Oakley, Utah, is small but appealing. Nestled in the mountains beside the Weber River less than an hour’s drive east of Salt Lake City, the town offers an attractive bargain for out-of-staters and weekenders. The river and mountain springs provided plentiful water that attracted early settlers.
Water, however, is no longer plentiful in Oakley. The springs have dwindled to a trickle and the town’s reservoir has dropped precipitously. Almost all of Utah, the fastest growing state, is experiencing a severe drought.
Oakley has responded by curbing growth. Earlier this year, despite a real estate boom sparked by buyers from the West Coast and second homeowners seeking weekend ranches, the town imposed a moratorium on new home construction that would connect to the town’s water system. “Why are we building houses if we don’t have enough water?” Mayor Wade Woolstenhulme sensibly asked.
Perhaps even here in Alberta we should be asking the mayor’s question. We still have lots of water but for how long? Under the stress of global warming, one of our important water sources is vanishing before our eyes. According to Simon Fraser ecologist David Hik, ”Probably 80 percent of the mountain glaciers in Alberta and B.C. will disappear in the next 50 years.” Glacier-fed rivers help meet water demand in our cities, provide irrigation for the agriculture industry, and produce hydroelectricity.
And of course the problem is much more than water. The United Nations Global Resources Outlook 2019 reports the not surprising conclusion that “the current trajectory of natural resource use and management is unsustainable.” In other words, we are exhausting the planet’s resources, accessible water among them.
The UN report is optimistic about our future but only if we impose “a combination of resource efficiency, climate mitigation, carbon removal, and biodiversity protection policies.”
So until we do all that, perhaps we should rephrase Mayor Woolstenhulme’s sensible question: “Why are we building bigger towns, cities and economies when we are steadily depleting our resources?” Just as Oakley’s water isn’t infinite, the world’s resources aren’t infinite. They are learning to live with limits. So must we all.