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The wrath of 2007: America's great drought - Independent Online Edition > Americas

America is facing its worst summer drought since the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression. Or perhaps worse still.

From the mountains and desert of the West, now into an eighth consecutive dry year, to the wheat farms of Alabama, where crops are failing because of rainfall levels 12 inches lower than usual, to the vast soupy expanse of Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida, which has become so dry it actually caught fire a couple of weeks ago, a continent is crying out for water.

In the south-east, usually a lush, humid region, it is the driest few months since records began in 1895. California and Nevada, where burgeoning population centres co-exist with an often harsh, barren landscape, have seen less rain over the past year than at any time since 1924. The Sierra Nevada range, which straddles the two states, received only 27 per cent of its usual snowfall in winter, with immediate knock-on effects on water supplies for the populations of Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The human impact, for the moment, has been limited, certainly nothing compared to the great westward migration of Okies in the 1930 - the desperate march described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.

Big farmers are now well protected by government subsidies and emergency funds, and small farmers, some of whom are indeed struggling, have been slowly moving off the land for decades anyway. The most common inconvenience, for the moment, are restrictions on hosepipes and garden sprinklers in eastern cities.



In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 01:46:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]

The most common inconvenience, for the moment, are restrictions on hosepipes and garden sprinklers in eastern cities.

And thus nothing will be done for now.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 03:58:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Same in London and the English South East.

We have a drought and houses don't even have water meters: people pay a flat rate.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 04:30:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Most houses built since 1987? or so in the South East do have a water meter in, particularly houses aimed at lower income families.

Strangely enough, articulate rich people have found ways around these planning regulations with some regularity.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 06:00:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In other words: metering for the poor, flat rate for the rich?

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 06:17:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Those lawns aren't cheap to maintain, and if they had to pay the full price they wouldn't be able to afford them.

So expecting them to pay makes no sense, clearly.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 08:08:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but in defence of the south East, it's only in the last couple of decades that rainfall patterns have changed to the extent that there are real threats to the aquifers.

That said, government has simply not reacted at all to the reality that they need to discourage development in the south east over this issue. That and the certainty that the Thames Barrier (or any proposed replacement) will be overwhelemed increasingly during this century means that any sensible country would be getting heck out of London, not encouraging even more.

In that context, water meters are like carbon offsets; missing the point entirely.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 10:56:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Down the line, though, there are serious questions about how to keep showers and lawn sprinklers going in the retirement communities of Nevada and Arizona.
Note the question is "how" not "whether".

It is certifiably insane to try to transpland the English grass lawn to Arizona, but that's exactly what the US suburban lifestyle is: certifiably insane.

When we lived in Southern California our landlady (who was a friend) told us that, since we didn't pay for water (!) we should just water the lawn as much as necessary. We were never able to keep the sprinklers running long enough to keep it green out of concern for the amount of wasted water, and it got green by itself every time it rained.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 07:41:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Across the West, farmers and city water consumers are locked in a perennial battle over water rights - one that the cities are slowly winning.

...

In the south-east, the crisis is immediate - and may be alleviated at any moment by the arrival of the tropical storm season. In Georgia, where the driest spring on record followed closely on the heels of a devastating frost, farmers are afraid they might lose anywhere from half to two-thirds of crops such as melons and the state's celebrated peaches. Many cities are restricting lawn sprinklers to one hour per day - and some places one hour only every other day.

The victory of lifestyle over food.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 07:43:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
We really need to develop some alternative status signifiers that don't waste useful resources so stupidly.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 07:46:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And make resource wastage a source of social shame.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 07:49:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
precisely because it is obvious to everybody that it is waste?

As in: 'I know it, you know it, and you cannot do anything about it'?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 07:57:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sure, but we could move it into more useful waste of money, not resources like water. Maybe start a craze for intricate locally hand-crafted totem poles from locally grown woods.

The point about lawns was that in the 18th C (or whenever they originate - I forget) only the rich could afford them because they were labour intensive. Now almost anyone can afford them and they're not a good signifier of wealth at all: they've become a signifier of decency instead.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 08:09:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem is that the underlying currency isn't conspicuous consumption, so much as freedom from the constraints of nature, and from the influence of others.

Western culture is predominantly solipsistic, and what's valued isn't so much the acquisition of stuff for its own sake, but the fact that the stuff signifies distance from the physical and social world.

This is what neolibs call freedom. It's not about politics or free speech, it's about doing whatever you feel like doing without having to pay any attention to the consequences for other people.

Success means never having to say you're sorry to anyone, for any reason.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 08:15:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In Southern California, the signifier of decency should be having drought-resistant plants in your yard. But as you point out, to be decent you have to be high-maintenance.

Other examples of the "English lawn": the tennis court, and the football pitch. And then the "Scottish hills" that Golf is played on. Golf courses are even more obscene, with their fake river meanders and sand banks. Especially in California, Arizona or Southern Spain.

Re: football pitch. I used to be horrified by the thought of artificial grass (as is used for American football). Maybe that's actually a decent solution.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 08:20:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Artificial grass is a decent alternative, assuming that the resource usage involved making it is sensible.

Golf is just an obscenity, except in areas where it's sort of close to the "natural" landscape. (Since the natural landscape in those parts of the world is pretty much trees coast to coast.)

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 08:31:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Wikipedia: Lawn is well worth a read.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 09:28:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Approximately 50-70 percent of American residential water is used for landscaping, most of it to water lawns.

Eeep.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 09:35:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, I guess in case of need they can make lawn-salad.
by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 09:36:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I like this one
Virginia Scott Jenkins, in her book The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession (1994), traces the desire to kill weeds historically. She notes that the current rage for a chemically-dependent lawn emerged after World War II, and argues that "American front lawns are a symbol of man's control of, or superiority over, his environment."
I think TBG is right and this is not entirely about status.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 09:42:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, some of it is our bizarre cleanliness/control fetish and/or our bizarre conceit that there is a dividing line between the natural and the human. But that doesn't need grass: gravel or something would do fine.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 09:47:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's not the signifier that's the problem, it's the mindset it signifies.

You can change the mindset, but it's going to take time, and a massive and probably quite unpleasant retooling of the entire Western value set.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 08:10:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not a "Western" value set at all. Status competition is universal across mainstream human culture.

It is the signifier that matters.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 08:12:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but I'm suggesting there's a reason why one signifier is chosen over another.

And if you change that reason, it's easier to change the signifier to something less damaging.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 11:17:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
when I was in LA I was amazed at how the sprinklers would be on most of the night and in the mornings the roads would be running with water.

All I could think was "this is a desert area, where you're taking water from cannot possibly sustain this"
But LA was built upon the conceit of stealing water from the Central Rockies. Mulholland was a cheating shark and Central California is paying for it.

And now that the population is so huge there is the situation of you can either have the cities keep growing wastefully surrounded by desert, or you limit the waste in the cities and keep the agriculture.
I'm not sure that either is sustainable if these rainfall patterns continue, but if the city is preferred the crunch is gonna come a lot sooner.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 10:51:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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