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The Cry, 'Water! Water!' Echoes Across the West. The development and drought intensify a chronic problem of water shortage in the American Western states.
The West is America's driest region but also its
fastest-growing. Its most parched state, Arizona, alone is now crammed
with 55 percent more people than lived there in 1990. There's been a
flood of new businesses, resorts, and ordinary people in housing
developments that are sprawling into the desert and up mountainsides
around places like Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada. And they're
all using a whole lot more water than do roaming cattle or sheep.
Thanks to modern engineering, western cities divert and
store precious river water and mountain runoff. A single rushing river,
the Colorado, supplies water to 30 million people in seven states and
Mexico. In 1922, the seven U.S. states signed a compact in which those
in the upper reaches of the Colorado agreed to allow enough flow to
supply New Mexico, the now hyper-growing Arizona and Nevada, and
finally, Mexico to the south.
Yet a prolonged drought has dramatically reduced water
levels in reservoirs such as Lake Powell in Arizona and Lake Mead in
Nevada. And a study published last year in Science magazine
found that manmade greenhouse gases have raised wintertime temperatures
in the western mountains, diminishing the winter snowpack and spring
runoffs that normally replenish rivers.
To reduce reliance on river water, if only slightly, one
state, Colorado, for the first time is now allowing citizens to catch
and store rainwater. This, after a study there showed that 97 percent
of rainwater evaporates in the region's sandy soil or is sucked up by
thirsty plants. So why not allow homeowners to set up barrels and tubs
under their downspouts?
This might help gardeners, but it won't solve the bigger question of how the West's struggle to find more water will be won.