Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Looks like "drought" is the buzzword in this week's news, whether one is talking about the fires in southern California or the record dry spell and water shortage in the southeastern U.S. The fires in California, brought on by a nasty combination of too little rain and the Santa Anna winds, are nothing new - although this round seems to be more widespread and devastating than the fires of previous years. Scientists will doubtless remind us, as they do after other newsworthy fires in high profile places like Yellowstone, that fire is a natural part of the landscape's life cycle. Periodic wildfires burn out excess growth and unhealthy trees, preparing the soil for new growth. And it is amazing to witness the rapidity with which teeming life returns to a burned over area. Nevertheless, it's hard to nurture those warm and fuzzy "Animal Planet" feelings when one witnesses the evacuation of thousands and the destruction of so many homes in the region. Although one might want to tell them, "we told you so," one can't help feeling sorry for families that have lost everything.

Still, these fires should remind us that much of that region is built on a mirage that has been unnaturally sustained through irrigation. (A few months ago I did an article - cross-posted here - on the use of desalination technologies to meet water demands in an increasingly drought-stricken West. Also, the book Cadillac Desert is arguably the best explanation of how developers coaxed a green "paradise" from a semi-arid landscape.) And long before civil engineers dammed western rivers and began digging irrigation channels, fire was a natural sculptor of the western landscape. It will be interesting to see how the region responds to this latest challenge. One would hope that developers, and the local governments that approve or reject their proposals, would finally recognize the area's natural limitations and plan accordingly in a manner more attuned to environmental impact.

On the other hand, in the Southeast, particularly in the area around Atlanta, extreme drought is a new experience for many people. Sure, the region has experienced periods of severely diminished rainfall before and suffered the consequences within the context of lessened agricultural output. The problem this time, however, is that the drought is affecting an area that has experienced a remarkable population explosion in recent years. Atlanta, for example, faces the disastrous possibility of losing one of its primary sources of potable water, Lake Lanier. Several communities from Virginia through the Carolinas have already instituted strict water conservation policies and municipalities like Atlanta are on the verge of declaring states of emergency. People like my parents in southeastern Virginia adapt to the restrictions on water use, but they really don't have a sense of the magnitude of the latest emergency. Sure, they can't wash their cars or water their lawns. But as long as they have water to drink and take a shower, they're not really worried.

Several months ago I wrote:

"Still, unless one is directly affected by water shortages, it may prove difficult to galvanize popular interest in the debate over the efficacy of desalination programs, particularly when the media pay so much attention to the Middle East and its role in feeding our fossil fuel diet. Think of it in these terms, however. In 1999, the Saudi Arabian oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Yamani, offered an ironic conclusion when asked about the significance of oil to his nation's development. 'All in all, I wish we had discovered water,' he remarked, a telling observation in a world so often assessed through the refracted politics of oil. In the end, water may be the 21st century's oil, and could prove even more expensive."
So here we are in October and the situation is far more dire and affects a far more substantial portion of the population. Perhaps now ordinary people will take notice and respond with an urgency heretofore not seen. Indeed, I think we're going to be hearing far more in the near future about water shortages and the ramifications of long-term drought from a national perspective. Realistically, the situation should spur a deceleration of the development boom that has punctuated western and southeastern economic growth in the last 25 years. And, given the growing interest in global warming and climate change, recent events should spark a popular demand for more eco-sensitive responses to demands on our natural resources. Otherwise, communities like Atlanta face a long-term situation more threatening than the effects of a fire. As I noted in April:

"Assuming the mantle of historical geographer and studying a map of the West, one sees a landscape dotted with ghost towns. Yet they're not of the mythic 'Old West' variety; they are towns that sprang up in response to the discovery of gold, silver, copper and uranium, or flourished when the first roads spidered westward to California. Today, there are countless exit ramps along the east-west highways that lead to abandoned mining communities and once prosperous towns with derelict truck stops, gas stations, garages and warehouses. Fifty to 75 years from now, we may have a new breed of ghost towns - communities that emerged around the burgeoning agribusinesses that took advantage of post-Depression irrigation efforts, but dried up as their access to inexpensive water evaporated. Even larger interior cities like Denver may face significant contraction if their diminished water supplies, dependent on the shrinking snow pack of the Rockies, can not be supplemented by other sources. Water-stressed urban areas may become the West's equivalent of decaying, post-industrial 'Rust Belt' cities, their economic hearts on life support as businesses and citizens leave for - literally - greener climes. And one suspects that these new ghost towns of strip malls and convenience stores will prove neither as picturesque nor as attractive to tourists as Bodie, California, and similarly 'historic' mining communities."
Now take that scenario and apply it to the southeast. Is Atlanta on the list of future ghost towns, a city crippled by a combination of drought and developmental shortsightedness? Obviously these are worst-case scenarios, dependent on just the right convergence of circumstances. This year's drought could be followed by next year's floods. Nevertheless, the current emergency should give localities cause to reexamine their pursuit of unmitigated development. In the meantime, pray that the rains fall in Georgia and the politicians learn a valuable lesson.

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