, population is expected to grow, whereas the snowfalls that provide vital meltwater in the summer are expected to decrease.
The tools for fighting the droughts are mostly familiar, such as gardening around homes. There are more technological solutions, however, like building facilitates which would extract potable water from human waste.
California is currently experiencing a little taste of what the future droughts might bring. However, the progress made in the latest years towards fighting it show that it is possible to adapt before we experience the real deal. Toby Ault, a climate scientist at Cornell University and part of the team which conducts the study, believes that the Southwest should make the best of their unique position and accept the leadership role in discovering news ways of coping with future mega-droughts.
Even if global warming was not a significant factor in the big picture, the problem with the scarce water resources in some regions of the West and central Plains was already getting out of hand. The problem is that, during the past century, the Colorado River had to allocate more water than it could deliver to the surrounding states. And the fact that the population has significantly risen did not help with the water supply.
The new study took into consideration two different scenarios for the future: one in which greenhouse-gas emissions would be slightly reduced, and one in which nothing changes in the current state of affairs. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a company which focuses on water-resource issues, believes that in both of these scenarios, there is going to be serious damage. Not to our cities or industries, which will probably survive a severe series of drought, but to our agricultural system, which will not be capable of sustaining such destructive conditions. Also, our ecosystems will have a lot to suffer, unless we act smart.
Throughout history, cities in the West and Plains have learned to cope with droughts by capturing surface water, or, in the worse cases, drawing water from more-distant sources. However, this solution is not available anymore, as new sources of water become more and more scarce, and the West cannot balance the water equation. This is the response to different proposals of piping water from Alaska or Canada to the West.
It must be also taken into consideration that balancing the water equation will also mean putting more effort into supplying water for urban areas, as the population is expected to grow considerably. This will not be a simple task, as the region had to handle previous water conflicts. The agriculture community is afraid that the political and financial power of the urban areas will incline the water balance in their favor. The necessary deal that needs to be drafted between agriculture and urban areas will find it difficult to attract farmers into such a partnership, because they are very suspicious and skeptical about it.
However, not all hope is lost, as there are also positive examples: San Diego managed to sign a deal between the farmers and the city. The farmers agreed to adopt conservation measures, and in exchange, the city gets the water saved by those measures. This deal was inked in 1998, and the predictions show that the city’s water supply will be covered by 40 percent of saved water by 2020.
Image Source: Grist