Home/Articles/Economy/Troubled Water

Troubled Water

Grand Coulee Dam | nicora / Flickr

The drought this past summer–and the resulting crop losses and wildfires–can be seen as a call to action. But action on what? To do what? The standard answer, of course, is that we must take action against global warming. Yet as we learned in 2009-10, legislative action against carbon dioxide emissions, such as “cap-and-trade,” is unpopular to the point of impossibility.

Moreover, now that China’s CO2 emissions vastly exceed those of the US–America, in fact, emits only 18 percent of the world’s CO2–it’s not clear that the US has much leverage on the issue. That is, even if we in the West were to cut our emissions severely, the Asian tigers might well continue to go in the opposite direction, reasoning that warming is a small price to pay for economically prospering–and maybe militarily dominating. And of course, all these calculations assume that anthropogenic CO2 is, in fact, the real cause of global warming.

In the meantime, all of human history reminds us that we can do more than simply try to appease the weather gods. Changing the condition of the air is difficult, and maybe impossible, but changing conditions on the ground is relatively easy–because we’ve been practicing it for 5000 years.

In his monumental A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee gushed with praise for the “heroic pioneers” who turned swampy rivers in North Africa and the Middle East into fertile farmland. As Toynbee put it:

The wantonness of Nature was subdued by the works of Man; the formless swamp made way for a pattern of ditches and embankments and fields; the Lands of Egypt and Shinar [Sumeria] were reclaimed from the wilderness; the Egyptiac and Sumeric civilizations were created.

The basic idea of Toynbee’s history is “challenge and response.” That is, a civilization figures out how to overcome the challenges it faces. And high on that list is mastery of water. From irrigation to flood control, from swamp drainage to sewer construction, from aqueduct-building to hydropower generating, people either gain control of their waters and seas, or they don’t. And if they don’t, they don’t have much of a civilization.

Here in America, for example, our civilization has built a total of 85,000 dams, enabling the population of our part of the continent to surge from a million or two Native Americans in the 15th century to more than a 310 million population in the 21st century.

For most of our history, building dams was called called “reclamation,” as in, reclaiming the land from the wilderness; to this day, there’s a Bureau of Reclamation within the Department of Interior.

Indeed, building dams was seen not as only heroic, but also as progressive, providing dignity and employment to the toiling masses.  In 1941, the folksinger Woody Guthrie wrote a dam-praising song, including these lyrics, “Roll on, Columbia, roll on.  Your power is turning our darkness to dawn.”  The song continues:

And on up the river is Grand Coulee Dam, 

The mightiest thing ever built by a man,

To run these great factories and water the land,

It’s roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Yet over the last four decades, the progressive reclamation calculus has been re-calibrated.   Today, the green goal is to reclaim the wilderness for the wilderness.  That is, to take land from people and return it to its “natural owners”–the flora and the fauna.  To be sure, in no sense has the average American agreed to this shift, let alone voted for it; yet the shift, nevertheless, has happened.

In recent decades, greens have marched through the institutions of the judiciary and the bureaucracy, taking up obscure but powerful posts and remaking the nation according to their Sierra Club-ish interpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended and interpreted over the decades.  And remarkably one American in a hundred fully understands what has happened; people have yet to realize that the whole nation has, in effect, become a jewel box for ecological “treasures.”

And so it is, for example, that in San Antonio, Texas–home to right-wing Anglo Republicans and work-minded lunch-bucket Hispanic Democrats–the discovery of an eyeless spider the size of a dime near San Antonio has halted, indefinitely, a $15 million highway project. Local and state politicians can fulminate all they want about people and jobs and commutes being more important than bugs, but until federal laws are changed, they won’t get far.

So it’s little wonder that stimulus bills for infrastructure are less than likely to stimulate; large sums of money are spent on endless environmental impact statements, as opposed to actual new projects. As President Obama declared ruefully in October 2010, nearly two years after his “stimulus” bill was enacted, “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.” And so, of course, unemployment went up during that time, not down.

Yet many on the left, of course, define economic regress as environmental progress.  Michael Grunwald, author of a sympathetic account of the Obama stimulus, entitled The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, felt inspired in a recent interview to match the successes of the New Deal with what he defined as the successes of the Obama administration: “The New Deal had the world’s largest dam. The stimulus had one of the world’s largest dam removal projects.” Got that? In Grunwald’s view, tearing down a dam today is just as good–and maybe better–than building that dam 75 years ago.

So if that’s the way the chattering classes see the world, it should be no surprise that we have problems with water. As Toynbee’s Sumerians and Egyptians were among the first to demonstrate, with water, one can make the desert bloom, and then go on from there. One can even put out fires.

Today, the National Climatic Data Center, a federal agency, estimates that last summer was the driest for many states since 1895. As a result, one Iowa State University economist expert estimates that crop insurance payments to farmers in the Midwest could cost as much as $40 billion.

Meanwhile, further west, nearly 43,000 fires burned nearly seven million acres; the cost of firefighting alone soared into the hundreds of millions of dollars. An NPR headline summed it up: “Megafires: The New Normal in the Southwest.” If so, then what’s the future for rural life in the West?   To be more precise, what’s the future for rural life for humans in the West?  No doubt the future for weeds and toads is now brighter.

In the past, drought was an argument for dams and canals; yet now it’s an argument for fatalism, as we contemplate the needs of the eyeless spider and all his cousins across the drying landscape. A July 31 headline in The Financial Times expressed the prevailing view: “Stuck on dry land: The heatwave … exposes limitations of even the best technology in coping with the extreme weather.” Yet the piece went on to cite, as possible counter-balances to the drought’s impact, various export mechanisms and increasingly dynamic commodities markets. In other words, and perhaps not surprisingly, the FT focused on financial remedies; the words “dam” and “irrigation” did not appear in the article.

So while Obama, as we have seen, is credited more with removing public water works than building them–and seems happy enough, most of the time, to be more pro-green than pro-growth–it was perhaps surprising that Mitt Romney, for his part, offered no bold plan for re-watering the Midwest and West. After all, Romney’s ancestors, the early Mormon settlers in Utah, were all about reclamation and irrigation; in 1878, the explorer and naturalist John Wesley Powell was effusive in his admiration for their diligence in Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States.

And of course, well into the 20th century, the national goal was to transform those arid lands into populated places.  But now that the trend has been reversed, the West is currently reverting back to depopulating aridity.  In 2010, Victor Davis Hanson, writing for National Review, described the disaster that had struck the once-fruitful San Joaquin Valley of California:

On the western side of the Central Valley, the effects of arbitrary cutoffs in federal irrigation water have idled tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land, leaving thousands unemployed. … unemployment runs somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.

Thus the fabled valley–once the fruitbasket of America–is now returning to tumbleweed status.   Amazingly, nobody in DC seems to care: On the left, the environmentalists are happy if the Delta smelt–a two-inch silvery fish–is happy, while, on the right, free marketeers, too, focus on other priorities.

Just on September 28, USA Today told a little-noted tale: Water prices are rising rapidly in many parts of the country. Indeed, for 100 municipalities surveyed, water prices have doubled, even tripled.   And if water is scarce and costly, then of course there will be less to use for irrigation and fire control; there might not even be enough for people in their suburban residences.

What we are seeing, then, is the gradual retreat of the US population from dry lands; nearly half of the counties in the US, mostly in the middle of the country, are losing population, while  Americans are increasingly clustering mostly along oceans–even though, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, coastal counties account for only 17 percent of the land mass in the US (not counting Alaska), and yet account for a full 53 percent of the population.

This internal-migration phenomenon is not healthy for a republic.  For one thing, teeming populations, clustered in megalopolises, are not at all what the Founding Fathers had in mind.  And sturdy self-reliance, conservatives have always known, requires a widely distributed population, built around rural life and small towns, as opposed to big cities and their proletariats–and lumpenproletariats.

Interestingly, the 2012 Republican Party platform takes a strong stand on water issues:

What most Americans take for granted—the safety and availability of our water supply—is in perilous condition. Engineering surveys report crumbling drinking water systems, aging dams, and overwhelmed wastewater infrastructure.  Investment in these areas, as well as with levees and inland waterways, can renew communities, attract businesses, and create jobs. Most importantly, it can assure the health and safety of the American people.

Yet unfortunately, the noble words of the platform aside, water is not prominent on the Republican agenda. And that’s a shame, because at a time of record-low interest rates–indeed, adjusted for inflation, rates are negative–we could be building up the water-infrastructure of the nation.

Just as in the old days, we could be constructing dams and other water projects aimed at making more water available. And if the aquifers are tapped out, we could perhaps buy water from Canada; the Mackenzie River, for example, boasts two-thirds the volume of the Mississippi River, and yet flows uselessly into the Arctic Ocean. And, of course, there’s salt-water desalination; around the world, desalination is a boom industry, even if we don’t hear much about it here at home.

But we could hear about it, if leaders would talk about it–that is, talk about investing in true nation-building here at home. And if leaders led on vital water issues, people would follow, because ordinary folks have never lost their enthusiasm for growth and development.

Would it help the US economy if we had more water? Sure it would. We can only imagine what Midwestern farm land would be worth if it had a guaranteed water supply, and what homes in the West would be worth if water were flowing to keep the forests moist and green. Using the currently available cheap money, any such large-scale water-moving would cause, all by itself, a significant economic renaissance.

America would be a better place if more people could live, safely and productively, in more places. Let’s make it happen. If the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians could do it, so can we.

James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.

about the author

James P. Pinkerton is a longtime contributing editor at The American Conservative, columnist, and author. He served as longtime regular columnist for Newsday. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, National Review, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Fortune, and The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of What Comes Next: The End of Big Government--and the New Paradigm Ahead (1995).He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. 

leave a comment

Latest Articles