For example, the misuse of water. This spring PBS ran the scary two-part docu by Ken Burns on the Dust Bowl, that profound human tragedy in the 1930s American West caused by the confluence of climate patterns and bad human management of land and water. It finally ended when FDR's New Deal helped to reform farming practices, and then the rains came again.
But the docu also mentions that the same area most affected by the Dust Bowl was backsliding. The lesson of more modest demand on fragile resources ended when the High Plains Aquifer was discovered and tapped, providing water that created agricultural bounty and expansion. But, the docu warned, when the acquifer is depleted, even more people would be devastated than during the Dust Bowl.
Now it may be starting to happen. The New York Times reports from Kansas: The land, known as Section 35, sits atop the High Plains Aquifer, a waterlogged jumble of sand, clay and gravel that begins beneath Wyoming and South Dakota and stretches clear to the Texas Panhandle. The aquifer’s northern reaches still hold enough water in many places to last hundreds of years. But as one heads south, it is increasingly tapped out, drained by ever more intensive farming and, lately, by drought.
Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers. And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.
It is a "slow-motion crisis," the Times says, but also a completely predictable one. As predictable as the final draining of oil and other fossil fuels, already begun (or we wouldn't be trying to wrench more fuel out of tar sands and fracking) and just as inevitable.
Now deep in drought, the American West is coming up against its limits, which most often means water. For example, as this report indicates, the Colorado River, which supports some 40 million people over several states, is already "reduced to a trickle" in some places. While the discussion underway in the region involves management and conservation (more efficient use of water for agriculture) one participant in this NPR interview noted, And I think just to add on to that, what I think I don't hear very often is: Have we reached the carrying capacity for the Southwest in terms of water? And I don't hear people raise that.
I was once involved in a meeting that includes some big Colorado developers as well as political and civic leaders in Colorado Springs. I listened to one developer at dinner talk about all the expansion plans, and I raised the question of whether there would be enough water. He looked startled, but recovered to call me a visionary who cut right to the essence, because it's a pretty damn dry place all right. But clearly nobody making the decisions was thinking about it.
That was about twenty-five years ago. And they still aren't. But if this drought is part of a long-term pattern caused by global heating, rather than just intensified and made a bit longer by global heating, then everybody is going to be thinking about it, and maybe even wondering why it slipped their minds in the first place.