American Southwest: The Dust Bowl & The Burn Belt


Fellow blogger Geoff Manaugh at BLDG BLOG picked up on a curious phenomenon, the increasingly common brush fires around Los Angeles. So common in the U.S. Southwest these days that the locals don't give it a second thought. According to the latest computer models and reports from the IPCC the drought that has gripped the Southwest for seven years is not a temporary phenomenon- but the new climate pattern. Decreasing precipitation in the subtropics will continue to leave the ground dry, highly susceptible to fires, and could decrease crop yields by as much as 50%. Devastating water shortages are expected. Are we ready for the dry years to come?

"If we continue to draw down water to maintain our lifestyle with its exorbitant use of water, we can effectively turn a hundred-year drought into a millennium-level drought, which far worsens the community and ecosystem consequences. "

Said Thomas Whitham, who directs the Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research at Northern Arizona University. But despite the lack of water, the Southwest region including Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, are among the fastest growing states in the U.S. As mentioned in Treehugger posts past -Las Vegas is a prime example. A city that gets all of its water from the Colorado, has experienced a 25% drop in available water due to lack of snow fall in the Rocky Mountains.

"We get about four inches of rain a year on average, it is a desert."

said Scott Huntley of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. But it isn't the casino's in Las Vegas that are the largest consumers, it is the golf courses and lawns.

"Lawns are ridiculous in the desert. We pay two dollars for every square foot of lawn that's removed (as an incentive). The culture is changing... People accept that we live in a desert."

Huntley said.

Beyond Vegas, the lion's share of water in the Southwest goes to agriculture, estimated between 80-90%. As water decreases, so will the agriculture output of these regions. The most devastating aspect of this drought is that it is not only taking place in the U.S., but around the world in subtropical areas. With dire warnings of food and water shortages, massive brush fires, and conflicts over available resources mounting, it seems odd that people are flocking to a city in the desert.

"Agriculture will disappear so water can flow to growing urban areas," predicted Karl Flessa, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona. "It's already happening...As we say here, 'water flows uphill to money and power'"

[Image: Photo by Kim Johnson Flodin/Associated Press, via the New York Times]
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