In one way, neither the map nor the story of the West have changed much in the 20 years since the book was published or the 150 years since the story unfolded: the defining difference between the country’s two halves remains water. But that water has become much scarcer, and the pressures on its use and its allocation among users have increased dramatically.
For the first time in history, my son Jake wrote me recently, electricity produced from natural gas exceeds energy produced from coal. To many, that is a good thing because gas burns “cleaner” than coal, and America has a lot of it. But also for the first time in history, we use more water to produce energy than we do to produce food – and nowhere is that change more critical than in the arid west, where we grow most of our food and produce most of our energy.
Hydraulic fracturing uses enormous quantities of water, particularly in the drilling stages, and scientists have raised significant concerns about the chemical contamination of the groundwater from “fracking.” Now, with a searing drought throughout the west, the oil companies are willing to bid a thousand times what farmers can pay for water.
“The West’s cardinal law,” wrote Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert, is “that water flows toward power and money.”