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Troubled Water

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 [1], 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 [2], 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 [3] 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 [4], “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 [5], 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 [6] 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 [7] 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 [8] 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 [9] as much as $40 billion.

Meanwhile, further west, nearly 43,000 fires burned nearly seven million acres; the cost of firefighting alone soared [10] into the hundreds of millions of dollars. An NPR headline [11] 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 [12] 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 [13].

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 [14] 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 [15]–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 [16] 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 [17] 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 [18] 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 [19], 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 [20].

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Troubled Water"

#1 Comment By Red Phillips On October 3, 2012 @ 8:37 am

Since when did Pinkerton, who allegedly has libertarian sympathies, become the spokesman for Federal Government infrastructure projects? This essay follows on the heels of his apologia for “the American System.”

#2 Comment By aepxc On October 3, 2012 @ 9:02 am

The article conflates two different issues – what the big picture situation is, and what to do about it. A lot of the arguments about the environment (and indeed, most of the arguments in this article) focus on the latter, but it is on the former that we must focus our attention.

Battening down the hatches in times of plenty is as stupid as speculative experimentation amid scarcity. The trick is figuring out what situation we are in with respect to a particular resource, and – most importantly – whether the situation flipped from what it was before (if it has, then the behaviours that were successful and rational in the past would bring about destruction and disaster going forward). Thus, when taken alone the question of whether we should exploit or venerate environmental resources makes no sense. The question we must answer is whether we are still living off the environment’s interest/dividends (as humanity has done for most of its history), or whether we are aggressively digging into the principal. Figure out that, and figuring out the right thing to do becomes straightforward.

#3 Comment By M_Young On October 3, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

The main thing driving increased need for water for ‘development’ is population growth. But population growth is driven by immigration. Americans left to their own devices prefer a stable population — as evidenced by our own actions in regulating the size of our families. Our preferences now — if left to ourselves — are maintaining open spaces rather than building endless subdivisions in hot, arid, and generally miserable places to live.

Of course the ‘progressives’ who want to save spiders and fish and blow up dams won’t admit that you can’t have one million legal immigrants a year and still maintain the local environment.

#4 Comment By Larry Misch On October 3, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

An atmospheric research scientist illustrated to me the earth’s atmosphere. He said: “Take this standard grade school globe and with a ruler make a gentle number two pencil mark along the ruler, long enough so that you can measure the lines width the pencil makes. Measure the line and it comes out about twenty miles thick against the scale”. I did, and it does so on what was about an 18 inch globe.

Then he said: “Note that about twenty miles is, (for all practical purposes), the thickness of the atmosphere and we can generally live in only ten percent of that.

Then he said: Now hold out that globe at arms length looking at the line you just made. That line is the thickness of our atmosphere and it is pretty darn thin. Not to mention; extremely rare in the universe”. “That is why I study it”, he said: “Because I can think of few things more important to mankind”.

#5 Comment By Rousseau On October 3, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

As far as I understand, government spending on infrastructure such as the water supply is still government spending. That’s bad and doesn’t create jobs. Only government spending on the security state apparatus is legitimate government spending. That’s good and does create jobs.
As someone who doesn’t believe in the inevitablity of “progress” I’m good with the government spending less. Period.

#6 Comment By Dan Davis On October 3, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

My impression, at least from years of desultory reading on this subject, has been that the West’s water resources were never going to be enough to support the millions of people that live there now, much less millions more. We are running up against Edward Abbey’s dictum that infinite growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. On the one hand, a few spiders halting a highway project may be ridiculous, but on the other hand, one Las Vegas is enough.

#7 Comment By Robert On October 4, 2012 @ 2:14 am

John Wesley Powell admired the Mormon settlers primarily because they had created a community in which cooperation was the underlying ideal. Powell thought that any successful settlements in the arid regions of the country would have to be set up in a similar fashion.

Powell, however, was a vocal and life-long critic of unchecked westward expansion and the mindset expressed in this article. In fact, he thought man’s belief that he could concur nature was perhaps the species greatest shortcoming.

#8 Comment By tz On October 4, 2012 @ 10:20 am

“assume that anthropogenic CO2 is, in fact, the real cause of global warming.”
If you have any grasp of basic science, it is safe to say that CO2 at least exacerbates the warming.
Climate change deniers need to ask themselves, how much anthropogenic CO2 can we dump into the atmosphere?
How much is too much?

#9 Comment By tz On October 4, 2012 @ 10:27 am

I will add this. When the catastrophe that mankind is unleashing on the biosphere is finally undeniable, it will likely be too late. One can destroy an economy by throwing it severely out of balance, and the same can be done to the planetary ecology. Economic collapse pales in comparison to Ecological collapse.
Mark my words.

#10 Comment By kindness On October 4, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

As one who lives in California I support using water for ag, for cities, for industry and for the fish.

Why does this author think the world we live in has no value of it’s own? That’s incredibly short sighted.

#11 Comment By Jessa On October 4, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

Your ‘coasts vs. interior’ angle was out of place and nonsensical, given that the Southwestern coast of the US (i.e., Southern California) is one of the most dehydrated parts of the country, desalinated ocean water is not used for any municipal water supply in the US, and, finally, words: Great Lakes (plus all of the other natural lakes of the Northern interior).

#12 Comment By Jessa On October 4, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

My post should have conclude “…and, finally *two* words: Great Lakes (plus all of the other natural lakes of the Northern interior).”

#13 Comment By Jessa On October 4, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

Conclude*d*! Sorry; there’s a cat in my lap.

#14 Comment By R.S. On October 5, 2012 @ 7:57 am

It’s pretty breathtaking that nobody so far is sympathetic to Pinkerton’s pro-human, pro-economic growth perspective.

Let’s be frank: from an ecological perspective, the extinction of an endangered spider, flower, or tiny fish is going to have an impact upon human health, well being, and economic growth essentially equivalent to zero.

Address the main point – whereas in the past dams were built to provide power (clean power at that, for people concerned about climate change) and control floods, and irrigation projects to water the semi-arid interior of the country, today we systematically dismantle existing dams. You won’t hear about it on the news and it won’t make a presidential debate, even though Obama has the temerity to campaign at the Hoover Dam. Why does nobody have the courage to say: Mr. President that dam could never be built today. Even if we reversed course and decided to build major projects again it would be held up by years, nay *decades* of environmental impact studies as have, for example, offshore wind projects actually favored by the administration.

#15 Comment By Sarah On October 5, 2012 @ 10:21 am

This article seems to be asserting that “if we only would build more damns, we wouldn’t have a water shortage.” I’m not a water expert, so if this is the argument, I’d be interested in whatever evidence there is that this is true. What about less rainfall? If there’s no water, what water is a damn supposed to collect?

There have been water shortages since pre-Obama, so I’m guessing the implicit argument is that Republican politicians have not, for a long time, been investing in water infrastructure, and if they had, there would be less (or no) drought? I wish there was more evidence from these drought locations to support this argument.

Besides evidence for this connection, another piece that is missing is any consideration for the ecosystem. Again, I’m not a scientist, but when the ecosystem is out of balance, it harms farmers (for one) because invasive species (both plant and animals) take over and harm crops – that’s not a conservative or liberal position. While environmental concerns may not always seem “reasonable,” surely the concern for a healthy ecosystem, of which humans are a part, should be a consideration when planning development projects and whatnot. Most of the country lives in rural areas – the natural ecosystem is vital for people to stay living in those areas.

Perhaps a better position for Republican politicians would be to stop reacting to “environmental extremists” and start acting like we are able to live because we live in a healthy environment, and that what that looks like and how to get there is really what is at issue. Not caring (or maybe more accurately, using rhetoric that makes it seem as if you don’t care) about the environment is simply ignorant – unless, of course, you live in a bubble and breathe from an oxygen tank.

#16 Comment By Michael Kierans On October 9, 2012 @ 8:48 am

Mr. Pinkerton correctly observes that in the last four decades there has been an reversal in the Americans interest in large scale water diversion schemes that has led to serious water shortages in agriculturally important areas of the US. But, he fails to properly analyze the reason for this reversal of interest. He blames it on the silly obsessions of “green environmentalists” for endangered species- eyeless spiders etc.. He does not explain how these green environmentalist were able to take the momentum away from the developmentalists. The real reasons are not obsessive and are not silly. Many of the mega diversionary projects of the middle 20th century did not properly take into account the downstream impact of upstream diversions. These heedless diversions have lead to disasters like the Rio Grande River no longer reaching the Gulf of Mexico. It is these disasters that have given mega projects a bad name. They have also fueled the environmentalist’s erroneous argument that the best water management is no management. If the environmentalists did not have these blatant examples of trampling on downstream water rights and the environmental disasters resulting therefrom they would not have the influence with the general public that the have. Aside from the environmental harm caused by these heedless mega diversions they have also created a public paranoia of mega projects of all description. In the current state of public opinion environmentalists can without difficulty brand projects like the GRAND Canal as diversionary and prevent their proper study.It is a great pity that the GRAND Canal that is so environmentally friendly sure be lumped in with projects that were environmentally disastrous.
16 hours ago• Delete

Michael Kierans • The last sentence of the above comment should read as follows:”It is a great pity that the GRAND Canal that is so environmentally friendly is lumped in with projects that were environmental disasters.”

The only cure for the above “misunderstanding” is to repeat endlessly the truth which is this: the GRAND Canal does not divert water away from where is now naturally flows but traps and recycles water that is now lost to Hudson Bay and the Artic Ocean. A tremendously huge new source of water, 2.5 times the size of Niagara Falls, will be added to the system. Nobody will be deprived of water that he or she is now enjoying. More water will be available to everyone. The GRAND Canal is “win-win”!!