It is amazing to see the emptyness. The contrast between Arizona and Nevada is stark. There are mountains and dry land, but the clear desert sky and winding roads that go miles without anyone.
There are exceptions. For example, there is an American Air Force base which tests drones for warfare, and there is a small community of 300 or so people that offers great burgers next to a junkyard full of vintage cars.
The US is not new to abandoning its core. Americans have moved from rural areas with small or medium-sized towns to larger cities in recent years, seeking better living conditions and employment.
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In 1950, 64% lived in urban areas. Today, 83% of the population lives in urban areas. In 2050, that number will reach almost 90%. The incidence of natural catastrophes was not considered in migration within the US. But this has changed.
In addition to socioeconomic factors, the climate crisis is a major factor contributing to the American interior being empty. According to a 2018 study by the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, one in twelve people living in the south will move to California or the mountains of the west and northwest over the next 45-years due to climate chaos.
This scenario will likely increase poverty and inequality and strengthen the disorderly urbanization that afflicts large cities, often making them unable or unwilling to provide basic services.
This phenomenon is best illustrated by our first stop in Arizona. Phoenix, the state capital, overtook Philadelphia last year to become the fifth-largest city in the US —and the fastest-growing in the country. The population grew 11.2% from 1.4 million people in 2010 to 1.6 million in 2020.
There are concerns about water supplies for all the residents as taller buildings have replaced homes. As of September this year, 113 people had died from reasons related to high temperatures in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, more than double the 55 recorded in the same period in 2020.
It was nearly 36°C in early October, during autumn in the northern hemisphere, when we found Rick Caywood in Casa Grande, rural Arizona. Although the region is located approximately seventy-five kilometres from Phoenix, it is a leader for the production of cotton, barley, and cattle in the state. However the Caywood family farm could only produce alfalfa this season.
Rick took us to the lands that Travis and Nancy had worked in, wearing suspenders, a cap, as well as peppermint scent to relieve persistent coughs.
He explains that alfalfa is more heat resistant than cotton, for example, and has a stable price — making the legume the safest bet in difficult times.
“Drought has been a problem in Arizona for decades, but it’s gotten worse.” Rick states that people in Arizona are now using wells. The water tables are also falling.
The Colorado River supplies water to Arizona, Nevada, California and New Mexico. It also supplies Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, California, New Mexico and Utah. However, severe droughts in recent decades have raised the river’s levels to levels not seen before. This has led to a shortage at Lake Mead (the largest water reservoir in America, located on the border between Arizona, Nevada).
In August this year, given the emergency situation, the US government declared a shortage of water in the Colorado River — an unprecedented announcement — and predicted a reduction in the supply of several states from the beginning of 2022.
The seven states that share the river have added the cuts to a contingency plan that can be expanded.
Initial orders were that cities and tribes be spared. This allowed rationing to take place in rural areas.
Rick says, “Cities are killing our cities because they are now a priority supply.” “My question to them is, what will happen when the farms stop producing. […]These people need food and clothing, so we need to plant crops.
Nancy, Rick’s ex-wife, was walking erratically to show the crunching noise she made as she stepped on dried leaves on her property. She explains that the field looks green from a distance but the reality is quite different. “Among the plants that remain, there is only dry leaves. “My harvest will drop a lot, as we have lost half of our crop,” says the farmer. “Last Year, we had a little water at that time.” [September and October]Now we don’t. I believe next year will prove to be even worse.
The US desert has been historically dry. But climate change has made it worse. 2020 was the driest year for Nevada and Arizona since 1894. In April, Casa Grande’s federal agency that regulates irrigation canals warned farmers that there wouldn’t be enough water to sustain their crops.
Julio Vazquez, a Mexican citizen, has lived in the US for over 40 years and has been working in Arizona cotton growing. He claims that his life was better years ago, even though he didn’t have the documents to allow him to work and live in the US. “It had more crops which meant more work. People are leaving now that the water is scarcer.
American Jack Henness owns the land where Julio lives. He parked his pickup right next to reporters to ask what we were discussing with the employee. We explained the topic to him, and he sighed.
“The government could provide assistance to farmers during these critical phases with a subsidy, or something similar. It’s hard because there are many other problems. While we are experiencing drought, on the other side there are floods and hurricanes. [California forest] fires.”
Jack celebrates the sale of much his family’s Arizona land at 63. On the other hand, he regrets that younger farmers are the ones most affected by the fact that they have to leave the business earlier than they would like. “The climate crisis is drastically changing people’s lives.”
It is a must to visit the main water source in the American West. We reached Lake Mead on October 4th. This reservoir was built in the 1930s. It reached its lowest point in its history this year.
Its dam, the famous Hoover Dam, was the backdrop for films like “Superman” (1978), and “Into the Wild” (2005). Today, it is a tourist attraction.
It is amazing to see this massive structure in the middle of the desert. As a reminder, a lighter area divides the mountains around this lake. The peak, which was approximately 370m above sea level, is from 1983. The reservoir capacity was 35% as of August 2021.
Despite this, the recreational areas surrounding the dam still function as a spa for people who, unlike Arizona farmers, say they don’t notice the climate crisis much, since they live in cities — for now spared from rationing.
Jessica Owens, 41, was one among those who took a risk and did a dive despite warnings about the lack of lifeguards. She believes that Lake Mead has changed and that climate chaos is real. However, she has never experienced water shortages so the crisis is barely visible in her daily life.
Jessica lives in Las Vegas. The city draws its water from Lake Mead for 90% of its 650,000 inhabitants. More than 40 million tourists visit Las Vegas annually to find resorts and casinos.
Some resorts have 6,000 rooms. Smoking is permitted where there are slot machines and card games. There are no doors or windows in the resorts to allow for a lively night environment.
The culture of consumption and waste — the driving force of many Americans’ lifestyles — is reflected in scenes that repeat themselves at every step on the Strip, the city’s most touristy avenue.
Bacchanal Buffet is a 600-seat all-you can-eat restaurant that charges $74.99. Daytime, they cool off with drinks in large pools with artificial waves.
Las Vegas is the fastest warming city in the US, with summer temperatures exceeding 45°C. Like Phoenix, it is growing fast and trying to find ways to not collapse in the face a combination climate crisis and high demand.
If there is no global action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Las Vegas can expect to experience more than three months a year with temperatures above 37°C, including 60 days above 40°C. Officials state that there are measures being taken to reduce the crisis, including water conservation and use of renewable energy.
One example is that almost all of the water used in Las Vegas by homes and businesses is returned into the Colorado River, making the water available again for city usage.
“You can go to Las Vegas, turn on all the faucets and flush all the toilets and it won’t affect how much water we take from Colorado River,” says Corey Enus (public information coordinator for the Las Vegas Water Agency). “We have the most efficient infrastructure in the US. The water we lose in the treatment process is between 8% and 12%, which is eight times lower than the national average. Corey thinks that 40% of the city’s water is reused. The remaining 60% is used for non-reuse, such as in hotels, restaurants, and commerce.
47 employees of the Las Vegas Valley Water District are responsible for the dreadful task of controlling outdoor water use in the middle the desert. Perry Kaye (61), is one of them. He has been working in the city as a wastewater investigator for 16 years.
He walks the streets from 3:30 to 2:00 in order to warn, fine and punish those who misuse water. Perry, while on his Oct. 6 rounds, showed us the most persistent violation: two automatic sprinklers were spraying water over a garden every day, or at times not permitted by law.
He films the scene with his cell phone and then narrates what he sees to make it clear. He also leaves a notice on his garage door. “They received a warning because they had never received anything like it before. I hope they will act quickly. The fine can range from US$80 up to US$1,280 (R$440 up to R$7.040), depending on the recurrence.
It is considered waste in Las Vegas when water from the district is used off-property at prohibited times or days. Summer is hot enough to not water lawns and plants between 11 AM and 7 PM. The liquid evaporates quickly and it is too hot. Other times of the year, the city can be divided into zones with specific irrigation times and days.
The agent stated that water consumption can be cut by 50% if everyone follows the rule. He also said that dawn is the best time to violate the rule, which occurs between 3:30 and 5:00 AM. “People don’t expect us to be there at any time, because we’re public servants. Many people try to hide the waste overnight. They think they are being sneaky, but it’s not. We’re there with our flashlights.
Perry claims that he investigates 20-30 cases per day and bets on his educational value. According to him, punishments have fallen —the daily peak was 63 violations. “I rarely get a middle finger. It comes from people who don’t know any rules and say that I can’t tell what they should do.
Since 2002, Las Vegas has intensified the war against grass. In an effort to encourage residents to get rid of grass in their gardens for cash, it launched a program. While the measure worked for a while it was not sustainable due to the decline in demand, new public actions were necessary in the face the intensifying drought.
In June, a law was passed so that all decorative grass (from flower beds, entrances to condominiums and commercial areas) is removed by the end of 2026 —that is, 31% of the city’s grass, which can generate annual savings of billions of liters of water.
It could be too late. There are new ways to combat climate change. In the American West, mandatory water cuts are already planned. In the worst case scenario, the effects are likely to reach beyond rural areas and put pressure on big cities, testing a system on which 40 million people depend — many of whom are skeptical that an existential threat has already reached their backyards.