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Great Lakes Article:

Bush’s policies leading to freshwater shortages

Walter Ellis in Connecticut
The Scotsman International
07/21/2002

WHEN President George Bush announced that the United States would not ratify the Kyoto accords on global emissions, he said that to do so would harm US industry.

America First, the declared policy of the Bush administration, places little or no emphasis on environmental protection and relegates global warming to also-ran status in its list of priorities.

But is America, as a result of decades of ecological carelessness, beginning to reap the whirlwind?

In Arizona, people have been asking themselves this question for the past six months as a period of exceptional drought, combined with widespread forest fires, has left much of the desert state in a parlous condition.

The same question is being asked in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, baking in temperatures of over 100F (38C), where even Native American rainmakers have given up and gone inside to watch the baseball on television.

But more than the south-west is affected. An astonishing 49 of the 50 states (Wisconsin being the sole exception) are experiencing drought conditions.

Things are so bad in New York City that in restaurant customers have to ask to get a glass of water.

Occasional, violent thunderstorms are all that bring relief to the six New England states.

In Texas this month, the phenomenon was especially harsh when flash floods struck large areas of the state, sweeping away homes and causing more than $100 million (£65 million) in damage. Twelve people died in the inundation, which quickly gave way to further aggravated drought.

With the dry spell has come a serious run of forest fires. The biggest, in Arizona, swept through nearly half a million acres, forcing 300,000 people to evacuate their homes.

President Bush, on his way to the G8 summit in Canada, at which Kyoto was determinedly not an issue, described the situation as a "major disaster".

Fires also hit New Mexico and Colorado - where at one point the southern suburbs of the state capital, Denver, were threatened. In Nevada, which has seen only one, modest shower since January, residents of Reno had to remain indoors as temperatures approached 110F. Crops are withering in the fields. Farmers, fearful of a return of the 1930s Dustbowl, are demanding, and receiving, federal assistance.

With the watering of even public open spaces often banned, local authorities have taken to colouring barren ground green, and artificial flowers are springing up in large numbers outdoors.

It is a bleak picture, but also an everyday one. Americans - other than those most obviously affected - are concerned, not alarmed. Older citizens claim to have seen it all before, while those under 30 expect technology to ride to the rescue.

Yet the trend is worrying. Not only is less rain falling, but mean temperatures are rising. At the same time, with the population approaching 300 million, the nation’s thirst for water is becoming insatiable. US households use up four times the volume of water of their European equivalents; US cities suck up water from increasingly large areas of their hinterlands, extending their pipelines for hundreds of miles into the countryside.

Phoenix, Arizona, one of the country’s fastest growing cities, with well over a million people, is green and cool, despite being in the heart of the desert. Sprinklers keep lawns and parks as lush as a jungle clearing. Shopping malls spray water into their upper levels to maintain ideal temperatures and humidity. Car washes are ubiquitous, as are fountains and ponds. To allow this, the city siphons off billions of gallons of water each month from the Salt River, desert aquifers and remote lakes and reservoirs.

But as Phoenix fiddles, Arizona burns.

California, with more than 30 million people, is less hard hit but cannot continue to provide water at existing levels without extending its reach even further into the cooler north and mountainous east of the state. What happens when water supply in California goes the way of its notoriously unreliable electricity grid is anybody’s guess.

Ironically the most acute need in the months ahead could be in rural parts of "leafy" New England, where millions depend not on piped supplies but on private wells. Specialist companies are struggling to keep pace with demand for new sinkings or for old wells to be pummelled with underground hammers until new aquifers open up or old ones become unblocked.

Should wells dry up entirely, the only recourse is tankers, which is not only ruinously expensive but further depletes regional reserves.

The problem is easily diagnosed. Connecticut, which used to be best known for its dairy farms and orchards, is now preponderantly suburban. Fields have returned to scrubland and forest, in which thirsty trees compete with humans for available water, or have been divided into residential estates, complete with lawns, swimming pools, car washes, cinemas and shopping malls. Thanks to the concrete jungle, ever more ground water spreads out and evaporates rather than sinking into the soil.

Specialist agencies, such as the Climate Prediction Centre and the National Climatic Data Centre, are only too aware of the scale of the problem. The US is in the forefront in predicting what is going to happen and analysing the causes. What these agencies cannot do is alter the equation. They are, like Cassandra, doomed to prophesy and doom, and further doomed not to be heard.

The only agency that can affect the necessary changes is the US government. But voters last time round chose the oilman Bush over environmentalist Al Gore, and for as long as the Bush administration is in charge, America First (which does not always seem to include ordinary Americans) remains the order of the day.

Americans have always hungered for success. Soon, if nothing is done, they will have to thirst for it as well.
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