The Ghost of the Dust Bowl

It’s funny how little conversations come around to turn into bigger and bigger dialogues. A few months ago fellow ex-Southwesterner Michael Campana (of the OSU Institute for Water and Watersheds, WaterWired blog, Aquadoc, etc.) and I had a long discussion of what if… What if the Southwest (including much of Calinfornia) found itself without enough water to go around? What if things were just inhospitable down there? Where would the masses of Phoenicians and Angelinos, Tucsonans and West Texans go?  We thought that they would probably come north to lovely green and watery Oregon of course!  Either that, or they would look towards purchasing some of our liquid gold for export, as I’ve blogged here before. Given the difficulty and probability of the latter excercise, Mike and I put more wheight on the former happening. Think 1930s Dust Bowl. Think of the diaspora of Katrina refugees out of the Gulf. Thing BIG.

Well, that conversation seems to have made it to the front page of the October 5th Oregonian with an article by Eric Mortenson.  The full article can be found by clicking here. The crux of the article is summed up by a quote from the article itself:

The prediction caused a collective grimace among the mayors, city councilors, engineers and planners in the audience. By 2060, a Metro economist said, the seven-county Portland area could grow to 3.85 million people — nearly double the number here now.

Then Lorna Stickel, a planner with the Portland Water Bureau, stood to ask a question. Does the population projection, she asked, account for the possibility of climate change refugees?

Brains have been spinning ever since. Because what if?

What if the American Southwest dries up, browns out, and those people now misting their patios in Arizona head to the still-green Pacific Northwest? What if Californians hit the road north in numbers far surpassing the 20,000 who now move to Oregon each year? What if the polar ice melts, oceans rise and millions living along coastal areas — or ravaged by Katrina-like storms — have to move?

What happens, Stickel later asks, “as we become more attractive and other places become less attractive?”

I also want to send kudos to Michael for putting this out on his WaterWired first and most importantly, for inspiring Lorna Stickel to bring up the question in the first place. Now, if only a combination of academic and applied colleagues in the SW and the PNW would be willing to try to play out this scenario, we might be able to generate some tools for planning BEFORE this happens.  And even if it never does, we have invested in some good water, infrastructure, land use and social planning for Oregon for what looks to be a more populous future.

“Down one road lies disaster, down the other utter catastrophe.” –Norman Church


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