For more than 100 years, groups in the western United States have fought over water. During the 1880s, sheep ranchers and cattle ranchers argued over drinking water for their livestock on the high plains. In 1913, the city of Los Angeles began to draw water away from small agricultural communities in Owen Valley, leaving a dusty dry lake bed. In the late 1950s, construction of the Glen Canyon Dam catalyzed the American environmental movement. Today, farmers are fighting fishermen, environmentalists, and Native American tribes over the water in the Upper Klamath River Basin. The Landsat 7 satellite, launched by NASA and operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, documented an extreme drought in the area along the California/Oregon border in the spring of 2001.
Although it is now the largest desert on Earth, during the last ice age the Sahara was a savannah with a climate similar to that of present-day Kenya and Tanzania. The annual rainfall was much greater than it is now, creating many rivers and lakes that are now hidden under shifting sands or exposed as barren salt flats. Over several hundred thousand years, the rains also filled a series of vast underground aquifers. Modern African nations are now mining this fossil water to support irrigated farming projects.
The Klamath Basin, on the California-Oregon border, had been in the news because of water shortages due to the drought in the United States’ Pacific Northwest. Diverse interest groups have come into conflict over the limited availability of Klamath Project water. In order to protect endangered Sucker Fish and threatened Coho Salmon in Upper Klamath Lake, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cut off the flow of irrigation water to farmers in the project in April 2001.
Green circles in the desert frequently indicate tracts of agriculture supported by center-pivot irrigation. The Al Khufrah Oasis in southeastern Libya (near the Egyptian border) is one of Libya’s largest agricultural projects, and is an easy-to-recognize landmark for orbiting astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Because only about 2 percent of Libya’s land receives enough rainfall to be cultivated, this project uses fossil water from a large underground aquifer. The Libyan government also has a plan called the Great Man Made River to pump and transport these groundwater reserves to the coast to support Libya’s growing population and industrial development.