Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Adapt or Perish

Often public reporting of water resources in Arizona carries mixed messages.  Reports will point out the shortfall in Colorado River water for the Northern part of the state and yet, at the same, report that mountain snowpack affecting the southern and central parts of the state is above average and the state is doing well.

An article outlining Arizona water use in the Arizona Daily Star, January 10, 2010, pointed out that snowmelt was going through a shortfall in the north but “use”, on the other hand, was remaining constant...or increasing. 

Variable water supply, however, is a way of life in the desert…depending on mountain snowmelt, precipitation, effects of climate change (man-made or naturally cyclical), or any other vagary of nature.

“…extra-dry years balance extra-wet years,” said Brenda Alcorn, a senior hydrologist for the federal Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City.

"In 1998, the January forecast was 20 percent too low, and in 2006 the forecast was 60 percent too high," Alcorn said.

But what isn’t said is that these are numerical averages that have nothing to do with everyday, average use.  You don’t fill your drinking glass – or swimming pool in Phoenix – with numerical averages.

One gets a hint of this variability by looking at the plants that have adapted to this environment over millennia.

The ubiquitous prickly pear cactus is a good example. If water is “short” the prickly pear will contract.  Its leaves have evolved as spines to minimize water loss and the pad – or stem – expands or contracts to adapt to the environment. 

The water requirements of people, on the other hand, seem to remain constant or simply increase with population growth…they believe the numerical averages…and while supply is highly variable, people haven’t learned in this environment that our lives must adapt to a certain element of variability.

Where I’d suggest we look for an answer is the natural environment…the requirements of “lean necessity” in the desert.  If we continue to over-draft our system, like the prickly pear, we’ll have to begin to contract.

In harsh terms, it’s a choice of adapt or perish. 

See also: