American West Must Evaluate in Order to Sustain Limited Freshwater Supply

by Allison Mayes

Writer for the Los Angeles Daily News, Dana Bartholomew, recently released an article discussing the dry American West and was not afraid to express her opinion about how people should not be attempting to turn the West into a luscious green garden. The article focuses heavily on the topic of freshwater in the West and brings to light that the West may be struggling to find a decent source of freshwater within the next few decades. Bartholomew writes:

The semiarid Southland imports more than half its water from hundreds of miles away through some of the modern world’s largest aqueducts. But water officials now say that in the decades ahead, it may not be enough — that more must be done to conserve and develop more water supplies here at home.

Longer cycles could bring severe drought. The 11th century saw an 80-year drought, long enough to wipe out a tribe of pre-Columbian Pueblo peoples. With the exception of a few water heavy storms, it’s been drier than normal for a decade.The West has been dry for millions of years, with hugely varying annual rainfall, climatologists say. The Southland gets an average of 15 inches a year — enough water to supply 5 million people. But that can range from the 3 inches that Los Angeles eked by with seven years ago, to the 38 inches dumped on it during an El Nino season.


Due to a continuing rise in population, climate change, and agriculture, it is a matter of great importance that freshwater be monitored much better than it has been. Bartholomew states that agriculture is a big part of why people need to worry about how long their source of freshwater will last. In the West, both cotton and rice are major crops that need a lot of water to have a healthy harvest. Considering the West is so dry, even more water is needed during dry spells and there is no system in place to recapture the unused water once it reaches the ground. Another key issue to the problem is keeping major cities looking green with flowers and grass. Once again more water is needed to maintain the foliage throughout all seasons and a lot of it is lost as well. Finally, one of the biggest issues is American’s wanting to continuously move out West. The population has continued to rise at a rapid rate and more people willingly seek to live out West with their families. Some of the main sources of water were not intended to support such a population increase and some scientists foresee these freshwater sources as being dried up in about another decade.

Bartholomew offers some hope as she explains there are efforts to capture more runoff water and put regulations on the amount of water that can be used for agriculture. Also, she says the West wants to see more people coming, so many more cities try to stay up to date on the foreseen water crisis. However, she is very skeptical of the West keeping up and regulating such problems to the extent that they need to. She feels some key elements to preventing the problem will be ignored until it is too late.


Although there is not an exact time frame when the freshwater will dry out, Bartholomew writes that action must be taken now to prevent future dilemmas. Governments must work faster to clean up old polluted wells, find ways to better retain water inexpensively, and if need be set regulations on how much water people can use daily. Also, citizens need to be aware of these issues when choosing where they wish to live. Since freshwater is very valuable and necessary for life, it is worthwhile to take the time and question whether turning the West into a large green suburb is really worth it in the long run.

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Allison MayesAllison Mayes is serving an internship in the Sustainability Studies Program this Fall 2013 semester as a contributor and assistant editor of this blog as well as the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future (SSF) website project. A senior SUST major, Allison was a lead author of the Water section of the SSF project in 2011 and was part of the inaugural section of SUST 350 Service & Sustainability class that worked at the Chicago Lights Urban Farm in Cabrini-Green during the winter/spring of 2012.

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