The Clock is Ticking and the Future is at Stake

Photograph Source: Stefan Müller – CC BY 2.0

There’s something about a new year that brings an optimistic sense of “what could be” in the year ahead.

But that optimism hinges on significant societal commitments to take the actions — not just talk about them — necessary to make the changes that are now so evident and necessary. The hands of time only move in one direction — and the clock is ticking.

Given it’s a national election year, the political rhetoric so far has been anything but positive. While most people are looking for good solid reasons to vote for a candidate or support an issue, it increasingly seems like we’re assailed with reasons to vote against candidates and issues.

Certainly, this is nothing new — the Republican versus Democrat divide and conquer politics have been the status quo for some time now. But “us versus them” won’t cut it if we’re to deal with the very real problems facing our state, country and planet.

Of course, there are plenty of politicians who prefer to sow dissension and preach hatred for their policy or political opponents. And why not? It’s far easier to turn people against each other over largely imagined differences of opinion than to actually come up with the solutions to the challenges we now face.

Make no mistake, those solutions are anything but simple, easy or cheap. Sitting here in a snowless January in Montana with open water on our lakes and temperatures that barely sink below freezing, the enormity of the climate crisis is dramatically coming home to roost. And no snow in winter generally means a grim summer ahead — and a difficult but necessary prioritizing of limited resources among a host of competing interests.

As just one example, will our world-famous rivers and wild trout survive yet another brutal summer of chronically-dewatered streams? Given the recent experiences, particularly on the Big Hole River, the trend is downward as water quantity, quality and trout populations continue a steep decline.

Nor is the Big Hole alone in its misery. The equation is simple and applies to virtually every drainage in the state. Low snowpack in the mountains means earlier and far less runoff. And when the tributaries cease to rush to the rivers the available water for the competing interests is likewise severely diminished.

Increasingly, the attempts to deal with the supply and demand equation through social means, such as watershed groups, continue to fail dramatically. Lower river flows mean hotter water, more concentrated pollutants, more stress on the broader riverine ecosystems, and significant, perhaps irreparable, extirpation of the most fragile species.

Moreover, these conditions are leading to the intrusion of warm-water species, such as bass, into rivers like the Bitterroot and Yellowstone which were historically too cold for them. Once established, especially in our rapidly heating world, reversal becomes impossible.

These conditions are now forcing Montana — and most of the West — to face the difficult truth that major policy changes are necessary because the wetter world of the last two centuries, when states readily gave away more water rights than there was water to fulfill them, is gone. One hundred fifty years ago, John Wesley Powell presciently predicted there wasn’t enough water in the arid West for large-scale development, and time has proven him right.

New year, new chances for positive change. But there’s no time to waste. We need the skills of our best minds and most committed individuals to make the increasingly obvious hard choices. Our world has changed and our policies must likewise change.

The clock is ticking — and the future is what’s at stake.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.