It first dawned on me that climate change was here and now when I read an article bby Oliver MIlman in the Guardian Weekly this summer about the Hoover Dam. I had visited the dam a couple of years ago when Chris and I drove to Las Vegas to pick up her sister who had flown in from Winnipeg. The dam was an awesome sight. But like many others I was struck by the white “bathtub ring” of the reservoir that showed graphically how the level in the reservoir had been dropping for decades.
The article in the Guardian had a very similar photo of the reservoir but the water level had dropped even more. That was hard to believe. It was also hard to swallow. After living there for 3 months each year for about half a dozen years I have fallen in love with the American southwest. It is a place of awesome beauty and fascination. I consider it my second home.
The Guardian described the situation at Lake Mead this way: “The situation here is emblematic of a planet slowly, inexorably overheating. And the catastrophic consequences of the extreme weather this brings.” The reservoir created by the dam is the largest reservoir in North America. It is an amazing sight. Yet the level of water in the reservoir has plummeted to historic lows. This could cause many places in the southwest including my beloved Arizona to face some steep cuts in their water supplies and they don’t have a lot of alternative sources of water. They have already used a lot of ingenuity to get at water and the supply is limited. Someone once said the wars of the 21st century will be founded on water issues like the wars of the 20th century had their basis in oil.
First, we must all admit that it really does not make sense that the American southwest being as dry as it, is home to such huge cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. That was only possible because of the huge efforts made by Americans to tame the desert. They wanted to control nature. Matin Heidegger, by way of Friedrich Nietzsche referred to this idea as the will to power, and there are few better examples of it than this region. Those imbued with will-to-power in this sense want to tame nature. As Oliver Milman said,
“Had the formidable white arc of the Hoover dam never held back the Colorado River, the US west would probably have no Los Angeles or Las Vegas as we know them today. No sprawling food bowl of wheat, alfalfa and corn. No dreams of relocating to live in a tamed desert. The river, and dam, made the west; now the climate crisis threatens to break it.”
The dam is a demonstration of engineering at its finest (or if you like its most brutal). As Milman said, “The engineering might of Hoover dam undoubtably reshaped America’s story, harnessing a raucous river to help carve huge cities and vast fields of crops into unforgiving terrain.”
The Hoover dam is huge (though much smaller than the 3 Gorges Dam we saw in China). It is as high as a 60-story building and is 45ft thick at the top and 660ft at the bottom. It was built during the extremes of the Great Depression and was a source of national pride when it was done. It was an engineering marvel.
But that was then; this is now. Now nature seems to be fighting back. And like they say, “Nature always bats last.” Thanks in part to climate change, also man made, the region is in the midst of a historic drought. As a result, the dam may no longer make sense, even though it is so badly needed. As Milman said, “We bent nature to suit our own needs,” said Brad Udall, a climate and water expert at Colorado State University. “And now nature is going to bend us.”
We must learn to stop fighting nature and instead learn to work with nature. Climate change is proving that we need a new attitude to nature. And we need it quickly.