The West and Water

I grew up in Southern Ohio, I spent some summers in South Carolina, and during my time in the Navy I was stationed along the East Coast colorado green river mapof the United States, mainly in Rhode Island. Common to all was an abundance of water Turning on one’s water faucet and having cool clear H2O flow forth isn’t much of a concern.

In 1964 I packed up my 1960  Chevrolet  Biscayne and headed for California. Someplace in Oklahoma water became an issue and the green fields and forest of the East turned into parched, treeless, grasslands.

West of Flagstaff, AZ I stopped for gas and was advised to buy a burlap water bag to hang on the hood ornament in case I had trouble crossing the desert. In Needles. CA I was, for the first time in my life, asked to pay for a drink of water. I filled the gas tank and walked into the adjoining restaurant and asked for a glass of water. The waitress sat it down and said, “Ten cents please.” With a shocked look on my face I asked why and was told they had no wells and all water had to be hauled in by tanker truck.

After arriving in Los Angeles I put all that water stuff behind me and proceeded to be amazed that most people had plush landscaping, backyard swimming pools, and automatic sprinklers in their lawns. There was also a huge car wash every other block and they were all running at full capacity. Water was abundant.

It was only after learning a little LA history did I come to realize that this huge city sat in a desert and that its water supply came from hundreds of miles away via a very complex system of canals, tunnels, pipelines, and huge pumping stations. There are no huge natural lakes and rivers providing water to Southern California. Instead water was piped in from the Colorado River and the  lakes and rivers of Northern California.  The more abundant water of Northern California is diverted to the South where it is literally squandered by an uncaring and ignorant population of millions.

My greatest understanding of this came from a professor I had at Cal-State who had grown up in a small Southern Utah town that sat along side the Green River. The Green eventually empties into the Colorado forming the border between Arizona and California.

My prof had nothing good to say about the lifestyle of Southern California. He had grown up knowing what life without water was like and found So-Cal’s waste to be intolerable. He told the story of his hometown getting its water from a nearby lake that went dry in most summers. During those times their faucets produced a muddy slurry rather than clean clear water. A slurry that needed to be filtered through layers of cheesecloth and boiled before use. All this at the same time the nearby Green River ran full with the melt off of Rocky Mountain snow.

The immediate question from a student was, “Why didn’t you just pump water out of the river?” The answer was simple, “We didn’t have water rights to the Green River. Those were owned by the city of Los Angeles.” Sure enough,  taking a bucket of water from the Green River would have been a crime because its water was owned by some far off city.

A simple truth about the West is that most of it is desertland with few water resources and the ever growing population centers have been fighting over water rights for decades.  As a child I watched more than one cowboy movie where the plot involved a war over range or water.

Just today I came across an article stating that seven states in the American West are essentially out of water. Due to a combination of many factors, chiefly population growth, wasteful policies, and climate change there just isn’t enough. Those states are Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, Nevada, and California.

There is scarcely an evening’s news program that doesn’t contain a piece about wild fires in the West. When I lived in LA we had a “fire season” that took place mostly in the late summer and fall, after the heat of summer had dried out the vegetation in the hills surrounding LA. It was relatively short in duration and ended with the arrival of the rainy season in winter. Today there is no rainy season and drought and fire are becoming the daily norm.

It’s difficult to think of all this without hearing the words of comedian Sam Kinnison screaming at starving Ethiopians because they chose to live in a “fucking desert.” But that’s exactly what Americans have done in the Southwest, build megalopolitan cities in a region never meant to sustain much life.

Worse yet is our refusal to halt urban sprawl in the West,  refusal to alter water policies, deal with both old and new realities, and dog facedly refusing to listen to scientist who have warned of these problems for decades. And worse yet, to deny what 97% of the world’s scientific community is telling us, that climate change is real will result dire consequences if not acknowledged.

The Republican majority in the US House of Representatives just instructed the Department of Defense to not consider climate change in future military planning. Now I ask, if there were one hundred people in a room and ninety-seven held doctorates in climate science and three were members of congress, whose word would you accept, the ninety seven with PHds or the three professional politicians? If you picked the politicians you should be required to swap your current house on the hill for one a few inches above sea level.

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