Withering Drought and Wildfire: The New Normal

The fires now ripping through the forests of the West as the region roasts in deadly dryness may offer a glimpse of things to come. The ash on our tongues, the smoke in our lungs—these sensations could be commonplace in coming years.  And the sunsets that now burn with apocalyptic grandeur, prompting residents of the West to lift their cameras toward the haze-stricken sky, may not merit a second look in a future of drought and fire.  

Scientists have determined that during the decades the American frontier filled with people, the weather in the western United States was abnormally wet. By studying tree rings, which form patterns that reflect the amount of moisture available in the environment, researchers can reconstruct rainfall and riverflows before historical records were kept. Tree ring data has shown the twentieth century to be one of the wettest centuries in the last five hundred years. The modern West, with its ranches and farms, its cities and suburbs, was based on a fluke. The Dust Bowl, the devestating drought of the 1950s, the drought we’re enduring now–they all look positively lush compared to the megadroughts of the past.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Fourth Assessment Report, to which twenty-five hundred scientists from 130 countries contributed. One of its many unsettling predictions is that, under a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario, temperatures in the western United States over the next century will increase 3.8 to 10.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Seattle will be as warm as Sacramento is now. Missoula will have the climate of present-day Denver. Phoenix will be an inferno that makes Death Valley seem mild. The snowy keeps of mountaintops will unfreeze, blizzards will become rainstorms that steam to nothing in the sun, and the new “normal” in the West will be what we used to call “drought.”  

A megadrought similar to the one that forced the collapse of the Anasazi civilization could become the region’s new climatology. A study published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences points to a sixty-year drought that seared the Southwest during the midtwelfth century—the worst drought in the region in the past twelve hundred years—as an analogue of what is in store as greenhouse gasses ratchet up the heat. The comparison is not perfect, however, noted the study’s lead author, Connie Woodhouse, in an interview with the New York Times. Temperatures in the future will rise higher than those that occurred during the medieval dry spell that coincided with people abandoning their cities in the desert.

Science has determined the impending dryness of the West with a high degree of certainty. Whether or not we can maintain our civilization in these parched lands is still an open question. Gorgeous sunsets born of forests combusting may be as common in the coming decades as the green lawns we now take for granted. And the smoke that is clogging our lungs as the West burns may be as typical in the future as the water that, for now, still flows from our taps.

Evolutionary Psychology and the Water Crisis in the West

The cognitive scientist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker noted in his book The Blank Slate that our consciousness has been tuned by the environment to focus on “the rare and unpredictable things we need.” Pinker writes, “We feel hunger, savor food, and have a palate for countless fascinating tastes because food was hard to get during most of our evolutionary history. We don’t normally feel longing, delight, or fascination regarding oxygen, even though it is crucial for survival, because it was never hard to obtain. We just breathe.”

The same is true, to some extent, of water. Even though finding freshwater supplies was essential to the survival of our hominid and human ancestors, the resource of water was relatively abundant compared with food; thus we didn’t develop strong psychological faculties of appreciation for water. A crisp apple tastes sweet and delicious; a glass of water really doesn’t taste like anything at all. It just tastes like water.

The water that flows from our taps is invisible to us—we slurp it up without a thought about where it came from or if it will continue to flow. But given the looming crisis in the West’s water supplies, it is imperative that we use the circuits wired for logical reasoning that reside in our prefrontal cortex to override our primitive indifference to water. We have to pay attention to the discoveries of our best science—which tells us the West is heating up and drying out, and the water we take for granted now may not flow so easily from our taps in the near future.

To say that we haven’t evolved any neural architecture to appreciate water is not entirely accurate. Consider our emotional reaction when we see a burbling spring in a land of sand and burning sun. And witness the hair-on-fire panic induced by drought. Buried deep in our psyches is the recognition that water is life. When the springs that our distant ancestors relied on dried up, they packed up and moved on, seeking new oases to nourish them.

The Bureau of Reclamation—the federal agency tasked with reengineering the waterscape of the West—created artificial oases by rerouting rivers over vast spans of terrain. We based our civilization in the western United States around these waterholes devised by technology, and we convinced ourselves that nature’s stinginess with water west of the 100th meridian didn’t matter. We kept faith in a belief that increasingly audacious feats of technology would free us from nature’s constraints.

When a drought of unremitting ferocity stressed Ancestral Puebloan civilization to the point of collapse, they abandoned their stone cities in the desert and set out in search of moister climes. Now, as climate change shrinks the Colorado River and shrivels the Sierra snowpack, relocating Los Angeles to Northern California–where the vast majority of the state’s water supplies are located–is a feat even the engineers at the Bureau of Reclamation, who created Hoover Dam and many of the other great monuments of our civilization, can’t accomplish. We built cities where no cities should be, and now we must use science to guide us through the consequences.

Paying attention to climatologists and hydrologists is paramount. And the science of evolutionary psychology can shine a light on the dark recesses of our reasoning, where we form decisions about what to value and what to fear. Lack of water should frighten us just as much as famine, and we should savor every drop of water we wring from the West’s shrinking rivers.

It All Comes Down to Water

Even the bits and bytes of the virtual world depend on water. The server farms that allow people to Google “server farms water use” use massive amounts of water for cooling the heat generated by data use. And server farms guzzle energy. Large volumes of water are required to extract, process, and distribute fuels, and the energy industry uses rivers of water to cool power plants. From our food supply to Facebook, everything depends on water.

Of Cattle and Parking Lots – Why Ranchers and Environmentalists Should Work Together

Last week I had a terrific conversation with Marsha Daughenbaugh, executive Director of the Yampa Valley’s Community Agriculture Alliance, about the rancor that has so often characterized relations between ranchers and environmentalists in the West–even though their interests often overlap in important ways. I have never met a rancher who thinks that filling the open spaces of the West with subdivisions would be a good thing. And I’ve never met an environmentalist who thinks that paving the ranchland of the West would be a prudent plan. Poor grazing practices have damaged the rivers of the West, but nothing wreaks more destruction with riparian environments than tract homes and shopping malls. Sprawl is the common enemy, and linking growth in the West to the region’s limited water supplies can make for some unusual–and productive–partnerships.

Waste Farmers

For a great example of green entrepreneurship preserving the West’s water, check out Waste Farmers. By diverting compostable waste from landfills and using this organic material to make high-quality potting soils and soil amendments, Waste Farmers reduces methane gas, a major driver of climate change, which is drying up western water resources. Putting compostable waste back into the soil also prevents nitrates from leaking out of landfills and contaminating water supplies. By revolutionizing how we manage our waste stream, the bioneers at Waste Farmers are enhancing the sustainability of the West’s water supplies.

The Endangered Yampa River

Friends of the Yampa and Yampa Valley Sustainability Council are working hard to raise awareness about the Yampa, one of the last rivers of the American West without any major dams or diversions. This river’s natural hydrograph is still intact, supporting a healthy watershed for plants, animals and people in northwestern Colorado. But the Yampa is in danger of being transformed from a wild watercourse into a drained ditch as the cities of Colorado’s Front Range sprawl across dry plains and continue sticking straws in distant rivers.