Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The U.S. Nears The Limits Of Its Water Supplies

The U.S. Nears The Limits Of Its Water Supplies

By Shiney Varghese

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy


Posted April 8, 2008.

I am amazed: since last summer, almost every day we see

at least one news story on another water crisis in the

U.S. The water crisis is no longer something that we

know about as affecting developing countries or their

poor in particular. It is right here in our own

backyard. Today, in many parts of the U.S. we are

nearing the limits of our water supplies. And that is

getting our attention. The writing has been on the wall

for some time. The private sector has been showing much

interest in water as a source of profit, and water

privatization has been an issue in many parts of the country.

The failure in public water systems has indeed been a

contributing factor for this interest. In many cities,

consumers have been organizing and opposing the

privatization of water utilities, because they have been

concerned about affordability or deterioration in the

quality of service. Environmental organizations and

consumer activists have also been concerned about the

socio-economic, health and environmental implications of

ever increasing bottled water use. But for most of us

living in the U.S. , water is something we take for

granted, available when you turn your tap on -- to brush

your teeth, to take a shower, to wash your car, to water

your lawn, and if you have your own swimming pool then,

to fill that as well.

So it was with alarm that many of us read the story of

Orme, a small town tucked away in the mountains of

southern Tennessee that has become a recent symbol of

the drought in the southeast. Orme has had to literally

ration its water use, by collecting water for a few

hours every day -- an everyday experience in most

developing countries, but unusual for the U.S. This is

an extreme experience from the southeast region that has

been under a year long dry spell. In fact, the region's

dry spell resulted in the city of Atlanta setting severe

water use restrictions and three states, Georgia ,

Florida and Alabama, going to court over a water

allocation dispute (settled in favor of Florida and

Alabama early last month).

Early this year we also heard that drought in the region

could force nuclear reactor shut-downs. Nuclear reactors

need billions of gallons of cooling water daily to

operate, and in many of the lakes and rivers water

levels are getting close to the limit set by the Nuclear

Regulatory Commission. It is possible in the coming

months that we may see water levels decrease below the

intake pipes, or that shallow water could become warmer

and unusable as a coolant. While this may not cause

blackouts, this can result in increased costs for energy

as utilities have to buy from other sources.

Water concerns are not restricted to the southeast

region -- similar issues have also been popping up in

other parts of the United States . In the Midwest ,

concerns abound as to whether the newly emerging biofuel

industry is putting undue pressure on the region's

groundwater resources. The issue came into focus for the

first time in the late summer of 2006 in Granite Falls ,

MN where an ethanol plant in its first year of operation

depleted the groundwater so much that it had to begin

pumping water from the Minnesota River .

In early February, it was reported that there is a 50

percent chance Lake Mead (on the Arizona/Nevada border),

will be dry by 2021 if climate change continues as

expected and future water use is not limited. Along with

Lake Powell in Utah, Lake Mead helps provide water for

more than 25 million people, and is a key source of

water in the southwestern U.S. On the west coast, where

water is a precious resource, water disputes abound:

between farmers who want water for agriculture,

environmentalists who want to conserve water for

ecosystems, and cities who want to meet ever-growing

urban water needs. Last summer, in a landmark decision,

a federal judge ordered state and federal water project

managers to reduce the amount of water pumped from the

Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect the

threatened delta smelt from extinction. Along with

excessive rains in other regions and increased incidence

of hurricanes in the Gulf Coast , these changes are a

constant reminder of an increasingly evident reality: climate change.

In fact, in early February, Nature reported that, "In

the western US, where water is perhaps the most precious

natural resource, anthropogenic global warming is

responsible for more than half of the well-documented

changes to the hydrological cycle from 1950 to 1999.

Over the last half of the twentieth century, the

region's mountains received less winter snow and more

rain, with snow melting earlier, causing rivers to flow

more strongly in the spring and more weakly in the summer."

Unlike Katrina's images that are as haunting as that of

a severe sub Saharan drought, the images of the current

North American drought are no more than a mild

distraction for most Americans (though not for those who

live in Orne). Yet there is no reason to be complacent.

We are close to the limits of our water supplies. It is

time for us to start thinking of this nation's

susceptibility to these changes and disruptions and how

to minimize our vulnerability to them. Barely three

years ago in the wake of hurricane Katrina IATP's Mark

Muller wrote: "The storm exposed some real vulnerability

in the current agriculture system. As we recover from

the tragedy of Katrina, we have an opportunity to

rebuild and rethink how to strengthen agriculture,

regional economies and the transportation and production

infrastructure. He identified 10 areas of vulnerability

exposed by Katrina, including energy, fertilizer,

transportation markets for crops less dependent on

inputs, CAFO regulation, on-farm water storage, valuing

the commons and climate change."

I find these areas of vulnerability particularly

relevant when it comes to the current water crisis. Like

Katrina, this crisis gives us yet another opportunity to

rethink and challenge issues that we need to raise: land

use planning that allows unfettered development, energy

production that is water intensive, and agricultural

water use that is inefficient from a hydrological

perspective. So far we have assumed that we can

undertake any development we want, wherever we want, or

we could grow whatever we want, however we want, and

that water will always be available to support that

growth. In the process we are draining our aquifers,

polluting our rivers, tampering with ecosystems and

destroying the diversity of life -- as if nature is ours

to be manipulated to suit our wants. It is time to

change some of our practices.

For more than a century, the federal government has

spent billions of dollars, building our dams,

reservoirs, aqueducts and pipelines. Ironically, in the

same way that extracting/ transporting and processing

water consumes large amounts of energy, the operation of

power plants consume large amounts of water.

Thermal energy is one of the largest water users in the

United States. However, irrigated agriculture accounts

for 80 percent of water consumed in the U.S. This high

percentage is partially because of low water use-

efficiency (the portion of water actually used by

irrigated agriculture relative to the volume of water

withdrawn). For the western United States , agricultural

farms are the single largest water user, half of which

is used by the largest 10 percent of the farms. High

levels of irrigation subsidies, combined with archaic

water laws make water use in the western U.S. highly

wasteful and inefficient. But there is room for

improvement in agricultural water use in almost all

parts of the U.S. Water use should be such that for a

given locale, appropriate incentives are put in place to

ensure that water withdrawals do not exceed the recharge

rate; that water conservation techniques (such as rain

water harvesting) are central to land use planning; that

improved irrigation efficiency and better nutrient

management (to reduce non-point water pollution from

farm run-offs) are rewarded; and that growing water-

intensive crops in water scarce regions discouraged.

Legal judgments, such the recent case involving the

Sacramento- San Joaquin River Delta, are an attempt to

reverse earlier actions by state and federal water

managers that have damaged the water system. But much

more is needed. As Peter Gleick of the California based

Pacific Institute points out in a recent article: "While

predictions of economic disaster arising from the Delta

decision may come true, they don't have to. But it will

take a re-evaluation of our ideas about water-use and

politi- cal courage by the governor, Legislature and

water users to have open and honest discussions about

how to redesign our water system so that it is smart,

efficient and sustainable."

This is true for the nation as a whole: here in this

land of plenty, we need to rethink our policies

regarding urban development, energy production, and most

importantly our agriculture and food systems, in order

to avert an environmental crisis that many countries are

already in the grip of.

Shiney Varghese is a Senior Policy Analyst at the

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

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