The future of drought in America

While politicians battle over climate regulations, a growing number of urban planners and landscape managers are quietly preparing for a more arid world. A fascinating book review in the New York Times today explores two recent books about the future of the American Southwest, a region that is today gripped by drought - and will likely be even drier as the years go by. Writes Cornelia Dean:

Though we think of the Southwest as dry - and it is dry - its development and population took off during a period in the 20th century when it enjoyed perhaps its wettest weather in hundreds of years. The killing droughts that have lately gripped the region were unusual by recent standards but otherwise all too typical and all too likely to recur - a prospect the National Research Council has called "sobering."

That prospect is the subject of two new books, A Great Aridness, by William deBuys, a conservationist based in New Mexico, and Bird on Fire, by Andrew Ross, a social scientist at New York University.

"The story of the West is essentially a story about water," Dr. deBuys writes.

Water, that is, "and its lack."

In his hands, it is a sweeping story, encompassing global weather patterns, the mysterious histories and farming practices of the native people whose settlements rose and vanished in the desert, and the firefighters, biologists, anthropologists, water administrators and others who deal with increasing dryness today and seek to plan for an even drier tomorrow . . . Dr. Ross raises similar issues in Bird on Fire.

This book's focus is narrower - the city of Phoenix, rather than the area roughly from the Four Corners states to northern Mexico that forms Dr. deBuys's canvas. But Dr. Ross also casts a wider net, considering issues like air quality, the unjust confluence of noxious manufacturing and low-income neighborhoods, and the circular economics of a city whose population growth was fueled by the need for construction workers to build the houses required by the influx of construction workers.

Dean also touches on the solutions that the two authors suggest for the area, including geoengineering projects like cloud seeding. What's particularly notable about both books is that they offer a portrait of scientists and land planners whose visions of the future are likely at odds with most people's common sense idea of what comes next. While many people in Phoenix and other Southwestern cities may see today's droughts as temporary, the experts that deBuys and Ross cite in their work are all in the midst of planning for a dry future - in their region and elsewhere in the world.

Read more about both books in the New York Times.

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