This is the first post in a two-part series on climate migration. Read posts #2.
“They’ll just dry up and blow away.” — One of my mother’s favorite expressions
The three desert states of Arizona, Nevada and Utah have a combined population of 13.75 million people — and they’re growing like crazy. For example, the population of the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan region, which is currently around five million, is projected to expand by a whopping 67.3% by 2060. The rest of Arizona, and Nevada and Utah, are on similar, if less spectacular, trajectories.
Those same three states are also running out of water — at least as quickly as they’re growing. In fact, according to the 2022 article Arizona’s Future Water Shock, by environmental writer Keith Schneider, “By 2060, according to several published projections, extreme heat and water scarcity could make Phoenix one of the continent’s most uninhabitable places.”
By 2060? Hmm.
Does that mean that Phoenix and its surrounding region are on two conflicting trajectories — one of rampant population growth and another of severely restrictive water shortage — that will cross paths and blow up in four decades? That doesn’t make sense. How could Phoenix be the on its way to becoming the country’s “most uninhabitable” and “fastest growing” city at the same time?
In any case, it clear is that the demographers and boosters projecting continued explosive growth aren’t listening to, or are dismissing, the scientists and environmentalists who are sounding the water-shortage alarm. What’s less clear is why both sides are focusing on such a distant date, when in fact a long-term megadrought has already arrived. We don’t have to wait until 2060 for the water crisis to hit the Southwest. It’s more likely that the conflicting population-growth and water-shortage conditions will create serious friction that will begin coming to a head much sooner — say by between 2030 and 2040 — and that the first waves of climate refugees will start fleeing the region then.
The currently developing disaster is the result of both the severe drought, caused, or at least seriously exacerbated by climate change, and the wasteful overconsumption of the dry region’s water encouraged by stupid, profit-driven policies that subvert conservation efforts. (One of many examples of those policies, which both the federal and the states governments condone, is that Saudi Arabia has bought water rights and land in Arizona. It’s using those resources to grow alfalfa, one of the most water-intensive crops, and shipping it home to feed Saudi race horses and cattle.)
One result of this situation is that the annual flow of the Colorado River, the main source of drinking water for 40 million people in seven states, has dropped 20% in recent years. Among other things, this threatens agribusiness — which, in Arizona uses 74% of the available water — and that in turn means that agricultural jobs will be lost, forcing farm workers to seek employment elsewhere, possibly becoming some of the first of the Southwest’s climate refugees.
We can’t be sure exactly when the climate migrations will begin, and they could be gradual as workers start leaving the region first by the hundreds, then, within a couple of decades, by the thousands. But if agricultural corporations in Arizona and Southern California continue conducting “business as usual,” the chances are good that not only will agricultural employment grind to a halt, but the entire economies of those largely agricultural regions could collapse, and those climate migration numbers could snowball into the millions by that not-too-distant 2060 date.
Sudden shocks to the region’s vulnerable economies are also possible
However, the migrations might not be of a slowly snowballing nature — sudden shocks to the region’s vulnerable economies are also possible. For example, the water level of Lake Mead, the reservoir that feeds Hoover Dam’s electrical generators, is dropping so fast that the dam could stop producing power for its 1.3 million customers in just three years. In five years, the level could reach “deadpool” condition, where the water is too low to flow past the dam, completely cutting off the water supply to Las Vegas (metro population 2.25 million) and irrigation for downstream users.
“At maximum capacity, Lake Mead’s surface would reach an elevation 1,220 feet (372 meters) near the dam. The lake last approached full capacity in the summers of 1983 and 1999.” (Attribution: earthobservatory.nasa.gov)
What kind of economic chaos would that cause? Again, we don’t know, but it’s likely that thousands or hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost in a short period of time, businesses would close and home values would drop precipitously — and people would have to leave.
Many of those people would be newcomers to the area who had recently purchased homes there, and would find themselves figuratively, but certainly not literally “underwater,” locked into mortgages on homes that were rapidly losing value because they are no longer marketable as people stop moving into the a drought-stricken region. Such an event’s cascading effects could soon resemble those of the Dustbowl, which displaced 4.3 million people in the 1930s, when the total U.S. population was under 130 million.
(Note that the government of Nevada claims to have eight years worth of water reserves stashed in aquifers. If this is accurate, the end of Hover Dam’s power generation might be postponed for up to eight years. Then what?)
Where will refugees from Southwest go?
The entire U.S. West and southern Midwest are experiencing drought that will certainly worsen as time goes on. The drought has extended into the Northern Midwest, but the Great Lakes Region will still have water for a time. Despite their bitter cold, often dangerous winter storms (again, exacerbated by climate change), some refugees from the Southwest will likely find their way to states like Wisconsin and Michigan, and even on into upper New York and New England.
But the majority of migrants will probably head to the Pacific Northwest where, from Northern California through British Columbia, there will still be water. Also, much of the region is fairly sparsely populated, even compared to parts of the Southwest. For example, Oregon, which is only slightly smaller than Arizona (98,381 square miles compared to 113,594) has under 60% the desert state’s population of 4.25 million compared to 7.27 million (2021 figures). So it would seem that people would head for all that verdant open country, hoping to establish a new life. But the problem is, the Northwest hasn’t been available for “pioneering” — settling onto unclaimed land — for more than a century. Almost all the land is already owned, much of it by timber companies that have habitually clear-cut the forests. And while the occasional farm or empty lot might come up for sale, the climate refugees most in need of a place to settle will likely be unable to afford one.
Instead, following the practice of refugees the world over, most migrants will move to the cities, hoping to find employment and housing there.
At first, they’ll follow the route of their Dustbowl predecessors, heading for California. Los Angeles might accommodate the early waves, but it will soon become saturated with the newly arriving unemployed, and largely unemployable, people. Also, remember that Southern California is also rapidly drying out, so early migrants from the desert states and cities will not be able to settle into rural areas and compete with the region’s agricultural workers for their jobs, because those, too, will be disappearing. They will have to keep going, even bypassing the San Francisco Bay Area, which will probably still have some water, but will price them out, and continue to Oregon, where I live: Sparsely populated Oregon, with its 4.25 million people. The Portland metro region with 2.5 million, half of Phoenix metro’s current population.
The state is relatively pricey, but cheap compared to San Francisco and Seattle, the next stop to the north. (The next stop is Canada, which will continue to welcome tourists with their money, but not many refugees, with their problems.) Recently impoverished migrants might be able to settle in Oregon for a while — struggling to find work and frequently joining the already-high homeless population. Their new situation will be far from ideal, but they will have few other options.
How will Oregon receive these fellow Americans? That’s the subject of my next blog at Firebird Journal.
A FINAL NOTE
A couple of years ago, friends of ours who lived in a timbered valley near our small town in Oregon became climate refugees. In recent years, Oregon has experienced drought followed by numerous, often destructive and life-threatening wildfires, and our friends felt vulnerable. They sold their home and moved to New England, where, for the most part, the climate problems don’t include wildfires.
While it seems likely that America’s first internal mass migrations will be from the Southwest, wildfires have already destroyed towns in California and Oregon, and hurricanes have forced thousands of people to abandon their homes in the Gulf region. In due time, millions will have to pull back from the Atlantic coast to escape sea-level rise. They will face many of the same problems refugees from the Southwest will — their coastal home’s mortgage and whatever equity they’ve accumulated in it will be underwater, literally in may cases. They will have lost their livelihoods and will have to crowd into cities away from the coast, hoping to start anew, but most likely finding their lives have been permanently downgraded.
Unfortunately, that much suffering might already be locked in as the planet continues to heat up.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.
This is the first post in a two-part series on climate migration. Read posts #2.