Nor Any Drop to Drink: the Global Water Crisis
(dedicated to Melanie, water conservation diva)
It’s more precious than diamonds or gold. We can’t live for more than a few days without it, and yet we in the developed nations take it for granted, use it, overuse it, and abuse it. Not for long, though. Now, we Americans are getting a taste of the dry mouth. Years of drought in California and the Southwest are bringing us back to reality, and long range forecasts aren’t encouraging. The Colorado River supplies water to about 40 million of us. It includes the nation’s two largest water reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, currently at 38% and 45% of their full capacity, respectively. That’s due to a 15 year drought which has also led to record low Rocky Mountain snowpacks that supply them.
California is in the fourth year of a record drought. The Central Valley produces around 40% of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables that Americans eat, and the snowpacks it depends on have also been at record lows. Since over 70% of the usable water in the state goes to agriculture, this has caused many farmers to pick and choose which crops to save, while others have gone under. More and more pressure is put on underground aquifers to replace the lost surface water in lakes and rivers. As a result, aquifers are being depleted, and they can take thousands of years to recharge, under normal, non-drought conditions.
Earlier this year Governor Jerry Brown, for the first time in the state’s history, mandated a cut in non-agriculture use of 25%. Almond orchards and golf courses remain a lush green, while increasingly families, and sometimes whole towns, must bring water in from elsewhere. Wells have dried up, and unless you can afford $20,000 or more for a deeper one, you’re just out of luck, and water. If you had a small family farm, maybe for generations, you’re probably out of business.
At the same time, agribusiness makes billions on water-intensive crops like almonds, alfalfa, broccoli, and pistachios. It takes a gallon of water to produce one almond, which may not sound like much until you realize the Carl Sagan numbers, billions and billions. The average Palm Springs golf course (there are about 125) uses 800,000 gallons a day, the same amount a family of four would use in five years. Lawns and swimming pools in the state use nearly 500 billion gallons each year (both numbers by the NRDC, National Resources Defense Council).
There are other stresses on the nation’s waters, chief among them being hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Whether used to extract oil, or more commonly natural gas, the average fracking well uses 4 million gallons of water. It’s mixed with a toxic brew of various chemicals and fine sand. So not only does it use prodigious amounts of water, it’s also contaminating the surrounding groundwater. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are over 500,000 fracking wells in the U.S. (fracktracker.org puts the number at 1.1 million). Environmentalaction.org estimates that as of July 13, 2015, over 24 billion gallons of water have been contaminated in California alone. It may be cheap energy to the oil and gas companies, but we’re all paying for what are called externalities. It’s a new version of risk and reward; big oil gets the rewards and we are all at risk. Why isn’t the EPA doing anything about this? Because after some heavy lobbying and who knows how much money crossing palms, in 2005 the industry got an exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act. It’s called the Halliburton Loophole, after the corporation who developed the technology. Gee, I wonder who was the CEO of Halliburton in 2005? That would be former Vice President Dick Cheney.
If that weren’t enough, there’s the predation by private corporations who sell bottled water. Rawstory.com, on May 11, 2015, reported that WalMart is buying cheap water from the Sacramento Water District for less than a penny a gallon. They bottle and resell it for about 88 cents a gallon. This is happening globally, by far the worst offender is Nestle, the world’s largest purveyor of bottled water (they own Arrowhead, Perrier, and many other well-known brands). They had been pumping 250 million liters annually from an aquifer in British Columbia. Remarkably, the province had no rules requiring companies to report how much water they were drawing, but the Water Sustainability Act has remedied that. Nestle has sued the town of Fryeburg, Maine (pop. about 1500), five times “in a clear attempt to litigate the town into insolvency,” (stopnestlewater.org) so they can tap into a local aquifer. This corporation’s ruthless, predatory capitalistic model is exemplified by its Chairman of the Board, Peter Brabeck. He publicly stated that the idea of water being a universal human right is “an extreme solution.” I could go on and on about Nestle.
The Ogallala aquifer, the nation’s largest, runs through eight states and lies beneath 174,000 square miles of America’s breadbasket. An article by McClatchy News appeared in my local Sunday paper yesterday, Aug. 2. It said there are roughly 170,000 wells over it, about one per square mile. Overuse has dropped the level of the aquifer, to the extent that various states are stepping in with more regulations, flow meters, and other measures. It’s a start, and we’ll hope it’s not too late.
The water crisis is here now, and it’s worldwide. Overpopulation (already a root cause in our sea of troubles) and global warming have combined to make the situation critical. Nearly 20% of humans on the planet lack access to safe drinking water, and 35,000 die each day. I imagine the same is happening with birds, animals, and insects. The June 21, 2015 edition of The Washington Post featured an article by Todd C. Frankel: “Earth’s aquifers are being tapped out, studies find.” 21 of Earth’s largest 37 aquifers have passed their sustainability tipping points, and 13 of those are in the “most troubled” category, whatever that means. I want to remind you again that all these aquifers take thousands of years to recharge, under optimal conditions. Another study by the U. of California, Irvine, says that water tables worldwide are dropping. In northern Taiwan residents are limited to water five days of the week. In northern India armed bandits are extorting villagers to procure water or be shot dead. Sao Paulo Brazil, a city of 20 million, is due to run out of water this month!
Many remedies and solutions are being put into practice; dry farming, drip irrigation, and community ownership — not privatization — of public resources. Organic farming keeps gaining momentum. Too many people don’t want to eat GMO foods, or want them labeled. And organic farming replenishes, rather than depletes, the land, unlike corporate monoculture crops slathered in Roundup. Desalination would be another answer, but unfortunately, it is and remains extremely costly. In California, especially the southern part, there used to be lawn shaming — someone’s lawn wasn’t green enough. Now it’s the opposite. That guy’s lawn looks like he’s been secretly watering. Drought shaming websites and social media are spotlighting abusers. I wonder how the billionaires will like playing on a brown country club golf course? There have been complaints aplenty from the well-heeled. One I liked typified the mindset: “What am I supposed to have, 40 acres of dirt?” Why, yes, that is correct, sir. Remember, your Governor’s name isn’t Jerry Green.
The great irony, of course, is that 70% of the surface of the Earth is water, but we can’t drink it. Hench the first part of the title, from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which I encourage anyone to read if they like a good scary story. The ship is becalmed, and the narrator wryly notes: “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
Whatever the outcome of this crisis, one thing is certain: we’re all about to have more respect for a precious substance that we never even thought about before. Look at your daily water use; surely there are ways to use or reuse it wisely. Every little bit helps. The birds, animals, and insects will be grateful, and so will our children and grandchildren.