Wednesday, July 16, 2003

More thoughts on the Murray-Darling Basin, and whether Texas is part of the American West.

I have received quite a bit of feedback on yesterdays piece that started out being about Australian water resources and then rambled, in the form of comments, a post on another blog, and e-mail. There have been quite a few interesting points raised, and I think I am going to lose any sense that they are connected to each other People who want to see the connections should read the earlier post.

As a starting point, there is a very nice map of the Murray-Darling basin here. A key point is that much of the east coast of Australia consists of a relatively narrow coastal plane to the east of a mountain range (The Great Dividing Range). To the east of that mountain range, water comes down from the mountains onto the plain, and water is plentiful. Australia's three major non-marginal cities are on this plain (although only sort of for Melbourne). From a water resources point of view, there would be little difficulty building a substantial number of new cities on that coastal plain. To the north, the mountains eventually fade away, the climate becomes tropical, and once again there are plenty of areas (especially close to the north coast) where water is plentiful and which could support substantial populations, although at the moment they generally don't. The land within the Murray-Darling basin itself (and close to it) is habitable and useful as long as the river system remains in good condition. To the west of the basin, there are few rivers of any kind and the country is exceedingly harsh, although there are a few rivers and a small patch of moderately fertile land in the south of the west coast (a couple of thousand kilometres away), making the city of Perth possible. With respect to the Murray-Darling basin, the key point is that the watershed on the east of the basin is a watershed to a fertile area, and the watershed to the west is a watershed to desert. Human civilization (like Adelaide, if it qualifies) to the west of the basis very likely has to pump water from the basin.

The map shows the basic point, however. The Murray Darling basin is enormous. Adelaide gets its water from the very mouth of the river. If there are environmental problems upstream, then Adelaide is conceivably in trouble. However, despite its size, there are relatively few cities of any size in the Murray Darling basin. Australia's capital, Canberra (population approximately 300000) is the most important, followed by Albury Wodonga (100000) and Wagga Wagga (60000), but there really isn't much after that. Most water use is agricultural. Changing water would affect relatively few people, although those that would be forced to change are the sort that will scream very loudly. (It could conceivably change Australia's agricultural sector quite substantially, however).

Following up a different point from yesterday's article, Doug Sundseth of Colorado e-mails me to take slight issue with my discussing "the four American cities in the middle of the desert", arguing that Denver and Salt Lake City don't quite qualify as desert due to being at the foot of mountains and having a bit more rainfall than qualifies as desert. My experience of Denver is limited to changing planes at the airport, but it is clearly a different case geographically to the other cities, so I will concede the point there.

In the case of Salt Lake City I think I might argue that it actually is "in the middle of the desert" in the sense that there is desert in all directions, even if the place itself is not desert. The city was founded when after marching through very hostile country, the Mormons arrived in this beautiful (non-desert) location, decided it was fabulous, and announced that "This is the right place". Having been there, I have to concede that the city certainly is in a stunning location. (Might also I recommend the drive from Salt Lake City to Evanston, Wyoming to anyone who goes there. Really a spectacular drive). Doug also comments that El Paso, Texas / Juarez, Mexico certainly qualifies, and Tucson, Arizona perhaps does. I will plead guilty on El Paso omission. I was thinking of American cities in "The West", and Texas slipped my mind. When I divide America up into pieces, Texas doesn't really qualify as part of "The West", or "The South", or anywhere much. Texas is just Texas. (I haven't been to Texas, although I certainly plan to go there on my next trip to the US, whenever that is). As for Tucson, it is at least smaller than any of the other cities I have mentioned, so I can produce a logical reason for leaving it out.

In any event, none of this was really relevant to my argument, which was simply that America has large inland cities in even more marginal places than those I was talking about in Australia. A large portion of the Murray-Darling Basin is not desert, and that is the point.

Finally, Patrick commented that Darwin was not in fact named after Charles Darwin, but was named after his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. This is reasonably widely believed in Australia - at least Patrick is not the first person to tell me this. However, the belief seems to be entirely untrue. The truth appears to be that after sailing Darwin after the world, the Beagle was then sailed to Australia. Its captain, Lieutenant John Lort Stokes, became the first person to name the geographical features in that part of Australia. He named the bay where the city now lies Port Darwin, and gulf surrounding it Beagle Gulf. When the city was founded at the location later, it was initially officially named Palmerston, at least partly because some people held Darwin's views to be controversial. However, the name officially became Darwin in 1911.

I think the mistaken belief that Darwin was named after Erasmus Darwin may come from the fact that most people expect that the area around Darwin must have been explored and named prior to 1830, and this coincides nicely with the fact that Erasmus Darwin was a prominent scientist around that time. However, it seems to be untrue.

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