Tapped out and going dry

From Australia to Mexico to sub-Saharan Africa, the world is gripped by a shortage of fresh, clean water.

The evidence is everywhere. Up to 80% of China’s rivers are now so polluted that they no longer support aquatic life. NASA satellite photos indicate that India’s water table is shrinking by as much as a foot each year, even while the nation’s government plans massive investments in even more irrigation projects. Mexico City, built atop an aquifer, is sinking into the ground as it drains the last of the waters that have supported it. Deserts are spreading in Peru, Bolivia, and parts of Argentina.

The worst of the shortage is in Africa, where almost 40% of people live with a scarcity of clean water. Experts estimate that, by 2030, the continent’s water shortages could turn as many as 700 million people into migrants or refugees.

The United Nations estimates that by 2025, almost a third of the world’s people will face acute water shortages and another third could be close to that situation.

By 2030, the world’s rapidly shrinking supplies of fresh water could result in political instability, health and hunger emergencies, and stunted economic development, according to “The Global Water Crisis: Addressing an Urgent Security Issue,” a report released last November by 40 world leaders and heads of state..

“The future…impact of water scarcity may be devastating,” wrote former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien, one of the authors. “Using water the way we have in the past simply will not sustain humanity in future.”

And the U.S. isn’t being spared. Texas and Oklahoma have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if Oklahoma has the right to deny Texas access to tributaries of the Red River, which separates parts of the two states, to quench the thirst of the growing Ft. Worth area. Georgia, Alabama, and Florida each are grabbing for disproportionate shares of the drought-plagued Chattahoochee River system, a battle that has collapsed Florida’s Apalachicola River fishery and prompted governor Rick Scott to ask the federal government to declare it a disaster.

Climate shifts, growing populations, simple waste, and the other ills drying the planet won’t spare the U.S. But North Americans are beginning to discover how to live in a new normal that is more arid and thirstier than the one we’ve known.

Computer models predict that the climate in most of the U.S. will become dryer and will be marked by more frequent extreme weather events. A dryer U.S. means less water available as liquid to recharge water tables, grow crops, entertain fishermen and boaters, and sprinkle suburban lawns.

Although the northeastern U.S. is predicted to become slightly wetter than previously, its weather pattern is changing. In the past, snow blankets accumulating through winters would melt gradually in the spring, renewing soil and underground reservoirs. The slightly warmer temperatures ahead will result in precipitation coming in the form of cold rains that wash away from the frozen ground. Summer rains are forecast to more frequently fall as heavy downpours that soak the ground to capacity, with excess water running off instead of staying in the soil to nourish ground and subsurface water stores.

Denver, Atlanta, and other cities are making hard choices and taking steps to live in this more arid new world. Some changes are as simple as replacing the hardware in public restrooms; others involve complex, and sometimes acrimonious arguments among states that bring everyone to court. But much of North America remains unprepared for a dryer future – even though adaptations are being crafted in dozens of localities across the continent.

California: A case in point

Left to nature, parts of California would be as parched as the Middle East. But the state has been fashioned as a lush paradise by commandeering water from 157 million acres across eight states and funneling it through a web of tunnels, canals, and aqueducts.

That creative solution is no longer enough. The snowpack in the Sierra Mountains — the main water reserve for the state — is dwindling year by year. The San Francisco Bay Delta, a key source of water for the state’s urban centers and the thousands of farms in the state’s Central Valley — which grow more than a third of all U.S. commercial produce — is under environmental protections that divert billions of gallons to protect endangered fish species.

Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, estimates that the state’s farmers have lost more than 650 billion gallons of water annually due to drought, mandates to share water with other users, and permanent loss of supplies. As a result, farmers will expend what precious water they have on permanent plantings such as orchards and vineyards. One-off crops such as lettuce or broccoli, and feed crops for pork, beef, and dairy producers, simply won’t be planted. This is likely to create spot shortages of those foods and raise prices across the U.S.

In some ways, California’s permanent water shortage has already changed crop patterns. Growers are giving up water-intense, low-profit crops such as cotton and rice and switching to permanent, higher-profit crops such as almonds and pistachios. They’re also investing in water-smart strategies, such as underground drip irrigation that reduces evaporation losses while also increasing production.

The lack of water also extends to cities and, here too, California is going with the flow. Over the last two decades, the Los Angeles area has added a million people without increasing its water consumption. Among the conservation strategies: the city encourages residents to replace grass lawns with drought-tolerant plantings and requires large water-users, such as laundries and car washes, to recycle their water. The city of Long Beach pays residents $3 a square foot to yank out conventional grass and replace it with drought-resistant plantings such as fescue and agave.

Similar strategies are in place statewide. In 2009, the California legislature mandated that municipalities reduce their water use by 20% before 2020. Not only is that proving to be a realistic goal, but several cities have already passed the 20% milestone. The City of Santa Monica has cleaned up its groundwater supplies, allowing it to open five additional town wells, and is planning to harvest and store rainwater, among other strategies. Other cites are saving water by requiring water recycling and allowing the use of only permeable paving materials. (Long Beach recycles 25 million gallons a day for use in irrigation and similar purposes.) Some have begun metering water use, allowing them not only to discover how much they’re using but also to pinpoint leaks in their pipes.

The most powerful solution to California’s permanent water shortage isn’t more dams or a magic technology. “There are simple steps we can take throughout California that can save us a lot of water,” says Kate Poole, senior attorney with the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Wildlife and Water Program in San Francisco.

The Colorado River

To talk about California’s precarious water supply is to talk about the perilous state of the Colorado River, which supplies much of the drinking water for people from Los Angeles to San Diego.

From its headwaters to its last drop, the water in the Colorado has been legally deeded to users ranging from ranchers to miners to municipal water systems stretching from Wyoming to northern Mexico. Each user diverts a fixed allotment of water to irrigate a field, flush a city’s toilets, or sluice waste from mineral ore, then return what’s left to the river. The river that once dumped more than 160,000 gallons of water into the Sea of Cortez every second now ambles sed
ately into the Morelos Dam, which straddles the Mexican-American border. From this holding tank, most of what remains of the Colorado disappears into a web of canals irrigating Mexican corn and bean fields.

For the last several summers, the river system has been plagued by drought. This year, the Colorado’s two main reservoirs — Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border and Lake Mead, 35 miles east of Las Vegas — will be half-full or less, lower than at any time since 1968, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the flow will continue to shrink over the next 50 years.

Even so, more people are bringing their buckets to the river. The Windy Gap Firming Project plans to pump at least another 11 billion gallons annually, over the Continental Divide from the Rockies’ western slope, to water the towns relentlessly growing north of Denver. The Moffat Collection System project would triple the holding capacity of the Gross Reservoir, southwest of Boulder, taking about six billion extra gallons out of the river’s flow and channeling it to the Denver metro area.

But now those who depend on the Colorado are beginning to accept its limits.

Though Colorado has just begun devising a statewide water conservation plan, Denver’s is already in effect. Commercial and institutional water users who replace old fixtures with more water-efficient ones can get a rebate for water saved. The city allows lawn sprinkling only two days a week during dry spells and can reduce the amount of water an offender is able to draw from the city’s water system. The approach is working: although the city’s population has risen 10% since 2002, its water use has dropped by 20%, according to the city’s water agency.

The 3,400-acre Sterling Ranch housing development southwest of Denver is emblematic of this new world. The developers are contemplating allowing each resident an outdoor water budget with a separate outdoor meter. The budget won’t support a wall-to-wall lawn, so homeowners will have to choose a mix of grass, drought-hardy shrubs and bushes, and “hardscape” such as patios. Even Las Vegas, the capital of excess among the Colorado River’s users, now bans turf grass in front yards and limits its use in side and back yards.

This new normal unites those who once competed for the river’s flows to now replenish them. In one instance, the Colorado Water Trust joined ranchers, recreation businesses, nonprofit groups, and a regional utility company to leave more water in a section of Colorado’s Yampa River that’s lucrative for recreation businesses and the area around the town of Steamboat Springs. Nonprofits pooled money to “rent” rights to water that the farmers don’t immediately need for crops and leave it in the river instead, which keeps tourists coming, cash registers ringing, and environmentalists happier.

The U.S.’s subterranean sea

The eight-state region known as North America’s High Plains is the U.S. grain basket and beef center. It lies atop the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground ocean of fresh water that sustains about 175,000 square miles of cropland and pasture.

With tens of thousands of water wells sunk after the Dust Bowl days to tap that water, the Ogallala is now being drained as much as 50 times faster than it’s being recharged. Nature returns an average of about a half-inch of water to the reservoir each year; farms are pumping out more than two feet annually. Now, after a years-long drought, growers are being persuaded to change their ways.

In the multi-state Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has teamed with state environmental agencies, local conservation districts, land grant universities, and a range of technical experts to change farming habits and culture across the plains. Among its efforts:
• Replacing above-ground irrigation, which loses much of the moisture to evaporation, with irrigation pipes 18 inches underground. The water reaches plant seeds and root systems but parches weeds, the seeds of which land on the fields’ surfaces. One farmer found that the new approach cut his water use by 60%, and his electric power bill by almost as much, with no reduction in yield.
• Replacing corn and other thirsty crops with drought-tolerant alternatives such as milo or grain sorghum — although growers are reluctant to give up corn, which is much more lucrative.
• Spreading the adoption of “precision farming”, which uses satellite imagery and other high-tech tools to identify the special needs and characteristics of various soils in a single farm, allowing the farmer to target crops to the places where they’ll grow with minimal resources and labor.

Old pipes

Part of the U.S.’s water shortage is a matter of plumbing. Across the U.S., but particularly in the oldest settled parts of the country, water and sewer pipes are corroding with age. The 2012 Competitive Enterprise Institute study, “Fixing America’s Crumbling Underground Water Infrastructure,” estimates there are more than 300,000 water main breaks across North America each year, largely due to the corrosion of old iron. This means that about 17% of the water we pump through municipal water systems doesn’t reach a useful outlet, costing $50.7 billion in lost water and $4.1 billion in wasted electricity. A report by the U.S. EPA estimates that the country will need to spend $384 billion by 2030 to keep up with needed fixes to maintain water delivery and quality in systems nationwide.

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