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

Bicycling in America’s wet-dry world

December 20, 2013

West Without WaterThe West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow, by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. 

I lived my earliest years in the dry land farming region of the Palouse country, south of Spokane, followed by growing up years in the marine climate west of the Cascades. After schooling in Indiana, I lived in the hot, dry South San Joaquin Valley of California and, after retirement, in the desert Southwest near Phoenix. For a decade now, I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest on the rainy side of the mountains. The wet-dry, hot-cool alternations are basic to my way of experiencing the world.

So, too, is the geographical and hydrological importance of the three river systems that penetrate the American West: The Columbia-Snake-Willamette in the north, the Sacramento-American-Kings-San Joaquin in Central California, and the Colorado-Salt-San Pedro-Gila through the canyon lands and deserts of Arizona and southern California.

These rivers serve as the organs that connect the dry (usually hot) and wet (usually cool) elements of the western regions of the United States. They also shape the roads and highways for my cycling endeavors. At home, I’m always riding along the Columbia and its tributaries and whenever I’m back in the southwest, the dwindling streams of the Colorado determine my routes.

In general, I’ve always been aware of two features of this part of the world. The first is that despite the stability of wet and dry as the basic character of the climate, there are occasional anomalies. Sometimes, the unusual periods are the normal features played out to the extreme: far more rain than usual or longer and hotter periods than seem to be normal. At other times, however, the weather seems to reverse the climate: wet lands become dry and constant rain turns dry lands to wet.

Another factor has always been evident. We human beings interact with the meteorological and hydrological features of the natural world. We adapt to wet and dry and to hot and cold. For hundreds of years, we have been able to engineer systems that allow us to reshape how nature functions. Irrigated agriculture is one of the most persistent and important elements of the engineered life. Urban civilization is another.

What we easily overlook is that our engineering successes last only for a time before forces greater than our own overpower us and the wet-dry alternation takes control once again.

Both as citizen of the West and open-road cyclist, I devote some of my time to learning about these climatic realities. My list of books-read in this area of study keeps growing. While I am generally aware of the history of wetness-dryness in the American West, what has been lacking is the longer perspective—a fact-based, narrative history of water in the West and how it has impacted human activity in this part of the world. There are so many questions, some of them dealing with time on a vast scale.

When and why were the southwestern deserts swampy lands lush with greenery and life? How could the ancient ones develop such elaborate civilizations? What caused their rapid disappearance? How could desert people in pre-discovery times live such well-nourished and seemingly leisurely lives? How could California’s arid central valley sustain lakes and swamps as recently as 150 years ago?

Willamette RiverSome of the questions are of more immediate importance to us. Will the technologies that we have developed enable people like us to continue our current way of life in the dry places of the West? Is western climate cyclical? And if it is, how long are the cycles? How extreme are the oscillations? What changes in climate should we anticipate during the early decades of the twenty-first century? What can we do now that will help us make ready for the future?

The book that is helping me understand these factors more fully is The West Without Water by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam. Ingram is professor of earth and planetary science and geography at the University of California (Berkeley) and Malamud-Roam is associate environmental planner and biologist at Caltrans and visiting professor with her co-author at the University of California.

The subtitle of their book offers a summary of its contents: What Past Floods, Droughts, and other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow. The publisher’s blurb on the book jacket gives a more complete synopsis:

“The authors show that, although the Western states have temporarily buffered themselves from harsh climatic swings by building dams and reservoirs and by making other changes to the natural landscape, they may be unprepared for the effects of climate changes that are occurring now and may continue for hundreds of years into the future. The authors argue that it is time to face the realities of the past and prepare for a future in which fresh water may be less reliably available.”

There are many things to observe and reflect upon as I bicycle along the rivers of my part of the western world. The West Without Water is one of them.