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State Change

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The Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico (and presumably Chihuahua as well, but the Mexican side of the drought is completely ignored by most environmental journalists) is undergoing what ecologists call “state change,” where the grasslands are declining into a permanent scrub desert that radically transforms the ecosystem. This has resulted from a combination of climate change and overgrazing. The overgrazing create enormous ecological degradation, but that could be restored at least to some extent under the old ecological conditions. Now, it seems highly unlikely.

The future of human habitation in the American southwest is quite unclear with a non-zero possibility that cities from Denver to Las Vegas to Phoenix to El Paso could be more or less abandoned over the next century because the environment (specifically water supplies) simply won’t be able to carry this many people in those places. This would be catastrophic to the economy, although perhaps not more so than the near certainty that Miami is doomed and probably New Orleans as well.

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  • c u n d gulag

    NY City may also not survive rising ocean levels – at least not without some significant building of dykes, and other measures that are above my pay grade.

  • Brian

    Public land grazing in the western United States is an environmental and economic travesty.

    The federal government subsidizes this practice for what appears to be the sole purpose of perpetuating a sort of Victorian Era agriculture theme park.

    The western states aren’t really large cattle producers, but they are certainly perceived that way.

    http://www.statisticbrain.com/beef-cattle-production-statistics/

    The “state change” has been occurring for a long time in the Rocky Mountain states, as the cattle on public lands destroy the grasslands, the only plants that can survive are heavy brush.

    Combine extremely detrimental land use policies of the BLM with climate change, and you have the makings of a really big desert.

  • Halloween Jack

    A Cadillac Desert, one might say.

    • Coconino

      +1

  • PeakVT

    …with a non-zero possibility that cities from Denver to Las Vegas to Phoenix to El Paso could be more or less abandoned…

    It’s possible, but it’s fairly improbable given how much water in those areas goes to non-domestic uses. The flow of the major rivers won’t go to zero even if it declines dramatically. Ultimately, low value-uses (ag) will be forced out, though the adjustment will be painful due to the crazy-quilt of water laws in this country. A counter-productive detour through various market experiments will lengthen the process substantially.

    • I agree that this scenario is likely.

    • “Ultimately, low value-uses (ag) will be forced out”

      The problem is that ranchers and farmers have some of the strongest legal (state and federal) claims to the water, and it’s not entirely clear that they could transfer that usage (for cash or something else) so that, say, the Bellagio fountain could continue to operate. And that assumes that they want to. Presumably there are plenty of big agricultural players who would be happy to see the tourists go so that they could return to running states like Nevada and Arizona as a joint venture with the mining companies.

      Western water is fucked beyond even experts ability to comprehend, but I don’t think many of them expect Vegas or Phoenix to be there in anything like their current size fifty years from now.

      • L2P

        It’s not even a question for most of the rights. The water rights have to be used on the land to which they’re attached or they can’t be drawn. It’s a really bad situation for urbanism in the Southwest.

    • Nathanael

      Denver’s far enough north to survive. But Phoenix is in a *very* bad place: the temperatures are likely to hit “can’t cool off by sweating” levels and it’s likely to be completely impossible to live there.

  • Johnny Sack

    Honestly? I love Santa Fe and would live there if I could. It’s beautiful.

    But what does the southwest do for us? Phoenix is just a massive water hog. Arizona-what has the state ever done for us? And this isn’t a political thing, it’s a serious question. No valuable natural resources to speak of. Just a massive water hog of a state that we should return to Mexico. Arizona is a useless state.

    • sparks

      Didn’t Arizona have copper and silver mines once?

      • PeakVT
      • Coconino

        Yes, still is, as well as other mineral extraction. Not to mention power supply (partially from Navajo Nation resources, the sale of which is desperately needed for Nation coffers), and some of the most magnificent natural wonders within the US borders. Hello!!!!

    • Eric k

      Yeah most cities are in logical places, near a river, a port, etc. I think Phoenix is just an accident of history because it was a convenient rest stop for the Pony Express and Vegas is where the mob happened to put a Casino

      • Thlayli

        … Vegas is where the mob happened to put a Casino

        They put it there because:

        1) gambling had been legal in Nevada for decades

        2) there was a direct highway to LA, what is now I-15.

        • Eric k

          1) Right but Nevada is a big state could have been anywhere.

          2) true but that s kind of chicken and the egg, there are lots of old highways highways, Vegas is why that one became a freeway,

          • Anonymous

            IIRC the selection of the location for Las Vegas had more than a little to do with the proximity to the recently-built Boulder (now Hoover) Dam.

            The downfall of the desert cities in Arizona, southern Nevada, and southern California will start when the dammed lakes like Powell and Mead dry up, which they are well on the way to doing. You can still live in the desert folks, but forget lawns, golf courses, and outdoor swimming pools.

            But even then most of them will hang on until the really big crisis – when some catacalysmic event forces severe rationing of electricity. When that happens expect a mix of mass solar installations and mass migrations northward and eastward.

            • TribalistMeathead

              Las Vegas, NV existed prior to the Hoover Dam as a railroad town, though I’m pretty sure the thousands of men working on the Hoover Dam contributed to its first population explosion.

      • scott g

        The Salt River was navigable when Phoenix was first built (as a European town).

  • Cody

    My biggest take away from visiting Juarez/El Paso was the Rio Grande.

    Not so Grande anymore…

    There wasn’t a drop of water in it for all of February. It was terrifying. Nothing like driving over a bridge that just goes over sand.

    • True, but the idea of the Rio Grande was ever actually big by the standards of a wet climate isn’t accurate. But yes, definitely all the agricultural irrigation has decimated it.

      • Coconino

        Rumor has it that a famous author told the NM Guv way back when that he ought to irrigate the Rio Grande.

  • Jose Arcadio Buendia

    Much more likely is that a series of massive water diversions and other infrastructure is built, including a lot of desal.

    • I don’t think you are going to see, say, water from the Mississippi diverted. Everyone needs their water. There’s not really surplus water anywhere at this point. Take it from the Mississippi, Columbia, or Great Lakes, and shipping interests are going to go ballistic, not to mention local residents.

      • Brian

        But up here in AK, we already solved this:

        http://www.princeton.edu/~ota/disk1/1992/9203/9203.PDF

        An undersea pipeline from our Southeastern Alaska’s Rainforests to SoCal.

        Why won’t the feds fund these great ideas up here.

        No underwater pipeline.
        No bridge to Gravina (a.k.a. Nowhere)
        No tunnel to Russia.

    • Nathanael

      Nobody’s going to give their water up. The Great Lakes states and provinces have already formed a pact, not to let any more of it out of the basin (there’s a weird special exception for Chicago for historical reasons), and anyone who tries to is facing the political fight of their lives.

  • RepubAnon

    It’s a pity more people don’t pay attention to the Laws of Thermodynamics – especially the First Law: conservation of mass/energy. In short, we can’t create more matter – we can only change its form.

    This has implications in the systems affecting our lives. There’s only so much rain falling every year. Once a thirsty population starts using more fresh water each year than falls from the sky as rain, sooner or later the taps run dry.

    Desalinization runs up against large energy costs. There’s only so much coal, oil, etc. to burn (that pesky First Law again). It takes tens of thousands of years (and the proper geological conditions) to make more coal and/or oil from carbon dioxide via photosynthesis. Where will the energy for large desalinization plants come from – solar? Nuclear?

    The American Dream was kindled by the misperception that resources were unlimited (once we took them away from the original owners). Alas, the physical laws of the universe state that resources are finite, and we’re close enough to hitting those limits that we’re starting to feel the pinch. Thanks to the anti-population control crowd, the wars for natural resources are looming on the horizon.

    • Vance Maverick

      There’s only so much rain falling every year.

      Not actually a law, whether of thermodynamics or meteorology.

  • Denverite

    I’d be hesitant to equate Denver with the rest of those cities. It gets much more precipitation than any of those cities (15.6 inches on average, with El Paso the next highest at 9.5 or so), plus the South Platte system carries a lot of snow melt into the area.

    • Water problems up your way are pretty massive though. Sure you get more direct precip, but of course it’s not nearly enough for the massive sprawl.

      • Denverite

        The biggest water “problem” in Colorado is the interstate compacts. California gets more of Colorado’s water than does Colorado itself (roughly 4.5 million acre-feet vs. roughly 3.5 million acre-feet if memory serves), and Kansas comes close to that. The next main problem is the fighting over aquifer access between the far flung suburbs (which are as much Ft. Collins and Colorado Springs suburbs as they are Denver suburbs) and agricultural interests.

        So yes, “Denver” (really certain parts of the Front Range that may or may not be Denver suburbs) has water problems, but it’s mostly because the state has agreed to give the majority of the Western Slope-originating water to other states, and then the eastern part of the state uses a lot of the underground water to grow crops to ship elsewhere.

        • L2P

          By “Colorado’s Water” you don’t mean the Colorado River, do you? Because that’s not “Colorado’s Water.” That’s largely someone else’s water.

          • Denverite

            I mean (largely) the water that results from the snowpack in Colorado mountains that melts and then flows in in-state streams and tributories and rivers and feeds the Colorado River at the western edge of the state. That’s Colorado water — water that the state has agreed to give to other states (mostly because otherwise the feds would have required it) to be sure, but it’s still Colorado water.

            • Denverite

              I should clarify here that I don’t mean it’s Colorado’s water after it leaves the state. I mean that it’s Colorado’s water while it’s in the state. The main reason why some of the Front Range is having water issues is that Colorado can’t use that water within its state boundaries to meet its water needs because it’s agreed (again, or else face a federal mandate) to let the water flow on to other western states.

              • Coconino

                Inter-basin transfers are not very popular with West-Slopers. I think they’d rather give it to AZ than Denver metro…

    • L2P

      You realize Southern California gets 13.5 inches of rain a year, right?

      Denver will be just fine – if Greater Denver loses half its population. Otherwise, there’s going to be a problem.

      • Denverite

        One, I never said that Denver had a lot more rainfall than Southern Cal. I said that it had a lot more rainfall than El Paso, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Which it does.

        Two, this ignores the snow melt in the Western Slope and the aquifers in the eastern part of the state.

        Two, what do you mean by “Greater Denver”? Does that include Boulder? Broomfield? Loveland? Castle Rock? Idaho Springs? Or do you broadly mean the Front Range? Because if it’s the last of these, I agree that water is going to be a problem. But that’s not “Denver.” It’s a massive stretch of urban development stretching from Pueblo to Cheyenne.

        • L2P

          Uh, yes. You can’t say, “Oh, there’s snowpack” and then ignore ALL THE PEOPLE THAT WILL BE USING IT.

          But good luck on your impeding desertification. I’m sure it will be fine.

  • Helmut Monotreme

    Where will people move to? If water shortages really do make the southwest a ghost town, and sink most of Florida and coastal Louisiana and Texas, is there a consensus of where their populations will land?

    • James E. Powell

      Is this where cities like Detroit & Cleveland get their second life?

      • Denverite

        I’ve told people before that with global warming and the water supply of the Great Lakes, Detroit or Cleveland or Buffalo or Milwaukee real estate wouldn’t be the worst long term investment these days.

        • Anonymous

          You do realize, don’t you, that the long term value of the US military will be invading, occupying and taking permanent ownership of Canada. The carbon fields of Alberta can be used to keep feeding the fossil fuel habit as long as possible. Manitoba and Saskatchewan – already huge crop-growing provinces – will be the break basket of the next century. Ontario and parts east will be the population centers – I mean, centres – with the maritimes finally seeing some serious population growth. British Columbia will be the prime destination for vacations.

          You can get an early start by learning French – if you can pass a French test you basically have a free pass to residence in Quebec.

          Alas, the Canadians/Canadiens are completely unready for what is going to hit them by mid-century. And their current incompetent, minority-voted-in reich wing government will only make them even less ready.

          • Rhino

            As a Canadian, I think you’re probably quite correct.

            Except for one thing. No way on earth bilingualism survives American annexation of Canada. Not the slightest chance.

            • Halloween Jack

              Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents might have something to say about that.

    • Ted

      As a Michigander I tell people that this is what’s going to get the selling price of my house back up to what I paid for it: when everyone in all those places is looking for somewhere that’s not a scalding desert and hasn’t been eroded away by the ocean, they’re going to come here. But I don’t have any evidence to back that up.

    • joe from Lowell

      I’m not saying people will flock to the plenty-wet northeast, but they sure won’t be moving from here to the Sun Belt the way they have been.

  • Murc

    What I’m looking forward to is the day that the various states and municipalities that are furthest upstream on the Colorado River just say “Fuck all y’all, this is our water and we’re keeping it. The rest of you can make do as best you can. Whatcha gonna do, send in the Army?”

    (Of course, there’s a non-zero chance the army would, in fact, be sent in.)

    • L2P

      Well, that happened. Kind of. The National Guard was called out. It was a huge dose of stupid that no one wants to repeat.

      • firefall

        I’m not sure there is any level of stupid beyond the reach of the current Republican Party in some of those states.

    • Denverite

      Just FYI, but a decades-long case between Colorado and Kansas over a similar issue just came to a close a couple of years ago. If memore serves, the Colorado AG himself argued in before SCOTUS.

    • Coconino

      I must say, many of the inter-basin transfers require Clean Water Act Section 404 permitting, which is a Department if the Army authority. That is to say, they Army has already been called in, in a fashion.

  • Epicurus

    When/if your dire predictions come to pass, cue a massive effort by the Republicans to blame it all on Obama, “Liberals” and atheism. I swear, there is nothing these rats won’t sink to. It will be a sad day, with lots of “toljyas” but it will not change the fact that many great cities in this country will soon be uninhabitable. Thanks, climate-change deniers, heckuva job!

    • Helmut Monotreme

      They will be nearly uninhabitable, but they won’t be uninhabited. Just like Detroit or sections of New Orleans, post Katrina, there will be people who hang on long after getting out is a good idea. Of course when those cities are a bankrupt, depopulated hellscape of decay and crime, conservatives will claim it was crime and corruption that caused them to flee, not the collapse of the environment. Don’t expect them to learn any lessons from a totally predictable environmental spanking.

    • joe from Lowell

      The Democrats are diverting our water to LA, so “they” can take marathon showers instead of getting a job.

      Yup, I can totally see that.

  • There will always be a port city as near to the mouth of the Mississippi as is practical.

    • BigHank53

      No guarantee the mouth of the Mississippi will co-operate, though. The Atchafalaya Diversion Structure nearly failed a few years back; enough rainfall and there’s fuck-all we can do about it. Eventually, the cost of maintaining the diversions and levees will be higher than that of reconstructing the ports and refineries.

      • Nathanael

        With sea level rise, the mouth of the Mississippi is likely to be north of Baton Rouge.

        • Nathanael

          Well, that’s by 2100, though. Somewhere north of Morgan City in the meantime.

  • One of the Blue

    Y’know, it isn’t just the west. Atlanta’s been running short of water for the past several years.

    • sparks

      I’m waiting for a crooked developer to sell homes (or better the idea for homes) in a place he knows there’s going to be no water for.

      • Coconino

        You’re waiting? It’s already been done all over the SW, for many, many years.

    • Halloween Jack

      Hence a different sort of War Between the States, which I believe has come up on LGM before.

  • scott g

    The Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico (and presumably Chihuahua as well, but the Mexican side of the drought is completely ignored by most environmental journalists) is undergoing what ecologists call “state change,”

    In truth, if you want to see what this state change looks like, a nice drive from Chihuahua City to Nuevo Laredo is highly instructive. You’ll see about a thousand rocks for every piece of vegetation.

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