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The Western water crisis and the mandate of stewardship

A call for creative innovation and personal sacrifice

The levels in Nevada’s Lake Mead have dropped below the intake valves used to provide water to the region. Associated Press/Southern Nevada Water Authority

The Western water crisis and the mandate of stewardship
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If you live in the eastern two-thirds of the United States, odds are you’ve noticed a dingy haze in the sky several days this spring—the smoke from massive wildfires raging in the Southwest. Although it’s early in the fire season, the southwestern states have seen unrelenting critical fire conditions for weeks, thanks largely to a multiyear megadrought that is now, studies suggest, the region’s worst since A.D. 800.

Even as the nation’s most arid region becomes steadily drier, the population of the Southwest paradoxically continues to surge. The region features five of the 10 fastest-growing states and two of the five fastest-growing metropolitan areas, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Less rainfall plus more people equals a water crisis that has become too urgent to ignore and offers a valuable case study on the challenges of stewarding Earth’s finite resources.

For decades, the Colorado River, replenished each year by immense snowmelt from the Rocky Mountain ranges, seemed an almost inexhaustible supply of this essential resource, providing water to more than 1 in 10 Americans and irrigating vast swaths of farmland. No longer. As rising demand continues to outpace dwindling supply, the river’s two great reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have fallen to historic lows—in the case of the latter, falling below even the original intake valves for which the lake was designed. If the lake levels fall much more, their dams—Glen Canyon and Hoover—will no longer be able to generate the hydroelectric power on which the region depends. So acute is the shortage that 6 million Southern Californians can now only water their lawns once a week.

As the region’s water shortages continue, many Southwesterners will have to choose among crops, power, indoor plumbing, and green lawns—and the last of these is likely to be the first to go.

As this particular restriction suggests, at least part of the region’s water problem is the result of thoughtless habits. A status symbol since the 17th century, the image of a green, well-manicured front lawn has become an integral part of the American dream. Sadly, grass that grows readily of its own accord in the eastern United States turned out to require immense irrigation as the ideal was exported to the Western frontier. The average lawn in Los Angeles, for instance, demands nearly 160,000 gallons of water per year, considerably more than the average home’s indoor use. As the region’s water shortages continue, many Southwesterners will have to choose among crops, power, indoor plumbing, and green lawns—and the last of these is likely to be the first to go.

At the same time, the news is not all grim. There is still ample scope for human ingenuity to help solve the region’s water problems on the supply side of the equation. Las Vegas, for instance, has continued its explosive population growth in the middle of a desert by pioneering one of the world’s most advanced water-reuse systems. Nearly all indoor water used in the city goes through wastewater treatment plants and back into Lake Mead for subsequent use. Many of us instinctively turn up our noses at the idea of drinking “used” water, but thanks to continued innovations in water treatment technology, recycled water may soon become the norm in many parts of the country.

Still, this solution only works for indoor water use. After all, the water that evaporates from lawns in Arizona is liable to end up fueling thunderstorms in Georgia, and good luck piping that back to the Southwest!

America’s Western water crisis, then, is a good example of a challenge that will require both supply-side and demand-side solutions: creative technological innovation and the willingness to make personal lifestyle sacrifices by choice before they are forced on us by necessity. It resembles many of the environmental challenges continuing to grow in urgency around the globe. Frequently, these are politicized into all-or-nothing debates about the causes of climate change or the dangers of government regulation, but we have to be able to distill them into practical problems to be solved—problems that, like most of those human beings are called upon to solve, will require our creativity and sacrifice. Christians do have a word for this God-given mandate: stewardship.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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