Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Oh, Yeah, Then There's Water

Okay, I’m sorry. I know this may be getting old. But there are state and local fiscal implications to what we have done climatically to the planet (like today’s report that CO2 emissions are rising faster in this decade than in the previous ones and more than twice as fast as the climate models have been using) that will affect the resources available for corrections sentencing in big ways in most of the country. Here’s a great piece on what we can look forward to with our fresh water supplies. Short version: The SW and West will have more important matters to handle than locking everybody up, Phoenix sheriffs to the contrary, and that will spill over in major ways onto the rest of us.

In the Southwest this past summer, the outlook was equally sobering. A catastrophic reduction in the flow of the Colorado River — which mostly consists of snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains — has always served as a kind of thought experiment for water engineers, a risk situation from the outer edge of their practical imaginations. Some 30 million people depend on that water. A greatly reduced river would wreak chaos in seven states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. An almost unfathomable legal morass might well result, with farmers suing the federal government; cities suing cities; states suing states; Indian nations suing state officials; and foreign nations (by treaty, Mexico has a small claim on the river) bringing international law to bear on the United States government. In addition, a lesser Colorado River would almost certainly lead to a considerable amount of economic havoc, as the future water supplies for the West’s industries, agriculture and growing municipalities are threatened. As one prominent Western water official described the possible future to me, if some of the Southwest’s largest reservoirs empty out, the region would experience an apocalypse, “an Armageddon.”

Which in turn affects our food supply . . . .

The biggest issue is that agriculture consumes most of the water, as much as 90 percent of it, in a state like Colorado. “The West has gone from a fur-trapping, to a mining, to an agricultural, to a manufacturing, to an urban-centric economy,” Binney explained. As the region evolved, however, its water ownership for the most part did not. “There’s no magical locked box of water that we can turn to,” Binney says of cities like Aurora, “so it’s going to have to come from an existing use.” Because the supply of water in the West can’t really change, water managers spend their time looking for ways to adjust its allocation in their favor.

But surely technology will save the day . . . .

Meanwhile, it is a perverse side effect of global warming that we may have to emit large volumes of carbon dioxide to obtain the clean water that is becoming scarcer because of the carbon dioxide we’ve already put into the atmosphere. A dry region that turns to desalination, for example, would need vast amounts of energy (and money) to purify its water. While wind-powered desalination could perhaps meet this challenge — such a plant was recently built outside Perth, Australia — it isn’t clear that coastal residents in, say, California would welcome such projects. Unclear, too, is how dumping the brine that is a by-product of the process back into the ocean would affect ecosystems.

Similar energy challenges face other plans. In past years, various schemes have arisen to move water from Canada or the Great Lakes to arid parts of the United States. Beyond the environmental implications and construction costs (probably hundreds of billions of dollars), such continental-scale plumbing would require stupendous amounts of electricity. And yet, fears that such plans will resurface in a drier, more populous world are partly behind current efforts by the Great Lakes states to certify a pact that protects their fresh water from outside exploitation.

We rightly worry about whether we have the resources to continue the corrections sentencing path we’re on with everything staying exactly the way it’s been. But everything isn’t going to stay exactly the way it’s been. Like the article says, the Great Lakes are dropping and their states and provinces are already having the “we’re not shipping our water out” tirades. Models indicate that the South’s drought may be a regular thing. Debating whether this is really happening is a fool’s game played by self-impressed clowns who never let the real world interfere with their ideologies and unworthy of the challenges that have to be met NOW. If CA and AZ and the other states think they’ve got problems paying for all the beds they’re forecasting now, just wait. Like most states, they’ve been robbing Peter to pay Prison, and now Peter’s p.o.’ed. As this guy says about two of our biggest prison states,

So why is Georgia suffering so much? The reason is that as the region's population grew, they did not make appropriate investments in infrastructure, such as water supply. The result is that a drought of fixed size is a much bigger problem today than it was several decades ago.

New Orleans, of course, is the poster child for insufficient infrastructure. They knew a hurricane would swamp them, and that such a hurricane was just a matter of time, but they still didn't spend the money to provide the necessary protection. They look pretty stupid now.

Because we are not making adequate investments, our society is becoming less resilient to climate variability. I probably don't need to point out that this is the wrong direction. As climate changes, we need to become more resilient. That means that we need to spend money on infrastructure. . . .

So what investments do we need to make now to head off problems that we know are coming down the pike? Turns out that's an easy question to answer. We need to make coastal developments resilient to sea-level rise (even if that means restricting coastal development) and we need to make just about every spot in the U.S. resilient to reductions in freshwater. There are other things too, including enhancements in public health infrastructure, energy infrastructure, food infrastructure, etc.

If we don't do this now, people in the future will look back on us and conclude we were pretty stupid. They would be right.

We have to work harder on the alternatives to high-cost punishments that provide the same or better public safety results at lower costs RIGHT NOW. Ten years from now will be too late. Early release could be the least of our problems. This isn’t scare talk. It’s reality. It’s time we dealt with it for a change.

[If you want a clear picture of what we’re facing in this, type the words Fred Pearce into Amazon’s search engine and buy everything he’s written.]

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