Thursday, February 22, 2007

Learning to Live With Reality

It's only human nature for us to see places from a generational perspective. We adapt to places based on how they've been for the past generation or two.

Florida is a great example. It has a hurricane cycle. For a couple of decades the incidence of hurricanes diminishes. Then they return again, in full force. Florida's population has grown tremendously in recent decades, a period of hurricane retreat. That period seems to be ending. Now, houses are being damaged by hurricanes before they're completely rebuilt from a previous hurricane.

The reconstruction, of course, was funded by insurers who now refuse to write hurricane insurance. Governors or Washington can declare disaster zones and send some funds but not on a continual basis. Eventually places must become economically unviable places to live.

Even more devastating than hurricanes, however, are severe droughts. The American southwest has been experiencing a multi-year drought evident in the levels of the Colorado River. Lake Mead, pictured above, shows a "ring around the bathtub" effect from falling water levels. This has caused real alarm.
The Colorado River Compact, negotiated among several states in 1922, relied on water flow records going back about three decades. They assumed an annual flow of about 16.4 million acre-feet. Now it turns out the Colorado River's historic norm is closer to 13 million acre-feet per year and even less during sustained drought.
The Canadian prairie is also susceptible to severe drought. Here again we've taken a generational perspective on the region. The 20th century was unduly wet for the Canadian prairie, sort of a freak condition. However, it allowed a thriving agriculture to take hold and, along with it, settlement of villages, towns and cities.
We've already had droughts that caused Alberta ranchers to dispose of their herds, sometimes down to their breeding stock.
These areas have been settled on the assumption of a continuation of a status quo that never really was the status quo. This means new solutions must be found to counter the effect of drought on water resources. That's not easy to do.
When the people of Saskatchewan and Alberta settled the prairie lands no one had "mega-drought" in mind. Yet that region has been afflicted by these phenomenon regularly in the past. These are droughts that persist from 40-to 60-years at a stretch. There was a mega-drought in 1300 and another around 1600. What happens when the next one arrives, perhaps accelerated by global warming?
A drought of two or even three-generations in duration could easily undermine the viability of prairie habitation. Vast swathes of the prairie, including a number of cities, could become unlivable.
This isn't fantasy. It's a reality that led former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed to write a lengthy op-ed piece in the Globe & Mail a few years back urging that Canada not let the genie out of the bottle by permitting the sale of fresh water to the US. Lougheed argued that we're going to need that water for the survival of the prairie - Alberta and Saskatchewan. He envisioned a water transpotation grid, mainly canals, to feed water to the prairie by diverting it from running off into the oceans instead.
I think the global warming problem is going to teach us that, if our societies are going to survive, we're going to have to stop thinking generationally, accept the realities of nature and her cycles of storms, mega-droughts and massive earthquakes, and begin to adapt our lives for what will be needed in centuries to come, not merely a couple of generations.

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