Environment Forum

Is the U.S. West going the way of parched Australia?

The drought-induced infernos which ravaged parts of Australia earlier this year may be a harbinger of the water challenges coming to the American West.

 ”Think of that (Australia) as California’s future,” water researcher Heather Cooley of California’s Pacific Institute told my colleague Peter Henderson. You can see his report, part one of our series on water scarcity in the U.S. West, here.

Plush green golf courses in the desert, verdant boulevards in Los Angeles and fountains that dance 20 stories high in Las Vegas are very much part of today’s landscape and life in the American West.  As California author James Powell says: “Add water and you have the instant good life.”

But as the reports in our series show, the region is in for some tough decisions on the water front as urban populations swell, farmland competes for dwindling supplies, and climate change models predict more droughts and floods and a melting of the snowpack so crucial to life in the West.

Yet in a region known for its technological innovation, the U.S. West could also be a leader in  showing the world how to deal with water crisis. Learn more in parts two, three and four of the series, this week.

Are wildlife and water replacing oil and cattle in Texas?

Frates Seeligson is one of many ranchers contending with an historic drought in the hard heart of Texas. You can see a report on the situation by myself and photographer Jessica Rinaldi here.

Seeligson, an affable fourth-generation rancher who farms to the east of San Antonio in an area currently suffering from what has been dubbed “exceptional” drought conditions, told me that “there are only so many ways that you can make money from dirt.”

In Texas, much of the money from dirt has come from two commodities that have iconic status in this rough and tumble state: oil and cattle.

‘Borrowing’ water, Chinese style

“The south has plenty of water and the north lacks it, so if possible why not borrow some?” China’s revolutionary communist leader Mao Zedong said in 1952.

That probably seemed a great idea at the time.

But it is causing pollution as well as discontent among farmers facing forced resettlement to make way for a mammoth construction to help the parched north — the South-to-North Transfer Project. Much of the system, of dams, canals and tunnels, is due for completion in 2013-14.

Read my colleague Chris Buckley’s fascinating feature about the project as well as a related story and a factbox. The photo above left, by David Gray, shows a fisherman near the village of Shizigang, located on the Danjiangkou Dam that is part of the project in Henan province.

Coke sets targets for cuts in water, emissions

Coca-Cola is the latest American brand working to improve its environmental credentials with a sweeping new program that pledges to improve water efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide emissions throughout its massive global system.

The soft drink maker today said that through a partnership with environmental group WWF, it has commited to eliminating 50 billion liters of water from its bottling plants by 2012 by improving water efficiency by 20 percent over 2004 levels. Coke’s announcement comes a few months after General Electric said it would cut water usage by 20 percent by 2012.

The beverage industry has increasingly become a target for environmentalists, who say plastic soda and water bottles add to landfills while the companies themselves use too much energy producing and shipping bottles across the world.