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Goodbye Pools, Lawns and a Whole Lot More: Why Life in the Southwest as We Know it Will Be History

Water in the very near future will be neither cheap nor plentiful, and much of the Southwest is destined for real trouble.

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"For the Colorado River basin and the Southwest," Powell says, "the threat from global warming lies not in the comfortably distant future -- the threat is here today. West of the 100th meridian, the danger derives not from the slow rise of the sea but from the more rapid fall of the reservoirs... business as usual cannot continue."

The changes needed are virtually unimaginable now. Powell shows that right now, farms in the region use 80 percent of the water, and cities use the rest -- about half of that for landscaping (which is why there are fountains in Phoenix and lawns in Las Vegas). Even cutting back agricultural use and slashing landscaping use and combining them with the most aggressive conservation efforts imaginable would still only at best buy time for a new way of life suited to a much drier, much hotter climate to emerge.

What that way of life looks like, Powell doesn't say, and I don't think anyone has even begun to imagine. The realities of living in places with high temperatures rivaling those today found only in Death Valley, where water is too scarce and too expensive to water lawns and fill swimming pools (and where higher energy prices make vast air conditioned spaces unrealistic); well, those realities are brutal. It will take some major innovation to imagine how to transform what's there now into a decent way of life in those conditions.

I expect that a lot of the desert Southwest will, in historical time, dry up and blow away. But for the foreseeable future, people will live there. If nothing else, there will be a certain percentage of the population that's just too impoverished or too old, too house-poor or too stubborn to leave. It's not too early to start imagining how to reinvent the future they're inheriting.

Alex Steffen is the executive editor of Worldchanging.

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