by Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone
Kathleene Parker’s article, “Population, Immigration, and the Drying of the American Southwest,” which was published by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), is at first glance an article that might interest most progressive environmentalists.
As a student of environmental science and resource politics and a native of California, I myself am particularly interested in water issues and how they impact these particular regions. Unfortunately, in true CIS form, the article scapegoats immigrants and does not address the root causes of environmental degradation.
Parker begins her article with the important point that in the western United States water flows are too often directed where nature never intended, but rather where agriculture, industries, and municipalities demand.
She mentions that water is scarce in this region and populations are growing in many western urban centers. Her fear that increasing instances of drought and rising demand might result in economic and social disaster is somewhat founded; however, fear-mongering about climate catastrophe is an issue for another blog-post. What is relevant is that Parker places the blame for strained resources on the shoulders of immigrant populations in the western United States. The real blame lies with the archaic water laws that govern the West, which force farmers to “use it or lose it”—their water allotments, that is.
Furthermore, the blame lies with steady urban growth in the heart of deserts and the poor planning decisions that stretch back to the founding of western cities. Unchecked agriculture and industrialization are also to blame for scarcity issues, not the needs of individual people.
The article continues, discussing forest fires, declining reservoirs, and even dwindling snowpacks. But Parker makes erroneous comments regarding the decline of indigenous peoples in the North American Southwest, as well. It is not considered archeological fact that southwestern indigenous populations disappeared due to the combination of drought, population explosion, and overuse of natural resources, and it is irresponsible to expect that such population shifts will duplicate themselves within our current political and social structures.
Parker goes on, wandering from issues of climate change to the problematic idea of carrying capacity only to eventually land on her main point: that growth via immigration will be the ultimate undoing of the western United States.
It is not immigration and population growth that contribute to the stresses on the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers. Water in the West is scarce, but it is everywhere; however, there is a difference between physical, environmental, and economic scarcities. Using feats of engineering to transport water to Las Vegas is an example of overcoming environmental scarcity: bringing water to where it wouldn’t naturally flow. Imposing water use restrictions on municipalities while agro-businesses use the same tired technology to grow their thirsty crops is an example of economic scarcity.
These types of scarcity, coupled with the fact that urban development in the West has never failed to question the wisdom of creating cities in the desert, leave us with an agricultural and urban infrastructure that values the transportation of water for agriculture and industry over the lives people and the health of our environment.