The real world. No place for wishful thinking. Part 2. (Water) Resources.

Recent LOTRW posts noted that the real world punishes us if we fail to face hazards realistically. What does realism demand? That we do better than merely redistribute risk; that instead we actually reduce it. We need to go beyond simply saving lives, and take the measures needed to ensure that those saved lives are then worth living. For example, we shouldn’t complacently turn our backs on disaster survivors while they struggle for years to remake their lives. A recent New York Times article vividly describes how disaster survivors, (especially the poor and already-disenfranchised) all too often find themselves in destructive sequel: dealing with America’s disaster recovery system. As individuals and as a nation, we can and should do better.

In the same way, we need be clear-eyed in facing our food, water, energy and other resource challenges. Though the earth holds abundant resources, they are finite. We need to be wise in their extraction and use. We need to recognize that not all uses are equally beneficial, that not all locations can yield resources equally, and not all uses or rates of use are sustainable, whether locally or globally considered. We need to understand how these resource challenges are connected; that is, how efforts to feed ourselves place big demands on our water and energy use, and so on.

These notions might seem obvious, not worthy of mention. Unfortunately, it’s equally obvious that decisionmakers (acting on our behalf and with our tacit approval) are focusing instead on short-term convenience instead of stewardship. Some examples (focusing on just one resource, water):

The Colorado River Compact. U.S. management of its western water is equal parts allocation and allegory (. Wikipedia provides a nice overview. It begins this way:

[The Colorado River Compact is]… a 1922 agreement among seven states in the southwestern United States that fall within the drainage basin of the Colorado River. The pact governs the apportionment of the river’s flow between the upper and lower division states

The Compact did not address a number of issues, including Indian or Mexican water rights, or how evaporation would be shared among the basins. Later studies of flow found that the Compact apportioned more water than would be reliably delivered at the boundary between the two basins [emphasis added]. The Compact allowed use of surplus flows by downstream states, but did not provide clear rules addressing shortages.

The problems have been widely recognized for decades, but never truly faced. The compact made headlines this year as the parties have worked out a notional short-term fix and a proposal for addressing the problem longer-term (that may involve revisiting the aforementioned short-term fix).

Reality:  Water availability over the longer haul doesn’t always match that of a few favorable years. And, remarkably, some 56% of the U.S. Colorado River water is used to grow livestock feed; another 24% goes to other agriculture (a recent New York Times article provides a nice discussion). It’s been well-known for some time that the desert southwest might not have been the best venue for this (see, e.g., Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner).

Which leads us to a popular policy choice/technology fix for dealing with water shortages…

Overpumping groundwater. In a series entitled Uncharted Waters, The New York Times recently published findings from an investigative study of U.S. aquifers. An overview lays out the national problem: America is overusing its aquifers from coast to coast in damaging ways that threaten our economy and our food security. Follow-on articles track the skyrocketing amounts of water needed to support fracking; drill deeper into the use of groundwater for agriculture, etc. 

A final article provided these five takeaways[1])

-Aquifer water levels are falling nationwide. The danger is worse and more widespread than many people realize. We know this because we built a database of more than 80,000 wells nationwide.

-Overpumping is a threat to America’s status as a food superpower.

-It’s not just a problem in the West or for farmers. It’s a tap water crisis, too.

-Weak regulations allowed the overuse.

-Now, climate change is leading to even more pumping.

Reality: The problem feels disturbingly similar to the perils of maxing-out a credit card, only on a vastly larger scale. We’re using water for the wrong purposes in the wrong places. Pumping groundwater is losing its efficacy as a policy tool. The time to reduce dependency on groundwater is before it runs dry..

The tap water crisis would seem to pose particular peril. The Times reporting notes that one-third of America’s total volume of drinking water comes from underground wells. Ultimately, desalination of sea water may be the only policy option for replacing US water use at such scale. A 2015 USGS estimate of US use of water at home is some 80 gallons per person per day. The average US household uses about 30kwh of electricity per day. One analysis (Zhou (2005) suggests membrane desalination per se may not be a budget breaker, but the cost of water transportation over large horizontal distances and the lift to the higher elevations to supply water to inland U.S. sites may be substantial.

So, the good news? The reasons for hope? The technological solutions are out there. There are also many policy options available: conservation in all use sectors; use of so-called grey water; redirection of American agricultural efforts, etc. But given the current polarization of American politics and the deep divisions already on display across state and local lines, the country seems ill-positioned to handle looming water crises.

This is no time for America’s policy preference of denial. A key to stiffening our adult spines and taking realistic action versus merely wringing our hands? Why don’t we let our children in on the secret? Make geocivics a K-12 priority. Educate our children on the problem, don’t merely let them hear about it in passing. When our kids start asking us what we’re doing about it, maybe you and I will get moving.  

[1] an apology; I may have broken out the takeaways differently from the authors; there were more than five emboldened bits in the original article.

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