[N]othing in the NRC report sounded terribly new. We knew that droughts much worse than what we’ve experienced in the last 100 years have occurred in the past, we knew that the river is over-appropriated, and we basically knew that global warming could make drought even worse.
Tom’s right about this. There was nothing in the report’s central findings that I hadn’t already reported, by me and the rest of the throng of Wallace Stegner wannabes writing about water in the West. But that is not meant to be a criticism. In fact, it’s a great report, and I went to some lengths to give it a good ride in this morning’s paper.
Tom’s got his own take on it, but he’s got an interesting point. By definition, the charge of a panel like this is to assemble the existing science. There’s not supposed to be anything new in it. So why is this “news”?
There’s a great old science journalism story I remember hearing once about a conversation between a grizzled old-style journalist in the 1930s and Albert Einstein (I’m paraphrasing from memory here to make a point):
Reporter: What’s new in science, perfesser?
Einstein: Have you reported all the old things?
Tom’s answer to his own question, which I cut above, is that it’s nice to have the research rounded up in one spot. But the point of the perfesser story involves the attempt to try to calibrate what I say against what people reading the paper might not know and need to, new or not.
I chose the ag-urban theme. My conversations with the lay public and my observations of the political debates over water in New Mexico lead me to believe lots of folks don’t understand that 80 percent of the consumptively used water in the arid West is used by agriculture. A refined understanding of drought probabilities or the potential water supply effects of global warming is playing at the margins relative to the ag-urban issue:
Agriculture, which currently uses the vast majority of water in the West, is probably the only place to get enough water for growing cities, the report found.
That sets the stage for difficult political and policy choices, according to the report’s authors.
And later, Brad Udall helped me out:
Regionwide, 80 percent of water is used by agriculture, according to the report. In New Mexico, that number is 76 percent, according to the Office of the State Engineer.
“You’ve got to make the system as flexible as possible and enable shifts from agriculture to municipalities as needed,” Brad Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment project at the University of Colorado, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
The point here is to turn the discussion from the scientific findings to the potential policy responses.
Or maybe this was just a cheap chance to quote John Wesley Powell:
“Many droughts will occur,” John Wesley Powell wrote in his epic 1878 “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region,” an effort to acquaint wet-climate Easterners with the peculiar characteristics of the West. “Many seasons in a long series will be fruitless.”
What Powell could not have known is how long and “fruitless” those droughts can be.
Which brings us full circle to the map above, which is from Powell’s “Arid Lands”. It’s a proposal to create political jurisdictions in the West based on natural drainages rather than the artificial sort of state, county etc. boundaries we have now.
Wow, but wouldn’t that have made some of this simpler?