How much longer before the desert fights back?

North Beach at Salton Sea

North Beach at Salton Sea

One of my best bike rides ever was a 2004 trip through the southwestern desert, from Claremont, California, to Phoenix, Arizona: Through east L.A. County along Route 66, over the Palms to Pines National Scenic Byway, through resort cities and farming towns of the Coachella and Imperial Valleys—the lowest-lying land of the western hemisphere—and on U.S. 60 through the western half of Arizona.

The focus for this trip was the Salton Sea, a strange, human-caused lake in a region once called the Valley of Death. This solo journey fulfilled a long-held hope to see this inland sea, and it increased my understanding of the challenges Americans face as we engineer the natural world that keeps fighting back.

During this trip I learned that the American Southwest has a long history of alternating periods of drought and somewhat wetter weather that have shaped the destiny of the societies that have developed in the desert. Between 600 and 1350 CE, the Hohokam civilization in central Arizona created a network of ditches and canals that stretched about 150 miles.

The Hohokam people failed, however, because (as Frank Waters wrote in Arizona Highways in 1990) they were unable to develop “an enduring civilization.” The reason: “the desert’s eventual assertion of its own inviolability against reclamation.”

In the decade since making that trip, I have bicycled another 3,500 miles in the desert Southwest and hope to continue the practice a few years longer (including 450 miles with PAC Tour in mid March).

It is increasingly clear that all of us who enjoy western United States are living on borrowed time. Populations continue to grow, water resources diminish at a time when drier climatic conditions seem to be returning, and engineering fixes that allow southwestern cities to thrive are nearing the end of their ability to ward off disaster.

What the region now needs, write B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, is “a new policy of balance and cooperation.” Near the close of their book The West Without Water, they offer their readers this proposal:

“The past century has pitted ecosystems in the West against an economic imperative of growth by an ambitious western society. Yet with each drought or flood, the costs mount—both to the ecosystems that are collapsing and to the economy that reels with each disaster. An alternative paradigm for the future would consider the relationship between sustainable water use and the delicate balance of life within an environment that has evolved over many millennia.

Dry Wash at Salton Sea“Human society must find its place as part of the delicate balance, not apart from it. Achieving this balance will be both increasingly important and increasingly difficult in the future should the region’s climate, as predicted, become drier and punctuated by more floods. Now is the time for policymakers and residents to move toward a new, overarching policy of collaboration, to act together for the collective good and the survival of the region” (218).

According to Ingram and Malamud-Roam, the western society that has developed during the century-long hydraulic era is marked by five features: (1) remarkable control of water, (2) suppression of the natural regulators of water control, (3) multiplication of population, (4) major stress on plants and animals, and (5) an attitude that pays no attention to where the water comes from.

My bicycle-rider response to the impending crisis is that there are two action-oriented attitudes will help us respond to the threat that the west will soon run out of water. The first is that we need to support public officials, environmental scholars, and business interests as they develop policies and programs to restore natural processes that are harmonious with the long-term climatic realities of the American West.

This action is especially important because the factors that have controlled weather over the millennia are now being intensified by carbon buildup in the atmosphere, which is largely the result of human activity. Because this weather-making, climate-changing factor is human-caused, its diminishment can only come about by human action.

The second action-oriented attitude is that we can begin the process of reducing our personal water footprint. Ingram and Malamud-Roam report that “the amount of water used to produce a single, six-ounce serving of steak is 2,600 gallons. . .Forty-nine gallons of water are used to produce a single eight-ounce glass of milk” (214). In simple terms this means that bicyclists (and everyone else) should eat a lot less steak and eat a lot more red lentil soup.

According to The West Without Water, there is little doubt among the scientists that we are facing another period when much of the West could experience a new, more severe dust bowl than the one in the 1930s. We seem, however, to lack the sense of urgency that is needed to ward off this coming disaster.

These are some of the unsettling ideas that trouble me during my rides along the Columbia River and even more as I bicycle through the desert Southwest.

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