There are no climate deniers on the fire line.
Basically the Mojave will expand to include all of south and central California, and the entire Colorado River basin. And people will move.
In My California Dream: The California Territory, I outline a scenario where California is returned to direct federal control after social services are no longer being provided.
Michael Wines, An Underground Pool Drying Up
Portions of the High Plains Aquifer are rapidly being depleted by farmers who are pumping too much water to irrigate their crops, particularly in the southern half in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Levels have declined up to 242 feet in some areas, from predevelopment — before substantial groundwater irrigation began — to 2011. (via An Underground Pool Drying Up - Graphic - NYTimes.com)
The great drought is making ‘ranching’ beef cattle unaffordable. I put ‘ranching’ in quotes because it sounds old-timey, and conceals the fact that it’s industrial agriculture, based on low-cost oil, abundant water, cheap fertilizer, cheap grain, and the beneficence of the US Department of Agriculture. And now that water is getting scarce — and likely to remain scarce for decades — the system is falling apart.
However, some ranchers are doing pretty well, principally because the reverted to native grasses in the fields, and are raising grass-fed, not grain-fed, beeves:
Stephanie Strom, A Long Drought Tests Texas Cattle Ranchers’ Patience and Creativity
[…] the Prices have had to buy hay to feed their cows during only two weeks in the last three years. Their animals graze the “bunch grasses” that were native throughout the prairie when the buffalo roamed and that Mr. Price reintroduced on his ranch after admiring their resilience on a small patch of virgin prairie left on his property.
Those grasses, which grow to five or six feet tall, have long roots that can tap into water far underground. Though they live a long time, when such grasses die, the roots deteriorate, helping to aerate the land for better water penetration. The thicker, taller grasses also create a kind of webbing that slows runoff, keeps sediment out of lakes and tanks, and creates shade that protects lower growing grasses and helps the ground retain water.
At times, Mr. Price rotates his cattle twice a day to give the grasses a chance to recover. He has not had to cull his herd, maintaining about 200 head throughout the drought, though he has not replaced cows as quickly as he would have if rainfall patterns were more normal.
He also has developed another source of revenue: hunters from Dallas and Fort Worth who pay to shoot the quail that like to nest in the bunch grasses on his land.
The Prices have won several awards for their land management practices. “I believe this is the best way to do it, not just for profit but also for sustainability,” Mr. Price said. “But every ranch is a specific entity with its own resources — its own shade, its own water.”
Asked whether he thought the Texas cattle industry would ever recover its former glory, Mr. Price thought for a moment. “We’re all very concerned about the decline in cattle numbers and also about the losses of infrastructure, feedlots and slaughtering facilities,” he said.
Reminds me of Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia, who has been advocating grass-fed cattle for decades as the best way to convert sunlight into protein. It requires more human interaction — moving the cattle from one field to another to allow the grasses to recover — but less of all other artificial inputs.
The recovery of the grouse speaks volumes about the recovery of the grasslands. In a few years, the only ranchers left in the dry lands will be the ones that fall back on tending the grasses, and using the cattle to fertilize them, with a valuable by-product: beef.
Update: This is more about America’s heritage landscapes - grasslands - and less about particular crops. Grasslands provide important habitat for countless species. President Theodore Roosevelt protected millions of acres of grasslands by including them in several National Parks. Converting them to crops destroys habitat for animals, changes and poisons the soil, pollutes rivers, devalues people’s properties, among numerous other environmental harms. Destroying nature for a quick buck is not the right direction for America’s future. The situation is worse when climate change is factored in.
And, the US Forest Service has an excellent overview of how grasslands are threatened by agriculture and climate change.
The drought in the Southwest continues, and the region’s agriculture is being destroyed. In New Mexico, farmers — who use 80% of the water there — are using every means necessary to keep ‘their’ water flowing:
Felicity Barringer, New Mexico Farmers Seek ‘Priority Call’ as Drought Persists
How dry is it? In 2012, parts of the riverbed were dry for 77 days, said Mike Hamman, the area manager for the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Albuquerque. In 2011, with the drought sending feed prices up, the Clovis Livestock auction house, the region’s biggest, sold 144,000 head of cattle, 20 percent above average. “Some herds have sold out,” said the president, Charlie Rogers. Most ranchers have reduced their herds to 25 percent of their previous size, he said. Hay, he said, costs too much.
Higher prices, however, did not offset the losses that hay farmers like Mark Weems and Billy Grandi in Carlsbad suffered when they could not water their fields. Mr. Weems said he had to sell 22 acres to make payments on his farm and equipment. The buyer: an oil-related company that wanted the water rights.
As for Brantley Lake, the nearest reservoir, “Two months ago it looked like you could drive a four-wheeler across it,” Mr. Weems said. Mr. Grandi added, “If the drought continues, a lot of farmers will just have to sell out.”
Mr. Hamman understands that fear. “If indeed we are moving into a new climate regime that is going to limit the ability to continue the status quo,” he said “we may have to do something different — reallocate the system, or make adjustments to existing settlements.”
The climate and the economy on which existing compacts were based may have fundamentally changed. In the West, “the 1 percent of the economy that is farming takes close to 80 percent of the water,” Dr. McCool said. The Pecos feud, he said, is a prelude to wars on rivers like the Colorado, which provides water to more than 20 million people. A recent federal study showed that the Colorado will not have enough water to satisfy existing claims.
In a shakeout, farmers cannot prevail, Dr. McCool argued. “Let’s see, we could dry up some hay farms or we could dry up Las Vegas. Which one is it going to be? It’s going to be the new economy of the West with the focus on recreation and tourism and hunting.”
“There will be farming ghost towns,” he said.
At the moment, the discussion is about who gets the available water, the farmers or the cities. Relatively quickly though, it will be more obvious that we’ve moved into a postnormal dilemma, when the farmers are bust and there is no water for Las Vegas, either. This is not a ‘problem’ that can be ‘solved’.
Time for the farmers and ranchers to move where there is water, like the Ohio River valley, or here, in NY, along the Hudson. The Southwest is quickly reverting to desert, after a geologically brief period of wet seasons, and it’s just no place to grow alfalfa or make mozzarela cheese.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, Caitlin Werrell, and Francesco Femia have released The Arab Spring and Climate Change, but they stop short of saying that drought in the region and climate events elsewhere caused the Arab Spring:
“The Arab Spring and Climate Change” does not argue that climate change caused the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world over the past two years. But the essays collected in this slim volume make a compelling case that the consequences of climate change are stressors that can ignite a volatile mix of underlying causes that erupt into revolution.
This is a giant hedge, and when examined closely, as is the case in the collected essays, the evidence for a causal linkage is pretty solid.
All of these authors [the contributors to the report] are admirably cautious in acknowledging the complexity of the events they are analyzing and the difficulty of drawing precise causal arrows. But consider the following statements:
- “A once-in-a-century winter drought in China contributed to global wheat shortages and skyrocketing bread prices in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer.” (Sternberg, p. 7)
- “Of the world’s major wheat-importing companies per capita, “the top nine importers are all in the Middle East; seven had political protests resulting in civilian deaths in 2011.” (Sternberg, p. 12)
- “The world is entering a period of ‘agflation,’ or inflation driven by rising prices for agricultural commodities.” (Johnstone and Mazo, p. 21)
- “Drought and desertification across much of the Sahel—northern Nigeria, for example, is losing 1,350 square miles a year to desertification—have undermined agricultural and pastoral livelihoods,” contributing to urbanization and massive flows of migrants. (Werz and Hoffman, p. 37)
- “As the region’s population continues to climb, water availability per capita is projected to plummet. … Rapid urban expansion across the Arab world increasingly risks overburdening existing infrastructure and outpacing local capacities to expand service.” (Michel and Yacoubian, p. 45)
- “We have reached the point where a regional climate event can have a global extent.” (Sternberg, p. 10)
In September 2011, I wrote here,
Youthful hope may soon change into embittered and obdurate anger, unless structural changes in the economy take place, not just a series of political coups unseating pharaonic despots.The Arab Spring has been mythologized into a renaissance of suppressed people, catalyzed by the agency of social media. An uplifting passion play, suitable for several upcoming major motion pictures, I am sure. But for those that are looking closely into the drivers of the unrest there, you will find deep unemployment caused by rising food prices tied to long-term drought in the entire region and food production problems elsewhere. The transition of power that will follow won’t turn Libya and Egypt into Spain and Portugal, after the fall of their fascist regimes. Tunis and Cairo won’t morph into Westernism with something like parliamentary democracies, closely integrated into a neoliberal world, the way that Madrid and Lisbon managed to do. So I suggest that the heated rhetoric about those countries be cooled for a bit, until we can see the shape of what emerges. Most importantly, the drought, high food prices, and endemic unemployment and lack of opportunity for the youth of the Arab world has not been banished with Mubarak and Gaddafi. They will be with us for a long time to come. And youthful hope may soon change into embittered and obdurate anger, unless structural changes in the economy take place, not just a series of political coups unseating pharaonic despots.
It’s increasingly clear that the drought is continuing, perhaps even worsening, and climate-related agriculture problems in other places — like the worsening droughts in the US and China — are leading to a rise in food prices worldwide, which will continue food price pressures in the Arab world and elsewhere.
It’s going to be really, really dry this year, out west.
After enduring last summer’s destructive drought, farmers, ranchers and officials across the parched Western states had hoped that plentiful winter snows would replenish the ground and refill their rivers, breaking the grip of one of the worst dry spells in American history. No such luck.
Lakes are half full and mountain snows are thin, omens of another summer of drought and wildfire. Complicating matters, many of the worst-hit states have even less water on hand than a year ago, raising the specter of shortages and rationing that could inflict another year of losses on struggling farms.
Reservoir levels have fallen sharply in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. The soil is drier than normal. And while a few recent snowstorms have cheered skiers, the snowpack is so thin in parts of Colorado that the government has declared an “extreme drought” around the ski havens of Vail and Aspen.
“We’re worse off than we were a year ago,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center.
The only good news is that this could be the tinder to set a fire under Washington’s ass, and Obama’s. People have come to accept the direct connection between climate change and weather calamities like Hurricane Sandy and the Drought of 2013. Obama will have to take serious action, because this year is going to be even drier that the last two, and American food production will be seriously impacted.
And it’s going to be really bad:
“A year ago we went into the spring season with most of the reservoirs full,” Mr. Hungenberg said. “This year, you’re going in with basically everything empty.”
National and state forecasters — some of whom now end phone calls by saying, “Pray for snow” — do have some hope. An especially wet springtime could still spare the Western plains and mountains and prime the soil for planting. But forecasts are murky: They predict warmer weather and less precipitation across the West over the next three months but say the Midwest could see more rain than usual.
Water experts get more nervous with each passing day.
“We’re running out of time,” said Andy Pineda of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “We only have a month or two, and we are so far behind it’s going to take storms of epic amounts just to get us back to what we would think of as normal.”
And storms of epic amounts would lead to flooding, especially damaging since the ground is so dry.
We are going to see a lot of farmers quitting the land, and moving away from the dry dusty middle of the continent. Moving back to the Ohio and Hudson River valleys, I bet.