Haunted by Waters

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You stand in the mist and roar of Snoqualmie Falls, more than 100 feet higher than Niagara, and feel the liquid power of the Cascade Mountains crashing down. It’s been raining, seemingly nonstop, for at least a month in the Pacific Northwest, and this is the payoff. Hope is 4,000 cubic feet of water per second, going off a cliff.

In this century, water will be more precious than oil, an Enron executive told me some years ago. At the time, the suits from Houston had yet to be indicted; they were on a greed high. Having manipulated the West Coast energy market, they were looking for the next commodity to corral — water.

Today, I want to feel the life-force of free water after a summer without rain, the hottest on record. You don’t know what you’ve got, goes the song, till it’s gone. At Snoqualmie Falls, about 27 miles east of Seattle, the mountains squeeze snowmelt and rainfall into three forks that form a river that tumbles to a canyon of green, with aural orchestration.

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Normally a busy site, the big Cascade cataract is nearly empty on this shower-ensnarled day, save a chartered busload of people from China. Clean water in a photogenic free-fall is an international tourist draw. Clean air, in any form, may soon be as well. In China, people are buying bottled air from Canada, in 7.7 liter canisters — a joke at first, now a booming business. A restaurant outside Shanghai is charging an extra fee to sit in a room with a breathable atmosphere.

As the nations of the world gathered outside Paris, you saw the pictures from China: masked residents trying to cope with the carbon-thick soup of the world’s latest industrial revolution. Many may be forced to leave, climate refugees, fleeing to stay alive.

In some circles, it’s laughable to suggest that global “weirding” is an international security threat. But in sub-Saharan Africa, where the desert creeps south, or in Bangladesh, where half the population lives on ground less than 16 feet above sea level, or in Syria, where extreme drought was a factor in the collapse of a nation, a warmer earth is already generating refugees. The Pentagon has warned of coming wars over water.

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If self-interest, or fear, is what it takes to motivate a nation like China to join the world community in saving this troubled little orb of ours, then so be it. Elsewhere, the prospect of 200 million people on the move, most of them Muslim, may finally win over that other block of obstructionists, the Republican Party.

You think about all the places that need water, and all the places that have too much water. You wonder if this Paris climate accord can set things right, or whether the new normal is the scary normal.

In Florida, the majestic Keys are swamped. December rains and high tides have left mosquito-thick canals and stagnant pools. Most of the Keys are less than six feet above sea level. Climate scientists predict that a five-foot rise, which could happen by 2100, would wipe out 70 percent of the property value.

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That’s property, as in real estate. So perhaps this concern is enough to get the Republican presidential front-runner to rethink his pronounced idiocies on climate change. It’s a hoax, says Donald J. Trump, with all the practiced hucksterism of the swampland salesman. He may feel different when one of his resorts is below the sea. He’s got Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, rooms with a view of a tomorrow that won’t answer to his bluster.

His colleagues in science denial, gathered at a fake palazzo in Las Vegas, with a fake canal mimicking a real city that may soon be underwater, could have benefited from a field trip to nearby Lake Mead. This is the nation’s largest reservoir, allowing a city of 1.3 million to sprout in a desert that gets about four inches of rain a year. This summer, Lake Mead fell to its lowest level since it was initially filled. It has dropped nearly 150 feet in the last 14 years.

When the rains finally came to the Northwest this year, you saw images of more real estate in peril, landslides and teetering homes. What you didn’t see were all the reservoirs filling, the salmon streams flush once again, snow piling up in the Cascades — water as a positive force.

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In a month or more, the atmospheric river is supposed to shift south, to California, its Godzilla El Niño. They need 11 trillion gallons, an entire year of precipitation, to recover. As a hedge, this week a $1 billion plant opened in San Diego County, the largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. It’s a small piece, an engineered solution that will meet barely 10 percent of the county’s water needs.

The anemic Sacramento River, the parched Central Valley, the snow-starved Sierra — they will require something more. They need waterfalls like Snoqualmie, the spray in the face, renewal during the darkest days of the year.

(The original has been published in The New York Times)

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