'Cadillac Desert' withstands the test of time and technology

Dec 13, 2010

In 1986, Marc Reisner published "Cadillac Desert: The American West and its disappearing water," a foundational work about the long-term environmental costs of U.S. western state's water projects and land development. It sounded an alarm about the direction of the American West and how it was using its most precious resource. Now it all appears to becoming true.

Researchers applying modern scientific tools and mapping technologies, unavailable during Reisner's time, find his conclusions for the most part to be accurate and scientifically correct. As a result, current water practices are not sustainable and many dramatic initiatives will be needed to correct the current unsustainable path the West is on.

In a paper published in the Dec. 14, 2010, Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a research team led by John Sabo, an Arizona State University associate professor in the School of Life Sciences, confirms Reisner's assertions of the illusion of sustainability and ongoing water scarcity in the modern day American West.

"Reclaiming freshwater sustainability in the Cadillac Desert," is one of eight papers in a special section of PNAS. The special feature explores the challenges presented by the 21st century drought compared with earlier in the Southwest, and analyzes the impact of on the water supply.

"Cadillac Desert was prescient, published before a comprehensive analysis like this new study was possible," said Stephanie Hampton, deputy director of the National Center for & Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Using innovative approaches to scientific synthesis, Sabo and his colleagues provide a rich understanding of the status of Western water, and additional incentive to pursue the vision for sustainability that Cadillac Desert originally inspired in so many of us."

At the core of their analysis, Sabo and his colleagues applied the best available tools to data on water, soil, salt, dams, fish and crop yields. "Our data and analyses confirm with numbers and maps what Reisner deftly described with words," Sabo said.

Some of the primary findings are:

  • Currently, the desert Southwest uses 76 percent of its total surface water to support its population. This will rise to 86 percent with a doubling of urban population (expected in 50 to 100 years). Sustainable balance for the region is achieved when 40 percent of total surface water is used.
  • Salt, which results from the application of large quantities of water to grow drought intolerant food crops on desert farmlands, has likely caused about $2.5 billion in reductions in crop revenues in the Western U.S.
  • The water footprints of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix are the top three in the U.S. The footprint of Los Angeles alone is larger the seven largest eastern U.S. cities (including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.)
"California is arguably the most important farmland in North America," Sabo said. "But the water needed to support California agriculture (which is exported as food products to the rest of the country) is at odds with healthy populations of freshwater fish like salmon.

"Can we have salmon and tomatoes on the same table," he asks. "Something will have to give. We may have to embrace increases in the current rock bottom prices for water and high quality produce or policies that discourage rapid urban population growth and expansion unless we are willing to let go of the idea of healthy rivers, coastal waters and a viable salmon fishery in California."

Sabo and his team used advanced technologies to come to their conclusions. Geographical information systems, distributed hydrological models and innovative methods to quantify human and water footprints were used by the team to dissect patterns of freshwater unsustainability in the western U.S.

"We found that many of the most rapidly growing cities and most important croplands in the U.S. are precisely in those western arid lands incapable of supporting them with regionally generated stream flow," Sabo said.

To reclaim sustainability in the Cadillac Desert, the team suggests several important and tough measures. One is aimed at lowering the huge amount of surface water required to sustain the region's population.

"We suggest an initially modest target of a 16 percent reduction (to 60 percent total) in the fraction of stream flow withdrawn," the researchers state. This alone would require the seven states that make up the region to do several things they have yet to do, including improving urban water use efficiency, implementing a desalinization system by coastal cities, improvements in land-use practices that minimize erosion and sediment infilling of the region's reservoirs and implementing modified crop portfolios that include only salt tolerant and cash crops.

"The water crisis in the West is a regional one," Sabo said. "This suggests that local conservation efforts (shorter showers, banning lawns, installing a gray-water recycling systems) are necessary but not sufficient for a solution. Regional and national policy changes are called for," he added.

"The cards are stacked high against freshwater sustainability in the West," Sabo added. "Something will have to give, and it likely will be the price of water and high quality produce. If water were priced appropriately (by market forces or policy mandates), we would become much more efficient with water use in cities and on farms, and we would likely do agriculture completely differently than we do it now in the Western U.S."

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Caliban
4 / 5 (4) Dec 13, 2010
And yet, we still hear the screechings of those who would prevent birth control, abortion, or realistic sex-education programs, while at the same time preaching the unregulated freemarket is the solution to all our problems, as the water resources of California and other states are PRIVATIZED, and developers buy up cheap land lacking in local water sources to build upon, and then tie in to the municipal or county water supply(which are more and more privately-owned), so that customers have to pay ever higher prices for ever-decreasing supply, not to mention all the costs of infrastructure maintenance, while ownership stuffs offshore bank accounts with their ill-gotten gains.

And these problems are still to be addressed.

Unfortunately for all of us, no real ameliorative action will be taken until the whole system collapses -if then- by which time, of course, it will be too late.

rwinners
3 / 5 (6) Dec 13, 2010
The first thing to be done is to ration water on an occupant basis. That is, x number of gallons per day per person in a residence at y price. Water used above that ration would be priced at a severe premium. That would be the end of eastern landscaping of western deserts. This alone would aleviate the western water shortage.
Municipalities could still maintain green parks for those in need of a grass 'fix'.
But then... I agree with Caliban. Nothing of substance will be done until it too late.
Jonseer
3.7 / 5 (6) Dec 14, 2010
Farming/agriculture uses 80% of all the water used in California, Domestic/home use and Industry make up the 20%.

This raises the obvious question, why are they first focusing on cutting back on water used in the home?
Why especially because many urban areas in CA long ago implemented water saving programs. Residents in LA thanks to the forward planning of its water dept. a century ago, rarely run short of water supplies, but even there residents will practice water conservation, because they hear about the water issues 24/7.

If this study were a serious impartial one, the first people to cut back would be farmers, by ensuring their often dirt canals were lined to stop leakage, and adopt drip irrigation instead of the field flooding many still prefer because it's so much easier and the subsidized water doesn't encourage conservation.

All in all, this Sounds like a study which the results were bought and paid for BEFORE the study was done.
pathetic.
Raveon
3 / 5 (4) Dec 14, 2010
Change the word water in this story to climate and you will have an approximation of a future article on warnings of global warming. After it's too late and the naysayers who have stopped preventative measures have slunk off to their holes to avoid responsibility.
thingumbobesquire
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 14, 2010
NAWAPA has been on the books since the sixties. This article's premise is bogus.
Raveon
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 14, 2010
And yet, we still hear the screechings of those who would prevent birth control, abortion, or realistic sex-education programs, while at the same time preaching the unregulated freemarket is the solution to all our problems, as the water resources of California and other states are PRIVATIZED, and developers buy up cheap land lacking in local water sources to build upon, and then tie in to the municipal or county water supply(which are more and more privately-owned), so that customers have to pay ever higher prices for ever-decreasing supply, not to mention all the costs of infrastructure maintenance, while ownership stuffs offshore bank accounts with their ill-gotten gains.

And these problems are still to be addressed.

Unfortunately for all of us, no real ameliorative action will be taken until the whole system collapses -if then- by which time, of course, it will be too late.



Yes, our weakness is that we evolved from reacting and have never learned to prevent first.
A2G
2.8 / 5 (8) Dec 14, 2010
Jonseer,

You are really going to upset some people here if you unfairly bring LOGIC into the equation.

We need to keep the focus on how evil man is and how we live so wastefully in the cities. Don't tell us about the farmers irriagating like they have for the last 100 years with very little improvement in effiency at all. We all know it's the fault of the people in the cities who have been rationing water for years.

Then you dare to accuse scienctists of being dishonest...

Again, please stop using LOGIC. Not fair.
Bog_Mire
4.3 / 5 (6) Dec 14, 2010
farmers indeed do seem exempt from practising water-wise techniques; in fact are encouraged to produce crops by whatever means necessary because in the western world we no longer grow food for feeding ourselves, we grow dividends for shareholders and futures speculators.
A2G
1.7 / 5 (6) Dec 14, 2010
To paraphrase some posters here.

It's all over..There is no hope..We are out of water..The temperature of the earth is out of control because of mankind..

Might as well give up.

Or we could apply simple logic and all of your delusions go away. Thank God you guys are not in control. There are technical solutions on the way.

See what Jonseer wrote above..Simple logic to attack the real issues and not your delusions and all will be fine. The water issue is with the farm iirigation in California. Just drive through the San Jaoquin Valley in Central California and for at least 100 miles you will see farm crops flooded with water. Only about 5% of that water goes to the actual plants. The rest evaporates or ends up wasted otherwise. So 75% of the water in California just evaporates into the air.

I am sick of these biased unscientific studies parading as science. Then fools fall for it.
Caliban
5 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2010
What a couple of you fail to realize is that a handful of large Farmers/Developers privately own and control the public resource commonly referred to as "water", and that, therefore, it is very difficult to regulate(in terms of distribution) or to implement regional use planning to share it out in any equitable -much less sustainable way.

You are right, however, in that the problem isn't to be blamed solely on city-slickers or clodhoppers- it is distributed over everyone, and exacerbated by private ownership -without even getting into the climate change angle.
Infogleaner
1 / 5 (2) Dec 14, 2010
We've been building aqueducts with great sucess for thousands of years. Why not build more? I'm sure Canada would sell us water for a fair price.

Look at all the fresh water that runs directly into the ocean. Why not capture the water at river mouths before it's lost?

The biggest impediment a solution is people who don't want one. They want to capitalize on problems as a way to control the lives of others. Look at how Northern California dictates Southern California water needs. They put the delta smelt above the livelihood and well being of millions of people. They grow rice north of Sacramento, (I saw this with my own eyes) and tell the people of the San Joaquin let their farms return to desert.

It takes a real hatred of humanity to be a hard core environmentalist.
GSwift7
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 16, 2010
Look at all the fresh water that runs directly into the ocean. Why not capture the water at river mouths before it's lost?


The Colorado River, where the majority of the water in the region they are talking about comes from, actually has zero discharge at times. They are already sucking every drop of water from that river system already (that varies with seasons though).

I once lived in the medium size town of St. Joseph Missouri. My father was on the water board because his company (glue manufacturing) used a substantial % of the city water supply. He found that the city was using a water treatment plant with 100 year old technology and the cost of maintaining that equipment was actually more than the cost of building a new modern facility. They built the new plant the following year, increasing supply. Many places suffer from stupidity in terms of water use strategy. It's usually low on the pecking order of priorities, and most city managers don't have a clue about water.
Jimee
1 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2010
Everyone knows the world can accommodate at least 50,000,000,000 people comfortably, because god gave us dominion over the earth and we can poison it anyway we want. It's god's will, after all.
GSwift7
1 / 5 (2) Dec 16, 2010
I hate to agree with Caliban, but it's usually not a priority until it's a problem.

On the other hand, this story is part of a huge barrage of stories all being released at the same time, and all focused on this issue in some way. I'm not sure what the real issue is, but I suspect some kind of vote or budget decision is coming. I'm not sure what the University has at stake here, but it's clear that there is something motivating this campaign other than concern about water supply.

The slant of all the articles towards domestic water use rather than agricultural water use is suspicious and may point towards whatever is motivating them. I'm sure it wouldn't take much digging on the local news web sites to figure it out. Has anyone here looked, so that I don't have to do work someone else has already done?

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