Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What We Can Do About It

The following is an excerpt from "Unquenchable: American's Water Crisis and What We Can Do About It" by Robert Glennon. Copyright 2009 Robert Glennon. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington DC.

Editor's Note: This excerpt is from the introduction of Glennon's new book and follows a narrative about the water profligacy of Las Vegas. The timing of this excerpt is perfect for World Water Day, but the timing of the book in terms of the water issues facing American and the rest of the world is also incredibly important.

"When the well's dry, we know the worth of water," observed Benjamin Franklin in 1774. But he was wrong. In the United States, we utterly fail to appreciate the value of water, even as we are running out. We Americans are spoiled. When we turn on the tap, out comes a limitless quantity of high-quality water for less money than we pay for our cell phone service or cable television. But as we'll see, what is happening in Vegas is not staying in Vegas. It's becoming a national epidemic.

Ignorance is bliss when it comes to water. In almost every state in the country, a landowner can drill a domestic well anywhere, anytime-no questions asked. Many states don't even require permits for commercial wells unless the pumping will exceed 100,000 gallons a day (that's 36 million gallons annually). For each well. We know so little about this pumping that the federal government cannot even estimate the total number of these wells across the country. In many agricultural regions where the government does know the number of wells, such as California's Central Valley, it is still clueless as to how much water farmers pump out of those wells, because they're unmetered.

Water is a valuable, exhaustible resource, but as Las Vegas did until just a few years ago, we treat it as valueless and inexhaustible. Just as the energy crisis brought to the nation's consciousness an acute awareness of energy consumption, global warming, and carbon footprints, so too the impending national water crisis will inspire us to rethink how and why we use water.

My aim in this book is to explore the crisis and to stimulate that rethinking. Part of the problem is that water shortages in many parts of the country, lacking the exhibitionist tendencies of Las Vegas, are often hidden. This book will illustrate the true dimensions of the crisis and offer solutions to it. Alas, the dimensions are immense.

Water lubricates the American economy just as oil does. It is intimately linked to energy because it takes water to make energy, and it takes energy to divert, pump, move, and cleanse water. Water plays a critical role in virtually every segment of the economy, from heavy industry to food production, from making semiconductors to providing Internet service. A prosperous future depends on a secure and reliable water supply. And we don't have it. To be sure, water still flows from taps, but we're draining our reserves like gamblers at the craps table.

We tend to look at Las Vegas and think it's a unique case, perhaps a cautionary tale but barely relevant to where the rest of us live. But the truth is, when it comes to water, Vegas offers us a glimpse of our own future. The evidence is everywhere-though if it is noticed, it is forgotten with the next drenching rain. Consider the following events that have occurred since 2007:

  • Colorado farmers watched their crops wither because of a lack of irrigation water.
  • Atlanta, Georgia, came within three months of running out, so it banned watering lawns, washing cars, and filling swimming pools.
  • Orme, Tennessee, did run out and was forced to truck water in from Alabama.
  • Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography predicted that Lake Mead, which supplies water to Los Angeles and Phoenix, could dry up by 2021.
  • Hundreds of workers lost their jobs at Bowater, a South Carolina paper company, because low river flows prevented the plant from discharging its wastewater.
  • Lack of adequate water prompted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to rebuff Southern Nuclear Operating Company's request to build two new reactors in Georgia.
  • Water shortages caused California farmers to cut the tops off hundreds of healthy, mature avocado trees in a desperate attempt to keep them alive.
  • Lake Superior, the earth's largest freshwater body, was too shallow to float fully loaded cargo ships.
  • Decimated salmon runs prompted cancellation of the commercial fishing season off the coasts of California and Oregon.
  • A lack of adequate water led regulators in Idaho, Arizona, and Montana to deny permits for new coal-fired power plants.
  • In Riverside County, California, water shortages forced a water district to put on hold seven proposed commercial and residential developments.

To understand the depth of the water crisis, consider that more than thirty-five of the lower forty-eight states are fighting with their neighbors over water.

Our existing supplies are stretched to the limit, yet demographers expect the U.S. population to grow by 120 million by midcentury. Before the crisis becomes a catastrophe, we must embark in a fundamentally new direction. Business as usual just won't cut it. We have traditionally engineered our way out of water shortages by building dams, diverting rivers, and drilling wells. But proposals for new dams engender immense political and environmental opposition, diversions have already dried up many rivers and reduced the flow in others to a trickle, and groundwater tables are plummeting around the United States. Meanwhile, the environment suffers as excessive water use causes springs, creeks, rivers, and wetlands to go dry, salt water to contaminate potable supplies, the ground to collapse, and sinkholes to appear. Even lakes are not immune. Dozens in Florida have already gone dry.

Are there alternatives to business as usual? Some dreamers offer grandiose plans that include seeding clouds and towing icebergs from Alaska, but these are not viable options. We can expand the supply by reusing municipal effluent and by desalinating ocean water, but neither of these choices is a panacea. On the demand side, we can encourage water conservation. In some water-wasteful regions, conservation has great potential; however, many water-stressed communities have already implemented ambitious conservation programs but need to reduce demand even more. The reality is that reusing, desalinating, and conserving water may help to alleviate our crisis but will not solve it. We must find other ways to free up water. Las Vegas has pioneered very expensive solutions, but they can succeed only by taking water from other places. Is this sustainable?

In his 2005 book Collapse, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond describes how flourishing societies have precipitously collapsed. Examining spatially and temporally diverse cultures, such as those of Easter Island in the South Pacific, Norse settlements in Scandinavia, and the Anasazi in North America, Diamond finds a disturbing pattern, one that resembles contemporary conditions in the United States. As these societies grew and flourished, they mismanaged natural resources, eventually stretching the resources' carrying capacity to the breaking point. Still, the societies continued on in their customary practices, assuming that what they were familiar with was the norm. Then something happened-environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of trading partners, or the culture's own response to its environmental problems-to change the familiar, but it was too late for the society to correct course and avert a catastrophe. With the Anasazi, a growing population depended on ever-increasing use of water and firewood. When a sustained drought hit in the twelfth century and lasted more than fifty years, the society collapsed.

We, however, still control our destiny. The United States is entering an era of water reallocation, when water for new uses will come from existing users who have incentives to use less. Sounds good, but how will this happen? One possible approach is for the government to target wasteful practices by simply prohibiting current water users from using so much. However, heavy-handed government mandates would generate bitter political controversy and endless litigation. What we can do, yet haven't done, in the United States is encourage water conservation by using price signals and market forces. Pricing water appropriately would stimulate all users to reexamine their uses and decide for themselves, on the basis of their own pocketbooks, which uses to curtail and which to continue. The government should encourage a voluntary reallocation of water between current and new users. The alternative is to fight over the water. Which do we prefer?

Water nourishes our bodies and our souls. Our lives are impoverished without the sight, sound, smell, and touch of bubbling brooks, cascading waterfalls, and quiet ponds. The terrifying future depicted in science fiction doomsday novels conspicuously features barren landscapes. Our future needn't be so bleak. Our water crisis should occasion grave concern but not panic. We have solutions available; now we need a national commitment to pursue them.


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