It’s true that we can never actually run out of water. All of our planet’s water circulates in the hydrological cycle as evaporation, clouds, rain and water. But only 2.5 percent of Earth’s water is fresh rather than salty, and only 1 percent of that is available to us in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers. And all of those sources are under grave stress worldwide.
Too many people, too much irrigation, galloping urbanization — they’re all depleting water reserves and shifting water away from many places on Earth where it’s needed, even as global warming melts glaciers, an important source of river renewal, and makes weather patterns more unpredictable.
As Ken Midkiff reports in Not a Drop to Drink: America’s Water Crisis (and What You Can Do) (New World Library, 2007), burgeoning Sun Belt cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego are fighting with heavily subsidized corporate farmers in San Diego County and in California’s Imperial Valley over access to water from the Colorado River. In fact, the once-mighty river has been so thoroughly dammed and diverted that it no longer reaches the sea — it trickles away into mud in the deserts of Sonora, Mexico. And climate researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported in April 2009 that if even the most conservative global-warming scenarios prove true, the river could fail to meet the demands placed upon it 60 to 90 percent of the time by midcentury.
Our subterranean freshwater is comparably stressed. The great Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies the High Plains and produces most of the water for irrigated agriculture from New Mexico to western Kansas, is being so heavily tapped that its shallower western end may go dry this year, while the middle area (underlying the heaviest irrigation zones) has 40 years left at best. And it may be economically prohibitive to draw water from the aquifer well before that date.
Midkiff notes that food prices are likely to soar if this “breadbasket” region, which produces 35 percent of our food, goes dry. And if significant areas of the desert Southwest go too dry to support their current level of urban life, other parts of the country could see an influx of “water refugees” crowding into less water-stressed urban areas.
What to Do
The first step is to become more informed on the issues, because, as noted, even if vanishing water isn’t directly affecting you now, it’s likely to in the near future. Our next-best recourse is “good law,” says Canadian eco-activist Maude Barlow, author of Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water (New Press, 2007). Midkiff agrees. He suggests urging our representatives in Washington to end or curtail the massive subsidies that pay the West’s mostly corporate farmers for overproducing on irrigated land. (He also suggests that High Plains and western farmers curtail irrigation as much as possible by using water-saving methods and planting crops that need less water.)
As consumers, we can also help by limiting our own water use, embracing thoughtful conservation methods and teaching our children to do the same. For more good information on water-scarcity issues, visit www.foodandwaterwatch.org.
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