18 February 2008

Is the Desert Blossoming?

Desert sky
Dream beneath the desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
We need new dreams tonight

(Lyrics from ‘In God’s Country’ by U2)

From the time they left the United States in 1846 to head West, the Mormons were involuntarily introduced to living in the desert. Since that time, the country has followed them West, against the recommendations of John Wesley Powell. "Powell challenged the popularly held belief that ‘rain follows the plow’—that is, that tilling the soil actually increases the annual rainfall, or that as the population grows, the moisture intensifies." And yet today, three of the fastest growing metro areas in America are Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. At the end of 2006, seven of the top ten largest cities in the country all bordered Mexico. (source) The population is shifting to the desert and is quickly running out of water.

Last week was reported that Lake Mead, the largest artificial reservoir in the country, has a 50% chance of going dry by 2021 because of increasing demand from the booming populations. (here and here) The population estimate for Las Vegas and Clark County is two million, Phoenix is four million, and greater Los Angeles is 13 million.

These three cities also happen to be some of the largest concentrations of Mormons outside of Utah. There are 83 Stakes in Arizona, 33 in Nevada, and 158 in California. Adding these to the other desert-climate states of Idaho (107), Texas (52), Utah (425), Wyoming (13), and New Mexico (14), for a total of 885, which is 1/3 of the entire church total of 2745.

With one third of the Church living in the American desert, how does this affect our attitudes towards the land? Is it even sustainable to live in a desert? With very little rain, past policies built dams on rivers to provide a water source for living and irrigating with. River flows were modified and aquatic species were threatened or extinguished. The excellent book by Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert, states "By the late 1970’s, there were 1251 major reservoirs in California, and every significant river—save one—had been dammed at least once." (page 9). Irrigation was needed to expand into the west, hydroelectric power was the cash cow, and so dams were built by the thousands, creating "a blanket death sentence for the free-flowing rivers in sixteen states." (page 136)

Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Utah, Rand Decker, stated, "The Colorado River, already utilized at 100-plus percent, will have more demands put on it as the Southwest continues to grow. The need for a well thought out, overarching policy, including instructional and technical considerations, will also grow. Utah is, literally, right in the middle of this." (source)

But is water conservation even a high priority to members of the church who have at least 1/3 of its members living in a desert? As of 2002, Utahns were the 2nd highest per capita water users in the country while also being the 2nd driest state in the nation (next to Nevada). Additionally, "Utahns waste up to 25 to 50 percent of all the water they use outside by relying on automatic sprinkling systems, which tend to over water by about 44 percent; by planting water-consuming Kentucky bluegrass lawn, rather than native, drought-resistant grasses; and by growing gardens of water-needy types of vegetation rather than native shrubs and flowers." (source)

From the scriptures, we learn about the temporary sojourn of both the children of Israel and Lehi’s family through the desert. After eight years of being led by the Liahona through the "fertile parts of the wilderness" (1 Nephi 16:16), Lehi’s family arrived at the land of Bountiful, with "its much fruit and also wild honey; and all these things were prepared of the Lord that we might not perish." (1 Nephi 17:5) Moses provided food (Exodus 16) and water (Exodus 15:22-25 and Exodus 17:1-6) miraculously to the children of Israel during their 40 years of wandering through the desert. Is the sojourn of the church in the desert likewise only temporary? If water sources run dry, is picking up and moving an option?

Oft-quoted scriptures about the desert include "the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose" (Isaiah 35:1) and "he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord." (Isaiah 51:3) Are these scriptures speaking literally? Isn’t this scripture speaking metaphorically for Israel receiving the gospel and flourishing? Because literally speaking, the western United States is still a desert. Irrigation has made it possible to live in such a climate, but annual rainfall is still very low.

Looking away from America, Dubai, also located in a desert, is the fastest growing city in the world. With no reliable water source, they have invested in the technology of desalination plants from the ocean to provide their water. "DEWA delivers water to almost 305,000 customers across the emirate of Dubai. As the Emirate continues its vibrant progress in all spheres, DEWA meets the growing demand for water and electricity, by advanced planning, preparing the necessary groundwork and execution of its projects at the highest quality, safety and environmental standards." (source)

Latter-day Saints pioneered the settling of the desert West. What is our proposed solution for the upcoming water shortage? Are we prepared? Here is one interesting concept, based on building greenhouses over microdams. David O Mckay said, "With every progressive age of the world, intellectual, nobleminded leaders have sought a better way of living than that which was current....The Church...offers to the world the solution of all its social problems."

As Latter-day Saints, do we really believe this? If so, what is the answer? Migration?Technology? A Miracle…?


Mellifera said...

My husband once made an interesting observation. He's from Delaware, where lawns are pretty much left to the rain they get, and everybody's goes brown in July and August. It's normal.

Lawns in Utah desert are always green. They wouldn't exist without irrigation period... why would it occur to you to not do it? It's an interesting case how we can get into an environmental alternate reality, just because we can.

PS: Where can you get a copy of "Zion in Eden"? I've been trying to find it but haven't been having much luck.

Latter-Day Sustainablist said...

The Feb issue of National Geographic had an article Drying of the West, which addresses the same topic.

green mormon architect said...

Oops - I need to move that one to essays. 'Zion in Eden' is actually an essay published in the book 'The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains' by Dan Flores. It is at Amazon, or probably at the library.

latter-day sustainablist,
Thanks for the National Geographic link - that's a good one. I wish we had the NG channel on our satellite...it looks like they have some good shows as well.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in St. George, and always thought it was interesting how many golf courses there were in our desert city. I love grass, and my parents' yard had plenty of it, but I really admired the few people in our community who chose to go with desert landscaping (rocks, desert plants, etc.).

I've also recently lived in the Emirates (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, etc.), which is even hotter than where I grew up. While we were there the UAE was announced to have the highest per capita water consumption in the world. Desalination plants don't yet provide all the water used, and it is a very serious issue. Last year the water was cut off for days in some of the poorer areas. The wealthy continue to water their lawns and gardens, wash their fancy cars daily, never thinking about conserving. Recently, water utility costs have been raised (for expats only, nationals still get free water from what I understand, but expats do make up most of the population).

It was interesting living there, because the Emiratis are very proud of their growth and development, and are openly proud of turning the desert green. After Sheikh Zayed passed away, however, we noticed a subtle shift--the municipality in our city began removing a lot of plants and shrubs from the very manicured main streets, we assumed in order to conserve water.

green mormon architect said...

Thank you very much for your comments. I haven't been able to find much information on the desalination plants, so I appreciate your insight on this.

My office recently started doing some work in Dubai and I admit to being quite skeptical about the whole situation there: unbelievable wealth from oil trying to build a sustainable community in the desert, all at a scale larger than the world has ever seen. It just doesn't make sense. You probably know this, but they have even built a ski-lift there as well - in the middle of the Arabian desert!

They have definitely done a good job of promoting their 'oasis' image. With the growth occuring there, do you know the long-term plan for water? Are they continuing to invest in desalination? It sounds like water may become prohibitively expensive for them as they continue to grow.

Anonymous said...

Yes, we've been to the snow park at Ski Dubai--it became a Christmas tradition while we were there. :) There is another developer who wants to put an even bigger indoor ski run down Jebel Hafeet in our old home town of Al Ain--I truly hope this doesn't happen. It would just ruin the mountain, in my opinion, regardless of sustainability.

I don't know what the country plans to do long-term about water. I have noticed that they are gradually working to educate the public about water conservation--giving posters to schools, holding art competitions on environmental issues, etc. Right now there isn't a lot of concern for the environment among the average Emiratis, as far as their actions show. Littering is a huge problem--I was really astonished at first how carelessly people throw trash on the ground, out of their cars, leave messes behind after picnics, etc. But they have foreign laborers to do all their cleaning up for them, most families have servants, and I think this contributes to a lack of individual responsibility and concern.

My guess is that their only choice is to invest in more desalination plants. It's fascinating to see the growth taking place there--things have changed so quickly. I'll be watching developments there over the next decade with interest (and sometimes wish I were still living there!). For now public utilities are partially subsidized by the government, but I do wonder about the future. Oil is running out in Dubai, so they are depending on creating an attractive tourist destination.

Mellifera said...

Interesting with the desalination. I did some agricultural field study in French Poly a few years ago and found out Bora Bora gets about half their water from desalination. Most places get enough rain to use cisterns and wells, but half of Bora Bora's in rain shadow and couldn't quite do that. Interestingly enough, Bora Bora's desal water (though it does taste a little, um, petroleumy- but it's not the tourist side of the island, so no worries!) doesn't have any chlorine or other stuff in it as it's been recently boiled and is consumed pretty quickly. Some stake members visiting Maupiti (the out-in-the-bush island we were on most of the time) from Bora one time said Maupiti water made them feel sick what with the chlorine they put into the cisterns. I the American didn't notice a thing. : )

Obviously, Bora Bora isn't sitting on top of oil wells. It blows my mind to think of how much it must be costing to transport that much oil to the middle of the freakin' Pacific. I guess if tourist wealth can keep Bora in desalinated water, it can do it for Dubai too.

Of course, your average Bora Bora Tahitian has a MUCH lower standard of living than the average Emirati. All those over-the-water bungalows are owned by Americans or French or Japanese, and the government skims off just enough money to pay for desalination plants that they wouldn't need if it weren't for all the tourists. (There are more of them than Tahitians on Bora Bora any day of the year.)

green mormon architect said...

Sorry for the delay on this, but your comment is very applicable, especially with all the talk now about putting up new dams in the West. Do you have any info on the amount of oil required for desalination? It makes me wonder if the tradeoff is worth it. Both new dams and desalination are expensive and have negatives. Almost seems like a lose-lose situation to me...for the Western US at least.