How To Live in the Great American Desert

The entire southwestern United States consists of either desert or arid territory. Texas into northern California and everything in between. Old maps label it The Great American Desert, which I’ll call the GAD.

The two things characteristic of deserts are lots of sun and little water. This is also true of the GAD, although our technology and good fortune have allowed us to largely get away with ignoring these natural traits.

Not any more.

Climate change is compelling us to either come up with some better ways to do things where it’s dry, or to move out. This is not limited to the GAD. Deserts the world over are becoming hotter, dryer, and bigger. If we are to continue to live in the desert, we must learn how to survive the increasing heat and the diminishing water.

The southwestern United States consists of desert.

Water in the GAD comes from two kinds of sources. It is either pumped in over great distances, or it is pumped out of the Earth. Very little of it falls from the sky. Desert dwellers are in grave danger because both of these sources are becoming increasingly scarce.

The great Ogallala Aquifer lies under the central part of the country, under huge swaths of land from northern Texas to South Dakota. It’s some 6-million years old, and we are mining it. Its water level has been falling ever faster since the 1940s. If you have flown over territory irrigated by the aquifer you probably noticed increasing numbers of irrigation circles that are dry. That is because the level has fallen so far that it is no longer feasible to mine the water. The desert is reclaiming its own. Smaller aquifers are also being mined, and they too will take thousands of years to replenish.

East of Los Angeles lies a strip of half a dozen nearly identical ill-conceived desert towns beloved of Hollywood types, from La Quinta to Palm Springs, as well as Las Vegas (which means “the fertile plains”) and numerous other cities in the region. None of these places has any business existing in their current incarnation, because they are in the desert, and pretend they are not. All of them are rapidly exhausting the available water, and doing almost nothing about it. In fact, right now at least one California community is expected to run completely dry before summer arrives.

Aquifers are being mined,
and will take thousands of years
to replenish.

A topographical map of California readily shows the Central Valley, an enormous, flat-bottomed bowl within which a large part of the nation’s produce is raised. Some of the vast amounts of water needed for this effort—measured, by the way, in “acre-feet”, one acre-foot being a foot of water covering an acre of land—comes from ground water, but most comes as spring melt of the fifteen feet or so of annual snowfall in the Sierra mountains, flowing to the farms via the California Aqueduct.

But the ground water gets lower every year, and the Sierra snowmelt for the past three years has been a fraction of normal. California has declared a water emergency for 2014, and authorities are releasing no water at all to the Central Valley. That will mean far less produce at significantly higher prices. Since precipitation has been declining slowly but steadily for forty years, this could be permanent.

Permanent depletion of aquifers (and almost all depletion of major aquifers is permanent) and loss of snow cover in the mountains would be an unprecedented disaster that would affect all Americans and many others from now on, and it looks increasingly like that’s exactly what is happening.

Loss of the Sierra snow cover
would be an unprecedented disaster.

But there are ways we can learn to live more wisely in the desert: Quit using domestic water unnecessarily. Continue learning how to use agricultural water more efficiently. (There are limits to what can be achieved here, because under-watering increases soil salinity.) Capture rain water for domestic or agricultural use, or at least let it soak into the Earth. Recycle all water. Make use of the abundant sunlight to generate electricity. Design our homes and cities for better natural cooling.

Domestic water use is a fruitful area for improved efficiency. Thanks to Mr. Crapper’s now obsolete invention, found in every building in the country, vast oceans of pure potable water are simply wasted flushing away human waste. This in itself is a waste, as both urine and feces have value as fertilizer and fuel. (See my second most popular article, “Poop, Pee, and Efficiency”, also “Water for the Desert Home”.)

Within our homes and other buildings, dry toilets are the best change we could make, but there are lots of others. For one thing, there is no reason that literally all used water could not be purified and reused within the home, or at least within the city system. Any arid city not currently at least in the planning and design stage of greatly improved water efficiency is tempting fate with its tardiness.

Dry toilets are the best change we could make.

If you have lived in or visited the Great American Desert you have probably noticed the effect of migrants who arrived from England and Europe a while ago. They brought with them their green lawns, which of course must be watered, fertilized, and mowed—and are utterly foreign to the GAD, wasting criminal amounts of water.

Lawns have no place in a desert, where they constitute a gross misuse of scarce water and attract rattlesnakes and other animals. Places like Palm Desert and La Quinta are mining their water to maintain lush green lawns—which die every blazing summer and are replanted and watered heavily every fall. Not only is lawn unsuitable in a desert, it is not nearly as attractive as native plants that require minimal water and care.

Why on Earth don’t we do these things? Quit wasting precious water. Quit trying to pretend the GAD is the English countryside. There is no question they will either be done on our own schedule or on a desperate emergency schedule dictated by factors we can’t control. Californians have been ordered to cut back on water use this year, so we are careful to shut off the faucets quickly, take short showers, and trim outdoor watering to the minimum necessary. It’s not at all certain that this water emergency is only temporary. So now’s the time. We must do something permanent and significant—but we’re not.

We must do something
permanent and significant
—but we’re not.

It’s a bit analogous to building fast trains. Conservatives in particular don’t want to build them now because they have become very expensive. But we are at least four decades behind the times, and the cost will be orders of magnitude higher when we realize we need them.

Perhaps we will never build fast trains, but we will either take significant steps to improve water efficiency now, or we will find our lifestyle suddenly truncated until we spend the higher cost to do it in the not distant future. As usual, the people must lead the leaders. Unfortunately, few of the people even see the problem.


The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Reblogged this on John Ames Blog and commented:
    Mr. Pennington is right on target.


  2. Desalination plants would give Southern California lots of water. They use them on ships. Other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel do this Recycling water is also an energy consumer. How can a coastal state with water problems not invest in this technology? Solar powered pumping systems could bring this water inland . There is sll the water you need in the ocean.


    • Desalination is still pretty pricey. I think it could best be used with recycling of waste water. But there are some recent desalination developments that could change everything if they work out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s