When a desert blooms, the fruits of agriculture are rarely sustainable. Irrigated flowerbeds deceivingly pepper the landscape in temporary beauty. Just as the harvest season draws to a close every year, the days of intensive desert agriculture and desert flower beds are numbered when irrigation efforts overdraft water supplies. When agriculturists, homeowners, and policy-makers use water faster than it is naturally replenished, complex irrigation projects can temporarily alleviate drought but wreak serious environmental havoc.
Morris Udall favored construction of two major dams on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon National Park during the 1960s, a policy that he later regretted as myopically irresponsible. As Zionists today struggle to sustain Israel for generations to come, Udall’s maturation serves as a microcosm analogy for change that must take place. Zionists have built incredible beauty in the land of Israel, but the days of ubiquitous flowerbeds must come to a close.
Udall explains his decision to support the dams in the context of his Mormon ancestry. His ancestors were in awe of the beautiful southwestern landscape, but also built many dams to supplement rainfall irrigation:
I was caught between my Mormon upbringing, my environmentalist leanings, and my constituents’ near unanimous support for the dams. My decision finally turned on one irrefutable fact: water is life in the desert. (Udall, pg. 54)I am disappointed that he made this decision, but inspired that he came to condemn it later in his career. Water is life, but he later acknowledged that these were band-aid solutions: expensive projects that would be environmentally disastrous and unsustainable in the long run. These particular dams would have irreversibly damaged the Grand Canyon National Park, temporarily supporting an unsustainable desert population.
Similarly, Israel’s impressive water engineering served a hugely important role in building the country, but now plays an increasingly troublesome role, undermining the nation’s future. The writer and Politician S. Yihzar poetically captured this duality of triumph and destruction:
Making the desert bloom meant doing away with the wasteland, erasing the nothingness, exploiting completely all natural resources. We felt that if we succeeded in doing this thing, if we could conquer the wilderness, do away with it, make it bloom -- in other words, if we could settle it, build it up, make it not wild, not devoid of human values -- then we would have achieved the Zionist dream.
Israel must draw down on its water use, given that the Jewish State’s water withdrawal-to-availability ratio is one of the 10 highest in the world. The once-mighty Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized, is now a trickle. The Dead Sea, a true anomaly at the lowest point in the world (400 meters below sea level) is disappearing, leaving gaping sinkholes in its wake. Water rights divide Israelis and Palestinians. The country’s largest reservoir, the Sea of Galilee, is shrinking. Israel must turn its policies around, as Morris Udall did.
These environmental crises require visionary demands of rewritten agricultural policies, impassioned calls for systemic change. They require an understanding that there is a harsh future in store if environmental limits remain ignored. When Udall looked back on his decision to endorse the dam projects, he realized that there might simply be too many people in the arid southwest. With Israel growing, it could do well to look at Udall’s thoughts. The pressing demands of constituents must be taken with a grain of salt. He sought a pragmatic balance between development and preservation. The civilizations of these two deserts irrefutably have the right to exist, but water must be used carefully if they are to exist for our children.
Udall’s self-criticism offers a clear model for the maturation of Israel’s water policies. Both heritages, Mormon and Zionist, are inspiringly rich with hardworking civilization builders. They can inspire us all to look back at our ancestors who toiled to shape the land, to eek out a basic survival. Mormon and Zionist settlers took awe in their landscapes, shaped the land, and built the societies that we must sustain for future generations. It is my dream that Israel, as a “light unto nations”, may become an example of sustainable development for the world.
An exuberant Carter beats Udall in the 1976 Wisconsin primary election. The election was so close that one newspaper actually misprinted its headline... "Dewey defeats Truman" anyone?