Climate: unimportant until it matters

March 13, 2017

A review of Shared Borders, Shared Waters: Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges. Edited by Sharon B. Medal, Robert G. Varady, and Susanna Eden (CRC Press/Balkema, 2013).

The Colorado River system in the American Southwest and the Jordan River system in the Middle East are much alike. They flow through arid, hot regions with populations that are greater than these rivers can support. Serious efforts are being made in both regions to increase the use of these climatically limited river systems by reclaiming water for repeated use and by desalinization, but with limited success.

Because these river systems are located in regions where highly charged political systems exist side by side, continuing negotiation is needed to resolve conflicts. Challenges now faced by the Middle East and the American Southwest are case studies of what happens when people run out of water. They point to structural, political, and economic changes that should be considered even in regions that now have enough fresh water to meet needs.

Shared Borders, Shared Waters is based on the Arizona, Israeli, and Palestinian Water Management and Policy Workshop that took place at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in 2009. Sponsors included UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme and three centers at the University: the Water Resources Research Center, the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Financial support came from several sources.

The book contains seventeen chapters arranged into five sections: (1) Water development: Infrastructure and institutions; (2) Political and economic perspectives on water; (3) Learning from comparison; (4) Challenges, new and old; Climate change and wastewater; (5) Expanding water supplies: Promising strategies and technologies.

Thirty contributors from around the world are listed as authors (eight chapters with single writers and nine with two or more). Nine contributors were located at the University of Arizona, Fourteen were based at other universities in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere. Contributors came from all of the territories discussed in the book and represented several scientific disciplines, political jurisdictions, and management responsibilities.

They reached differing conclusions about the issues discussed. Most of the chapters contain charts, graphs, and photos, many in color. All were written in serious, academic prose, and several chapters challenge readers who are unfamiliar with the technical language that their authors use. Other authors wrote in styles that are more easily understood by general readers.

The book contains 276 pages of exposition, with notes and bibliographical information at the end of each chapter. In the final two pages, the editors offer five insights or “take-away messages.” First, “It is essential to find solutions that meet the needs of neighboring societies.” Second, scientific research and analysis “contribute to a better understanding of the implications of alternative approaches to problem-solving.” They provide the basis for dialogue that can lead to solutions.

Third, the scarcity of water resources is necessarily leading to innovation and “the adoption of emerging technologies.” Fourth, “factors such as geographical setting and scale, climatic conditions, history, social and cultural values, demography, political systems, economic incentives, institutional capacity, legal structure, and civil society” determine “whether a particular technology can succeed” and therefore have to be taken into consideration. Fifth, a multi-disciplinary approach must be taken if we are to resolve the challenges facing us.

The editors chose to offer blandly stated, methodological conclusions, but the book, despite its abstract and technical language, is much more interesting and challenging than these conclusions indicate. My alternative list offers five insights that focus primarily on issues discussed in these chapters and their implications for people everywhere. Read more: Shared Borders-Review


The science and politics of global warming

November 14, 2016

Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming by Joshua P. Howe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014)

howeEveryone knows that the climate is changing and that the effects upon the world we know are unnerving. Sea ice is melting, ocean levels are rising, deserts are increasing in size, plants and animals are finding it difficult to survive in their traditional locations. Long-term effects upon human populations are unsettling.

Even though these changes are widely recognized, many people deny the scientific consensus and even more people resist efforts to counteract climate change? This is the state of affairs in the United States that Joshua P. Howe discusses in his book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming. His purpose is to answer the question: “How can our science be so good and our policy response so incommensurate to the scale of the climate threats that scientists have identified?” (ix)

Howe’s purpose is to describe the complex array of political, environmental, and economic powers that are intertwined with scientific knowledge and guidelines concerning environmental pollution, its causes, impacts, and solutions. When we understand these varied, competing forces, we may be able to develop effective programs to save the planet.

The curve in in the book’s title refers to a graphic display of CO2 measurements that Charles David Keeling made at Mauna Loa from 1958­–1971. These measurements show a steady, smooth rise in the amount of this odorless, tasteless gas in the atmosphere. The steady rise showed that an earlier scientific consensus concerning CO2 was incorrect. The oceans and other natural features did not reabsorb this gas, and instead the negative effects were increasing.

Interest in atmospheric conditions became more important with the detonation of atomic weapons and in the complex political tensions of the Cold War. Howe describes these interactions both in the United States and on the international scene. He devotes a chapter to the rise and fall of the SST, the supersonic airliner that finally was set aside both because of its negative effects on the atmosphere and its great cost.

He explains how traditional environmentalists resisted the politicizing of these issues, thus creating a rift with the scientific community. He provides a detailed accounting of international conferences, agreements, and treaties aimed at curbing pollution. He describes the shifting political currents within the United States that have made it difficult for U.S. political leaders to embrace the more demanding international agreements.

Throughout the book, Howe often refers to “the forcing function of knowledge,” which holds that “a better scientific understanding of the problem of climate change would force appropriate political action” (9). Howe characterizes this “overweening faith in the power of science to inspire political action” as a top-down approach to establishing new policies.

It is difficult to believe that more science can force environmentally sensitive policy. Howe convincingly shows that with respect to climate change and everything related to it, the top-down approach has and will continue to fail. The reason? Because “the science-first approach has at times actually undermined the kinds of moral and political discussions that many global warming advocates, ironically have relied on science to foster” (203).

At book’s end, however, Howe does offer a glimmer of hope, a bottoms-up approach to solving the climatic challenges facing us. He bases this hope on the “real desire to build better, healthier, and more responsible communities.” He refers to climate action plans that are beginning “to use the mechanisms of municipal, county, and state government to shoot for the middle.” Local initiatives “give communities a chance to reorganize themselves as if the abstract global climatic good mattered to everyone, every day. This is something new” (206).

I wish that Howe had given us one more chapter with representative examples of this bottoms-up approach in action. He could have included examples from his own city (Howe teaches at Reed College in Portland, Oregon), with its emphasis upon public transportation and discouragement of private automobiles in the central city, and with the serious efforts to infill the old city and resist urban sprawl.

Even more important, especially in light of the 2016 presidential election, would be suggestions on how the bottoms up approach could work in regions of the United States, such as the coal mining states, whose way of life is in the cross hairs of the conflict between the science and politics of global warming.


A new Grand Coulee Dam every 60 days!

October 14, 2015

Third in a Series of on the Rivers of the West

President Kennedy at Hanford's N Reactor

President Kennedy at Hanford’s N Reactor

On April 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy came to Hanford, Washington, to celebrate the dedication of the N Reactor. The ninth production reactor at Hanford and the only one of its kind in the nation, this new reactor was designed to produce plutonium for the defense industry and also to generate electricity.

President Kennedy praised the way that people along this river had changed “the entire history of the world,” especially during “the closing days of the Second World War,” a veiled reference to the bombs that had incinerated Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

While asserting that America needed to maintain its “national strength and national vigor,” he also said that “no one can speak with certainty about whether we shall be able to control this deadly weapon, whether we shall be able to maintain our life and our peaceful relations with other countries.”

When people around the world come to realize “that war is so destructive, so annihilating, so incendiary…it may be possible for us, step by step, to so adjust our relations, to so develop a rule of reason and a rule of law [that] it may be possible for us to find a more peaceful world.”

The president then shifted to the primary topic of his address, which was to describe the way that the generation of electricity by atomic power would lead to new prosperity not only for people nearby, but also for people through the entire nation: “a rising tide lifts all the boats, and as the Northwest United States rises, so does the entire country, so we are glad.”

Kennedy’s speech continued themes that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proclaimed twenty-eight years earlier at the dedication of Boulder (later Hoover) Dam and Lake Mead and seven years later at the dedication of Grand Coulee Dam.

Roosevelt was convinced that these massive public works were unalloyed contributions to the well being of the entire nation. They constructively linked federal and local initiative, political control, and expenditure of financial resources. They transformed rivers so that they no longer ran wastefully to the ocean, but instead did useful work for the people nearby and around the nation.

President Kennedy continued these themes, displaying much the same hubris as his New Deal predecessor had manifested. Despite the fact that the actual history of western development undercut his political ideology, Kennedy spoke as though the continuation of these public works would certainly lead to a world of peace and prosperity for people everywhere.

This future was a way of life in which air conditioning and all other comforts and benefits of a comfortable life would be universally available. The achieving of these goals, Kennedy declared, would require new generating capacity—the equivalent of a new Grand Coulee dam every sixty days.

Kennedy expanded the definition of conservation. The traditional understanding was the determination to protect and not waste what nature has already given us—to “use it well, not to waste water or land, to set aside land and water, recreation, wilderness, and all the rest now so that it will be available to those who come in the future.”

The “newer part of conservation [was] to use science and technology to achieve significant breakthroughs as we are doing today, and in that way to conserve resources which 10 or 20 or 30 years ago may have been wholly unknown.” To accomplish these goals, Kennedy continued, we had to do five things. (1) We had to “use hydro resources to the fullest. “Every drop of water which goes to the ocean without being used for power or used to grow, or being made available on the widest possible basis is a waste.” (2) We had to develop techniques for developing power from coal and oil from shale, mining and harvesting resources from the bottom of the ocean, and of using energy from the sun.

(3) Low-cost atomic power had to be developed since experts were saying that by the end of the century “half of all electric energy generated in the United States will come from nuclear sources.” (4) The electric systems around the country would need to be linked. (5) We must avoid the monopolization of this capacity either by the Federal Government or large combines of private utilities.

The N Reactor generated power for twenty years and now is mothballed. Its successor, the Columbia Generating Station produces one-tenth of the electric produced within the State of Washington.

And who in their right mind can affirm the bankrupt visions that, to use the metaphor provided by Blaine Harden, have killed the Columbia as a river and given it a rebirth as plumbing? [A River Lost, p. 75]


Hubris at Hoover Dam

October 2, 2015
Grand Coulee Dam / Photo by Paul E. Fallon

Grand Coulee Dam During the 2015 Wild Fire Season / Photo by Paul E. Fallon

The most eloquent lines in President Roosevelt’s address at the dedication of Boulder (later renamed Hoover) Dam and Lake Mead (September 30, 1935) eulogized the transformative results of these engineering achievements. Although the President had little reason to see the reverse side of this prophetic vision, his words also expressed the hubris that in ever increasing ways marks our efforts to make nature conform to our human desires.

“We know that, as an unregulated river,” Roosevelt told his admiring audience, “the Colorado added little of value to the region this dam serves.” But with these engineering marvels in place, “an unpeopled, forbidding desert, . . . a cactus-covered waste” will be transformed. Not only will the arid southwest be enriched, but “the national benefits which will be derived from the completion of this project will make themselves felt in every one of the forty-eight states.”

Roosevelt had held this position at least as early as 1920. While campaigning for the vice presidency that year, he had seen the Columbia River and observed that it was practically unused and that all of the territories along its banks had to be “developed by the Nation and for the Nation” (quoted by Blaine Harden in A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia, p. 17).

The first step in that development was the completion of Grand Coulee Dam in 1942. The political and engineering vision of the unalloyed benefits of transformed rivers was best expressed by Woody Guthrie in one of his his three songs about the Columbia. “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea / But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.” As historian James P. Ronda notes, the poet believed that the river had been a “wild and wasted stream” that had been tamed and made beautiful by the dams.

The idea that “the river could ramble and work at the same time,” Ronda writes, was perhaps “the most persistent illusion in river history—that the Columbia could at once be changed and yet remain the same” (Great River of the West: Essays on the Columbia River, p. 87).

This persistent illusion constitutes one false premise that undergirds the vision that Roosevelt and a host of others have engineered into reality. A second false premise is that the wild river had been wasted, useless, of little value to humankind.

Earlier in his essay, Ronda describes the impressive trading system that existed in the Celilo Falls–The Dalles region when early European explorers first arrived along the banks of the Columbia. At the peak trading times, “some three thousand Indians gathered for the rituals of bargain and exchange,” coming from the long reaches of the Columbia River system (p. 78).

Also writing in Great River of the West, William P. Lang reports that at Celilo Falls “native fishers had garnered one-third of their annual caloric needs from the Columbia for thousands of years.” During six seasonal runs they “had caught perhaps as much as 18 million pounds each year” (p. 160).

This rich economic and cultural history was dismissed as meaningless by Roosevelt’s and Guthrie’s assertions that prior to the dams the wild rivers had been wasted. No provision was made at Grand Coulee Dam for fish to pass through on their annual migration back to their spawning grounds, which meant that from then on all salmon runs beyond the dam were obliterated. All of this in the name of taming the river and making it productive for presumably the first time in its history, as if the previous economic and cultural history of the Columbia basin meant nothing.

Lang quotes Richard White, another historian who has written about the fate of the Columbia, that it has become a “virtual river.” Instead of free-flowing artery bearing life to all who venture forth upon it, the great river of the west has become “an organic machine.”

As a native son of the Northwest, who has also lived in the regions served by the Colorado, I must confess my complicity in the desecration of these waterways. I benefit from the prosperity of the western reaches of our nation. I revel in the abundance of electrical power. My constant use of electronic devices is part of the reason why vast data centers are arising along the Columbia, especially in The Dalles, thus mocking the history of this long-time center of native American trade and culture.

Beyond confessing our sins, personal and corporate, what more can we do? Cut back. Simplify. Drive less. Reform other patterns of life. Encourage the removal of dams. Resist further efforts to industrialize the Columbia and its tributaries.

We have to choose which icon will guide our decisions on how to live.

“The trade-off could not be more simply stated,” Lang writes. Dams have become “the contrary icon to salmon, the personification of a damaged environment and altered relationships with the river,” whereas salmon personify “the natural and spiritual river” (p. 161). Which will it be?

To access Paul E. Fallon’s blog on Grand Coulee Dam, click here.


Happy 80th Birthday, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead

September 29, 2015
San Pedro River—Part of the Colorado System

San Pedro River—Part of the Colorado System

Thirty years ago, on September 30, 1935, a month before my fourth birthday, Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam) was dedicated. President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a dedicatory address. Although it was only 2,000 words in length, this speech celebrated the achievement involved in designing and building “the greatest dam in the world” and creating “the largest artificial lake in the world—115 miles long, holding enough water, for example, to cover the State of Connecticut to a depth of ten feet.”

Scarcely a fourth of the way through this address, the President changed direction: “Beautiful and great as this structure is, it must also be considered in its relationship to the agricultural and industrial development and in its contribution to the health and comfort of the people of America who live in the Southwest.”

In the next paragraphs, Roosevelt speaks about “one of the greatest problems of law and of administration to be found in any Government,” which is “to divert and distribute the waters of an arid region, so that there shall be security of rights and efficiency of service” to all of the people who live along the full length of the river and it tributaries and depend upon this water for their livelihood and well being. The President declared that what had been achieved along the Colorado River was inspiring to the entire nation.

He illustrated his declarations by describing devastating floods that had recently swept down the wild river and the bone-dry conditions in California’s Imperial Valley that had resulted in $10,000,000 of crop losses the previous summer because of an unprecedented drought. These conditions, he said, would have been avoided had this dam and reservoir been in place.

Roosevelt applauded the role of the Federal Government throughout this project, including the expenditure of $108,000,000 to build the dam and power houses. He called attention to expenditures by states and municipalities to facilitate the distribution of water and power, including $220,000,000 raised for these purposes by municipalities in Southern California.

The President also celebrated the fact that “throughout our national history we have had a great program of public improvements, and in these past two years all that we have done has been to accelerate that program,” in order to give relief “to several million men and women whose earning capacity had been destroyed by the complexities and lack of thought of the economic system of the past generation.”

Then comes another shift of emphasis. Roosevelt declares that the size of this dam and its impact ought not turn us away from the value of small projects. “Can we say that the great brick high school, costing $2,000,000, is a useful expenditure but that a little wooden school house project, costing five or ten thousand dollars, is a wasteful extravagance? Is it fair to approve a huge city boulevard and, at the same time, disapprove the improvement of a muddy farm-to-market road?”

Roosevelt is clear that in addition to the benefit of these buildings and roads, a further value is that we also “add to the wealth and assets of the Nation. These efforts meet with the approval of the people of the Nation.” He devotes a fourth of his address to detailing the economic benefits to the nation because of these investments of public, especial federal, moneys.

One of the most challenging of his statements, especially in light of political ideology and rhetoric in 2015, is that by this “great national work…we have created the necessary purchasing power to throw in the clutch to start the wheels of what we call private industry” (italics added). If only more people in the political process understood and believed this basic principle of American life!

The unsettling fact of this 80-year celebration is that the well being of the Colorado River and the future possibilities of the life that it has supported for so many years are increasingly precarious. On September 30, 2015, the eve of the anniversary day, a brief “back story” article that I read on-line reported that the water of what was once “the largest artificial lake in the world” has receded so much that St. Thomas, Nevada, a town of 500 that has been covered over by Lake Mead since 1938, is now visible again.

In their book The West Without Water published in 2013, B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roan state that there is “a 50 percent chance that both Lake Mead and Lake Powell could reach ‘dead pool,’ rendering them useless for hydroelectric power or useful water storage as early as 2021” (p. 196).

Happy 80th birthday, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead! Let’s hope that you make it to 90.

Arizona Windmill—Remembering the Way It Used to Be

Arizona Windmill—Remembering the Way It Used to Be


Bringing water to the arid Southwest: William Mulholland as exemplar of success and failure

July 2, 2015

StandifordThroughout human history the American Southwest has been a land where the manipulation of water has allowed the deserts to bloom and support highly concentrated urban areas. Pre-discovery societies succeeded in creating concentrated hydrological societies that survived for long periods of time before over-reaching their capabilities, but the American achievements since the latter part of the nineteenth century have been much grander in scale, both in the technical manipulation of water supplies and in the grandeur of the civilization that has emerged.

The list of cities that manifest this American achievement includes Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Francisco, greater Los Angeles, and San Diego. The greatest splendor, of course, is exhibited by Los Angeles and the cluster of cities that revolve around this urban core.

Although many people participated in the development of the modern American Southwest, William Mulholland stands out. In his biography of this heroic figure, Les Standiford recounts the details of Mulholland’s achievement, but also portrays the tragic possibilities that accompany greatness.

Mulholland spent his entire career working for the Los Angeles Water Company, beginning as a laborer in the late 1880s, soon becoming superintendent. With the city’s population reaching 9,000, he recognized the potential for growth and quickly became convinced that this potential could only be realized if the city could find resources for a vastly increased water supply.

The source that quickly came into view was the Owens Valley more than 200 miles distant in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mulholland concluded that rights to the water could be secured and that an aqueduct could be built that would transport this perpetual stream of water down to the city of Los Angeles, thus assuring its growth far into the future. His clarity of vision, engineering acumen, and political skills enabled him to launch this almost unimaginable project.

On November 5, 1913, following ceremonies at a place called the Cascade, below the Newhall Pass, the wheels were turned that allowed the Sierra water to flow into the city’s water supply system.

The project was never without controversy, which continued after its completion. People in and around Los Angeles, some in high places, opposed the project from the very beginning. Others lived in the towns and cities of the Owens Valley that had been radically changed by all of the real estate, financial, political, and environmental factors that had been involved. This continuing distress, of course, dimmed the sense of achievement that Mulholland and his colleagues could enjoy.

None of this could have prepared them, however, for the disaster that happened during the night of March 12, 1928. Two years earlier the 195-foot high St. Francis Dam had been completed as part of an auxiliary storage system for the water coming from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. The selection of the site for this dam and many of its engineering specifications had been provided by Mulholland himself. After the dam’s completion, he concluded that it was safe despite certain disquieting factors that the operations staff called to his attention.

The dam collapsed, sending a torrent of 12.5 billion gallons of water cascading through San Francisquito Canyon. Some 450 people lost their lives, “a disaster outdone in California history only by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake” (7). This dam’s collapse “is considered to be among the world civil engineering disasters in US history” (245).

In public hearings following the disaster, “Civil Engineer Mulholland was a pitiable figure,” according to some reports. “Questioning had hardly begun when he broke in with the remark, ‘On an occasion like this, I envy the dead’” (247–8).

The jury agreed that there had been serious mistakes by the Los Angeles Water Board and Mulholland himself, but found no evidence of criminal intent and no criminal prosecution took place. He continued working for the water bureau, but retired early in 1929. His remaining years were marked by diminished capabilities and he died on July 22, 1935.

Standiford notes that Mulholland could easily be described as a workaholic, and remembrances of his family seem to confirm that judgment. He then tempers that judgment by saying that “it was not a simple issue in Mulholland’s case. In his eyes, he had been blessed with the opportunity to do work that he loved. If some men dreamed of being free of their work, he looked forward to doing his” (210).

Although the manipulation of water in the desert Southwest has continued for nearly a century since the disaster that concluded Mulholland’s career, signs are pointing to a crisis that threatens the entire system and the civilization that it has supported. Like Mulholland, we have enjoyed this era of great achievements. Could it be that we now need to learn how to face disaster?

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles, by Les Standiford (New York: Collins, 2015). Standiford has written twenty books and novels and is director of the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.


The Twisting Flow of Water

May 28, 2014

Reviewing Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon (HarperCollins, 2010)

Solomon - WaterMy interest in issues related to water has developed during my retirement years. In part, this was because we lived for a time in the desert southwest where golf courses and lush agricultural fields luxuriated despite the aridity of the climate and where archaeological remains testified to the fragility of previous hydrological societies.

My interest in water also developed as a corollary to my activities as an open road cyclist, taking long tours through river systems drained by the Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande in the West and the Potomac and Ohio in the East. The writing on water that I have done has been primarily as a secondary theme within travel narratives based on cycling expeditions.

One of the reasons for giving more sustained attention to water related issues is the growing evidence that climate change has become a serious issue now rather than one that is waiting to happen in another generation. The hydrological systems of the earth are behaving in ways that are outside of our experience. Deluges, droughts, and intense fires are more common and more extreme than they used to be, and they take place simultaneously. Climatic patterns that our civilizations have relied upon are becoming undependable.

A second reason is my interest in reflecting upon the meaning of these changes from a theological and ethical point of view. Current literature tends to focus on factual descriptions: where water is found, how contemporary societies are using it, and changes that are taking place in the availability and use of water. As long as we focus on description, it is possible to reach broad agreement on water in the current global economy and political scene.

A more difficult challenge is to agree on evaluations of how well the hydrological systems are working and prospects for both the near and longer term futures. More difficult still are the challenges of agreeing on the causes of the hydrological challenges now confronting the people of the world and determining courses of action that we ought to be taking.

The first step in moving the discussion forward is to recognize the varied roles that water has played in the development of human civilization—water for drinking and cleansing, water as a means of exercising power and developing wealth, water as the enabling agent for urban society and also the source of some of the most urgent problems facing these societies, water as the substance upon which everything else seems to depend.

This is where Steven Solomon’s 500-page book Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization is the very thing we need. In a remarkably comprehensive, concise, and compelling manner, this journalist, who publishes in major American media, describes “the twisting flow of water” (quoting from a statement by Daniel Yergin on the book jacket).

In his prologue, Solomon summarizes the major themes of the book: (1) Control and manipulation of water has been a pivotal axis of power and human achievement throughout history. (2) Preeminent societies have invariably exploited their water resources in ways that were more productive and unleashed larger supplies than in slower adapting societies. (3) Water challenges on an epic scale are unfolding today. (4) The societies that find the most innovative responses to these crises will most likely come out as winners, while the others will fade behind. (5) Civilization also will be shaped by water’s inextricable and deep interdependencies with energy, food, and climate change.

The book is filled with factual information, but the facts are presented in a strong narrative manner rather than in a technical manner. Solomon depends more upon historians than geologists as the sources of information and insight. Read more. . . . Twisting Flow of Water