Moment of Reckoning

Faced last year with severe droughts and floods, we must now embark on a new understanding of our relationship to water.

Most of the developed world is still innocent when it comes to freshwater—not innocent in the way a jury or attorney might consider the word, but in the sense that when we think of freshwater (if we think of it at all), we assume the posture of the blithe or naive. Water in the First World is by definition cheap, plentiful, and pure. For the past 150 years, our engineers have diverted streams, trapped rivers, and tapped vast underground aquifers to overcome a natural world that is cruel in its distribution of resources. In the United States it was not uncommon for states to fight one another over water, for cities to live and die by their ac-cess to scant supplies, and for thousands to perish from bacteria that infiltrated local drinking re-serves. In the nineteenth century a large swath of land between the Missouri River and the Rockies was considered so inhospitable it was labeled on topographical maps as the “Great American Des­ert.” The knowledge was obvious to anyone back then who knew anything about agriculture: a farmstead west of the 100th meridian could not survive without irrigation. It would turn to dust. Yet our engineers’ handiwork made it so that freshwater, which had long been among the most valuable commodities on earth, became among the most ord­in­ary. With dams, reservoirs, and pipelines, Western farming boomed and desert cities bloomed. By the twentieth century you could even give water away, which is precisely what some cities and irrigation districts did. It was easy to presume, rather in-nocently, that such abun­dance would always be the case.

Let me try to argue a point: the summer of 2007 may have been the moment when we lost our in-nocence about water. Within the space of a few months, a glance at the newspapers or the Web suggested that even countries rich with resources and good weather could indeed reach a point—in five years, or in 25 years? The time frame wasn’t entirely clear—when water would be something to reckon with, and maybe even something to fight about. Last summer Texas drowned in floodwaters. Meanwhile, the rest of the United States, practically two-thirds of it, began to suffer through a drought that seemed nearly biblical in its breadth and punishments. In the South a dry spell baked farmland all over Alabama and Georgia, and re-duced Florida’s Lake Okeechobee to its lowest levels in modern history. Atlanta came within 90 days of exhausting its main water supply. In the northern Midwest, hydrologists measuring levels in Lake Superior—which alone contains ten percent of the earth’s freshwater and loses 529 billion gallons for every inch it recedes—noted that it had dropped two feet in the past decade and that it was at a lower level than the droughts that preceded the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s. Snow­pack on California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, the source of much of that state’s freshwater, was at about 40 percent of normal. All the while there were steady and alarming down-ticks in the levels of Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir by volume, and Lake Powell, the country’s second larg­est. Both lakes supply the bulk of water to the American Southwest and Southern California. And both were half empty.

Or maybe they were half full, if you were feeling optimistic. But if you were talking to the scientists, you probably weren’t feeling optimistic. Almost every hydrological projection about the future of the American West’s water supply—due to climate changes, increasing populations, and the possible reoccurrence of a cyclical drought—seemed grim. Even as the snows from this past winter’s storms appeared to provide relief from the ongoing drought, the long-term outlook remained bleak. This February Tim Barnett and David Pierce, two researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, projected that Lake Mead has a 50 percent chance of draining so low as to become unusable by the year 2021.

Water scarcity is already pervasive around the globe: on any given day about one billion people lack access to clean drinking water. Australia, at this point the developed nation most deeply affected by climate changes, has been crippled by a devastating multiyear drought. It is difficult, however, to envision precisely what a dry Lake Mead would mean to the United States, especially to a city like Las Vegas, which receives almost all its water from its reserves. Would taps go dry? There seems little doubt that the threat of such a crisis would first mean the end of grass lawns, and perhaps the end—or at least the beginning of the end—of most Western farming. It would likewise signal that an era of innovation in water recycling, desalination, and water-smart design is by necessity at hand. What’s more, a showdown with water scarcity might at last allow for the lifting of one of the remaining taboos in our land-chomping First World metropolitan areas. Strict management of urban growth, especially in water-scarce areas, could fin­ally be debated in a meaningful way.

But this may be getting ahead of things. At the moment water is all too often tagged as the next oil, suggesting somewhat philosophically (and from a safe distance) that it’s a commodity that will someday grow more valuable as availability decreases and demand rises. In several respects, the equivalence of oil and water is inexact. Oil has many substitutes. We can power machinery and cars by electricity, for instance, which can be generated in a dizzying number of ways, including by renewable sources. Water, conversely, can be replaced only by water. It is required for life (and for business), regardless of its supply or price. At the same time, water is intimately connected—far more so, in a historical sense, than oil—with economic growth, political stability, high-yield agriculture, and human health. And it is closely related to energy production and consumption. Coal and nuclear power plants, as well as hydropower dams, require vast amounts of water for their operation; pumps that are steadily emptying our natural aquifers or pushing water through networks of pipes and conduits require vast amounts of energy. Desalting plants that transform ocean water into drinking water necessitate large power outlays too.

All of which is to say that we would do well to consider the possibility that an imminent water crisis may not be just a water crisis. It could easily collide with an energy crisis, an economic crisis, and an environmental crisis—and perhaps a food crisis as well. “I think most people sense that the world is facing a future of water shortages; we sense that it’s coming, we know it in the back of our minds,” Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, noted recently. But since 70 percent of the water consumed is going to agriculture, he added, “you have to think of what that means. If we’re facing a future of water shortages, we’re also facing a future of food shortages. I don’t think everyone has connected the dots yet.”

The dots don’t make for a pleasing image, of course. On the other hand, they present us with a rough picture of what might come next, perhaps somewhere not as far away as we might think, or might hope. To be sure, a concerted effort to reduce global carbon emissions, and thus slow climate changes, could have a positive impact on water resources. But it also seems likely that shrinking our individual carbon footprint will no longer be sufficient in the decades to come. Shrinking our individual water footprint may be imperative too. Personal gestures like transitioning to low-flow appliances in our homes and using nonpotable “gray water” for our lawns, gardens, and toilets would allow us to tread more lightly. Larger gains could be collectively realized through measures like highly efficient drip irrigation in agriculture. In the end, however, perhaps the most difficult challenge (and arguably the most rewarding) will be somehow to effect an evolution, through both political and educational means, in our cultural sensibility about water—a change that could result in a lessening of tensions between factions (farmers vs. industrialists, cities vs. towns, states vs. states) that have traditionally warred over rivers and reservoirs. In an era when we’ve come to expect that solutions come mainly through technology, a wetter future might depend not just on what we can create physically—through research, engineering, and design—but on compromise, community, and shared purpose. No one should plead innocence.

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