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Is the Southwest on Borrowed Time?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFebruary 11, 2011 11:08 PM


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Living in a marginal (but stunning) landscape with obvious constraints has its drawbacks when too many people move there and the natural resources become depleted. In the American Southwest, those drawbacks are not really being felt by the hordes who live there now. Yet. But based on my own knowledge of the drought history of the Southwest (specifically the last one thousand years), I've always felt that a cruel reckoning was just around the corner. That reckoning may happen faster, according to a new study released today by Stockholm Environment Institute. Bryan Walsh at Time has a good overview:

The report found that the already dry states of the American Southwest"”Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah"”will face a major water shortfall over the next century just based on population and income growth alone. (The region has long been one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., in part because of the hot and dry weather.) But climate change could make the situation much, much worse.

Now there are a couple ways to look at this. Like the recent debate over Egypt and food prices, the underlying problems in the Southwest are not related to greenhouse gases. But when you look at the way people live in those Southwestern states (in terms of lifestyle, sprawl, and unchecked development), there is a business-as-usual attitude. Do folks out there really feel they are being pushed to the limits of their environment? My sense from afar (and based on intermittent travel and one recent year spent in Colorado) is no. So given all this, it seems that irrespective of climate change, Southwesterners have plenty of good reasons to get their house in order. Will yet another report warning of imminent climate change related impacts nudge them in that direction? Maybe, but I doubt it. And even if Southwestern states go ahead and implement all the Stockholm Institute's water use recommendations, but demographic and growth trends remain the same, will it even matter?

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