Review of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest

Debuys:  “If one were to write a survey of all the instances in the history of civilization when societies accepted difficult medicine in order to spare their descendants worse pain in the future, it would make a very short book.”

by Gerald R. Rising

Williams DeBuys has written what I consider the most frightening book of this century. In A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford, 2011), he describes a situation already out of control with an ever-worsening future projected. Writing beautifully (which only makes what he says still more scary), DeBuys places the current status of the Southwest in historical context, brings to bear not only the research of academics but also the experiences of affected individuals, and reorganizes masses of data to present them in terms we can (too) easily understand.

This is a book about ever increasing levels of CO2 and higher temperatures; of forest fires, insect scourges and dust storms; of population pressure and power brown-outs in seven western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. But the deeper focus is on water, or more appropriately the absence thereof.

There is much to say about this book, but I will deal here with just one aspect: water in the Colorado River basin, water that is stored and managed for downstream human use in Lakes Mead and Powell.

DeBuys is not talking about some distant future. For example, he quotes one Scripts Institute research paper: “Lake Mead has a 50-50 chance of going dry by 2021.” That’s just ten years from now and it threatens the water supplies of Las Vegas, Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego and Los Angeles.

Consider the evidence that suggests this future. When full, Lake Mead is 360 feet deep. In 2010 it was 224 feet deep, down 37%. At 215 feet a 4% downstream legal reduction will kick in and at 190 feet a further 7% reduction will be necessary. The water level is already so low it threatens Hoover Dam’s electricity generation. Those projected reductions will worsen shortages already being felt at a time when the regional population continues to increase.

Today federal laws governing the use of water in the Colorado Basin below Lake Mead together with natural losses are not being satisfied by new water from rain and snow-melt upstream. The current annual shortfall of water in that area is over 890 billion gallons per year. Translated into human terms, that is an annual water deficit of enough to serve 11 million homes. Water quality is declining as well: DuBuys tells us, “The joke about Las Vegas is that eventually no one in that high-strung city will need anti-depressants. People will get all they need from their drinking water.”

The stage is set according to Brad Udall of Colorado University, for a collision “between 19th century water law, 20th century infrastructure, and 21st century population and climate.”

And solutions are not ready at hand. Sneaking water across the divide from the nearby Mississippi River system would provide very little; running a pipeline down from Canada has been considered and rejected; desalination is prohibitively expensive.

Indeed we have a very serious problem, a national as well as regional problem. We cannot simply write off a section of our country. We could, for example, have an out-migration comparable to that from the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. As DeBuys has it, “Notwithstanding a large cast of senatorial idealogues, right-wing bloviators, and modern-day Iagos lobbying for Big Coal and Big Oil, the protagonists in this drama are the rest of us, our collectivity, the commonweal.

How are we responding? You guessed it: aside from a few individual and too narrowly focused activities, we are doing essentially nothing. Reducing lawn watering doesn’t respond to these kinds of problems.

Why aren’t we stepping up to the plate? DeBuys refers to a 2010 American Psychological Association report: “The list of mental obstacles to action identified by the APA report reads like a catalog of biblical afflictions: Ignorance, Uncertainty, Mistrust and Reactance (i.e., mulishness), Denial, Habit, Impotence (‘What can I do?’), Tokenism, Conflicting Goals, and Belief in Devine Intervention.”

“An insightful body of analysis holds that sudden catastrophes, like earthquakes, fires and great storms, bring people together. They pitch in, cooperate, and ignore the economic and social divisions that previously held them apart. But drought is different. It is gradual and drawn out. An earthquake shudders and is over; a fire blazes and dies; a storm finally passes. But a drought creeps on. Drought doesn’t dissolve differences in the shock of thunderbolt change; it gives people plenty of time to erect defenses, pick sides, and meditate on the defects of their neighbors. Drought divides people, a fact that should remind us that solving the conundrum of water, growth, and hardened demand is work best done in the present, before the curve of rising need and the downshifting line of limits slam together.”

And the temperature is ever rising.

Gerald R. Rising, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University at Buffalo, writes a weekly “Nature Watch” column for the Buffalo News.

Book Excerpt (via the NYT):

The model simulations analyzed by Seager and his team showed the Southwest to be drying out “for a different reason, and that different reason is just a simple consequence of warming up.” Seager explains that when Earth’s surface and its atmosphere warm up, two things happen. One is the intensification of the hydrologic cycle: warmer air holds more water vapor; more vapor converges in wet regions, and it rains more there. “The pattern of water vapor transport intensifies. That makes dry regions drier and wet regions wetter. So that’s part of why the Southwest dries, because it’s already in one of these places where important parts of the atmosphere circulation take moisture away.” The other reason Seager cites is the expansion of the subtropical subsidence zone, where the dry, downwelling air of the Hadley cell returns to the surface of the land.

“And that’s not the same as what causes the natural droughts,” he concludes. “The cycle of natural dry periods and wet periods will continue, but they continue around a mean that gets drier. So the depths—the dry parts of the naturally occurring droughts—will be drier than we’re used to, and the wet parts won’t be as wet as we’re used to, because they’re both happen- ing around a mean state that gets drier and drier.” That new “mean state” is what he calls the new climatology of the Southwest, something similar to the Dust Bowl or the 1950s—a far cry from the anomalously wet period that ran from the late ’70s into the ’90s, which forms many people’s notion of what is “normal” for the region.

JR:  For more on Seager’s work, see Seager et al. in Science (subs. req’d), which “predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” — levels of aridity comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl would stretch from Kansas to California. And they were only looking at a 720 ppm of atmospheric CO2 concentrations by 2100.  We’re on track for 1000 ppm.

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16 Responses to Review of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest

  1. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    I read this book on Kindle as soon as it was available. I agree with everything in this review, to which I would add: William BeBuys adds regional historical and climactic perspective. Mr. DeBuys is also an excellent writer, making this an even stronger “Must, must read.”.


  2. Mike Roddy says:

    California will have big problems, if only because of population. Agriculture will be cut back, and more dams will be built on marginal rivers from the Sierras. Existing major streams like the Feather and Kern are already dammed up.

    Arizona and Nevada are the states that are really in trouble, since their “rivers” aren’t much more than creeks in the dry season, and there is little groundwater. We can expect water allocations to be rewritten, and some tough decisions made. We won’t see winter vegetables coming from the Valley of the Sun, and Las Vegas golf courses- huge water hogs- will be made from astroturf, damaging tourism, but it will be so hot that the suckers will stay glued to the slots anyway.

    Population growth will be reversed, since summer highs in Las Vegas and Phoenix will rise from 120 degrees to the mid 120’s, enough to kill people. Those cities will make modern day Detroit look like Paris, as violent squatters rule.

    Emigration will be north and east, but wetter regions like Mississippi and Washington will not welcome hordes of Texans and Arizona retirees.

    I look forward to reading Debuys’ book.

  3. Tim says:

    Correction: it’s Scripps and Divine instead of Scripts and Devine.

    (Feel free to delete this after the corrections are made!)

  4. Pete Helseth says:

    And let’s not forget the plight of First Nations, notably the Navajo, in this equation. The 1922 Colorado River Compact will have to be re-written, and the original inhabitants of this basin like them must have a seat at the table that’s appropriate for a sovereign nation when that happens. The rest of us will have to accept mandatory restrictions and efficiency measures, but things will be very tough even then. We in the Southwest have to think about water use the way many of us think about gasoline use: don’t use it unless absolutely necessary. The sooner we adopt this attitude pro-actively, the less likely it will be that systemic failure forces a sudden and massive emigration.

    From Evergreen, Colorado

  5. prokaryotes says:

    I’ compiling a list of good climate books / kindle, can someone recommend me some good writers (with books considered must read)? Topics are climate science and scenario analysis.


  6. Bill G says:

    Pro: Here are three excellent books for your list:

    1. James Lovelock, “The Revenge of Gaia” 2006.

    2. James Lovelock, “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” 2009

    UK scientist Lovelock is perhaps the most knowledgeable person living on atmosphere and environment. He is a respected member of the Royal Society with many inventions to his credit, including the Electron Capture Detector, the ingenious device that helped us understand and address the ozone hole.

    3. James Hansen, “Storms of my Grandchildren”

  7. Bill G says:


    Some will snicker and deride your Doom’s Day scenario. People reject ideas they have not seen happen. But you got it right. It will be a Mad Max world. When food and water run out, people tend to get testy.

    Anyone who thinks we will ever curb CO2 emissions is living in another kind of fantasy world. So it is over the falls we will go.

    We got caught with our pants down on CO2 build up and its effects, even though a few very accurately predicted it.

    Knowing mankind, we will probably be caught again, flat footed, when the severe impacts you outline hit. No one, not even Climate Progress, wants to talk about the end game. Probably for fear of being mocked by Deniers and the conservative media and lame stream press.

    Mike, its good to know some have their heads screwed on right.

  8. prokaryotes says:

    Thanks Bill ;) But these authors i hove covered..

    I setting up an Amazon shop (which can everybody do btw).

  9. Robert In New Orleans says:

    “HOT Living Through The Next Fifty Years On Earth” By Mark Hertsgaard

    “Climate Wars” By Gwynne Dyer

  10. prokaryotes says:

    Joe Romm books are not available through Amazon UK ^^

  11. Mark says:

    When the question becomes, “How do we change course?”, to me this is not so much a technical issue as it is a psychological and sociological one. To that end, while not directly about climate, here are some of my favorite titles with something to say about changing communtiy paradigms.


    Tao of Leadership (Heider)

    Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (Starhawk)

    Power of Myth (Campbell)

    Reality Therpay (Glasser)

    And of course, the Bible. Why don’t more greens and lefties claim this text and make it their own?

  12. fencepostman says:

    Lovelock, according to his friend Stewart Brand, is calling climate science denier Garth Paltridge a “sensible skeptic”. (Paltridge wrote The Climate Caper, in which he says IPCC scientists, because they are so full of BS they are going to alienate everyone in the general population, are endangering the enterprise of science itself, threatening to set it back several hundred years). Lovelock wonders why his climate science friends don’t want to associate with him any more.

    Stewart Brand documents Lovelock’s change of attitude in his online “Afterword” to his book “Ecopragmatism”.

  13. Chris Winter says:

    Here are two which describe current impacts. Both are very readable and not long (242 and 210 pages respectively).

    * Forecast by Stephan Faris (2009)
    * Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert (2006)

    I also recommend Changing Planet, Changing Health by the late Dr. Paul Epstein and Dan Ferber (April 2011)

    For a good overview and explanation by climate scientists, look for The Climate Crisis by David Archer and Stefan Rahmstorf (2010)

    Also, ClimateSight, RealClimate, and The Way Things Break blogs have book lists.

  14. shopa says:

    I have invented a new topology for intelligent irrigation systems that should make them lower in cost. Such systems use water more efficiently.

    Please help me get support for this invention.