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America's Water Mirage

Science & Tech  (tags: climate, safety, science, research, study, water, news, humans, health, habitat, environment )

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Even at Hoover Dam, the ugly truth about our water crisis is being ignored.

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JL A (281)
Tuesday November 13, 2012, 9:50 am
America's water mirage
Even at Hoover Dam, the ugly truth about our water crisis is being ignored.

Lake Mead

Lake Mead's "bathtub ring" is stark visual evidence of the misuse of a precious resource. (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press / March 23, 2012)

By Cynthia Barnett

November 11, 2012

On an unseasonably hot morning this fall, my 11-year-old son and I set off for Hoover Dam, his first time to tour the American engineering wonder that draws nearly 1 million visitors a year.

In recent years, I'd visited the dam and adjacent reservoir, Lake Mead, as a journalist who reports on water. But I hadn't been there as a tourist since my own childhood. I looked forward to hearing how the dam's minder, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, would tell such a big story to such a big audience.

I expected to hear about the drama, human sacrifice and technical prowess behind the dam's construction. I also expected some of the growing concerns about the Colorado River that feeds the dam, having seen the bureau's worrisome charts that show how demand for the water shared by seven U.S. states and Mexico has exceeded supply a gap growing ever wider amid epic drought and epic waste.

Americans operate under an illusion of water abundance. That fiction makes the reality of water scarcity a particularly hard concept to get across. From California to Florida, freshwater aquifers are being pumped so much faster than they recharge that many parts of the country can no longer rely on groundwater to supply future populations.

But we can't see dried-out aquifers the way we could see black Dust Bowl storms in the 1930s or water pollution in the early 1970s. So we still pump with abandon to do things like soak the turf grass that covers 63,240 square miles of the nation. We flush toilets with this same fresh, potable water, after treating it at great expense to meet government standards for drinking.

We fill the fridge with beef, the shopping bags with cotton T's, the gas tank with corn-made ethanol all with little inkling of how we're draining to extinction the Ogallala aquifer that irrigates a quarter of the nation's agricultural harvest. Water authority members who oversee the Ogallala and farmers who pump it have a chilling term for its use: "managed depletion." Your guess is as good as theirs where the staples will come from when the depletion is done.

Overtapped rivers are likewise out of sight for most people, who may encounter the source of their shower only as they drive by a carefully managed reservoir. Since Georgia's Lake Lanier, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is holding Chattahoochee River water again, Atlantans can turn on the lawn sprinklers, never having to think about how that action is wiping out an oyster fishery, and a way of life, downstream in Apalachicola, Fla.

But Lake Mead is different. It's one of the few places in the United States where the illusion of water abundance is being exposed for what it is: a beautiful bubble doomed to pop, just like other great national illusions the unending bull market, say, or upward-only housing prices.

For 12 years, the nation's largest reservoir has dropped steadily to reveal a calcium-carbonate bathtub ring, evidence of human folly and nature's frailty the over-allocation of the Colorado River and the drought still battering so much of the United States.

The chalky, ever-widening ring is the perfect starting point to talk to the millions who show up at Hoover Dam about our need to live differently with water.

Instead, the hourlong tour that my son and I took was as whitewashed as Mead's bathtub ring. It began with a film describing the system as an "assured and reliable water supply" for Southwestern cities and farms. Then, two guides led our attentive group on a bullish circuit of the generating plant and dam. Their only mention of the ring brushed it off as a high-water mark left from the Colorado River's 1983 flood, a compelling story that ended with the dam's heroic success in containing the swollen river nearly 30 years ago.

They uttered not one word about the dramatic drought that has unfolded since, much less what the widening bathtub ring portends for the future of the arid Southwest.

This is the illusion of water abundance at its most obscene. The water sector and large water users are so adept at capturing water and moving it around our cities and regions that the average American never has to worry about how it all works until it doesn't, just like credit default swaps or too-big-to-fail banks.

The conveyance of clean water into our cities, and the movement of wastewater out, was among the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, one that saved countless lives. But now that achievement has metastasized into an unsustainable entitlement. As cheap water flows from our taps like magic, our freshwaters have become the single most degraded of America's major resources, identified by the USGS and other agencies as having lost a greater portion of their species and habitat than land ecosystems.

More than any other factor, human use of that freshwater for agricultural irrigation, energy production and water for our homes and businesses is to blame. And yet, from Australia to Texas, people and businesses are proving how painless it is to live with a lot less water.

In Australia, the backyard rainwater tank has become so ubiquitous that Australian Geographic named it one of its "100 Aussie icons," right up there with the boomerang and the didgeridoo. The water revolution Down Under is not about mega-technologies such as desalination plants but tiny technologies such as micro-irrigation for agriculture and waterless everything waterless urinals, waterless carwashes, even waterless woks in the Chinese restaurants.

Texans in San Antonio have cut their water use in half, mostly by breaking off their love affair with the lawn. In parched north and west Texas, cattle operations such as Dixon Ranches are figuring out how to raise livestock on nonirrigated grasslands by mimicking the historic grazing patterns of Plains bison.

Still, the illusion of water abundance blinds most of the nation to all the good reasons why we should be doing all of that and more.

As with the financial and housing illusions, government water managers and the largest private water users are often too mesmerized by their own mirage to help the rest of us see the threats to U.S. aquifers and rivers. From the docents at the Hoover Dam to the biggest users to our own, overwatered backyards, let's break that cycle and stem the drain on America's water resources before it's too late.

Cynthia Barnett is a journalist and the author of "Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis," which calls for a water ethic for the natio

Kit B (276)
Tuesday November 13, 2012, 10:06 am

Well written article with the cold, hard facts laid out for anyone that is unafraid to deal with the truth. This did not happen over night, it's been a growing crisis, ignored for far too many years. My family lives in San Antonio and one of many things that must change is how we build our homes. The over whelming majority of homes in drought ridden Texas are on concrete slabs, either keep them moist all year, or pay for a very expensive foundation repair. In north Texas we do have a tiny bit more rain, not what we once had. Here too we must either keep our foundations moist or expect them to crack, though the earth quakes from fracking are assisting in that problem.

JL A (281)
Tuesday November 13, 2012, 10:27 am
I've been told that building code standards vary across the country for the proportions in cement for foundations based on historical temperatures and rainfall. Sounds like one more factor state and local governments will need to address are updates to reflect the new normals.

JL A (281)
Tuesday November 13, 2012, 2:23 pm
You are welcome Roger!

Monica D (580)
Tuesday November 13, 2012, 4:50 pm
I think that humanity needs to restrain its numbers and demands on nature. To achieve this, I think we need a more environmentally sustainable economy, along the general lines advocated by CASSE at . I encourage everyone to consider signing the position statement at that site. I think this is what we need to avoid the continuing destruction and depletion of nature, including water sources.

JL A (281)
Tuesday November 13, 2012, 5:01 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Monica because you have done so within the last week.

Sue Matheson (79)
Tuesday November 13, 2012, 8:54 pm

Giana Peranio-paz (398)
Wednesday November 14, 2012, 12:41 am
Thanks J.L.A. We have a very serious problem here in Israel. We pay a lot of money each month to the municipalities for water and our only big body of fresh water - has been showing this bathtub ring for years and years. We have always been instructed to conserve water and it's part of our way of life. This goes for all countries situated in dry climates, suffering from years of droughts.

. (0)
Wednesday November 14, 2012, 6:02 am
Very good article. One could argue about all the water that Nestle helped the PRC to bottle and ship back to China in the nineties but let us not forget that Los Angeles uses a lot of water; water diverted from its natural course to supply the city and water crops in the San Fernando Valley. Then there is the amount of water wasted by Las Vegas over the years by the casinos.
Do we have too many people? It's a possibility. I live in Toronto; a city designed for 1 million people tops. The city itself is now over 2.48 million with 5.5 million in the GTA.That is approximately New York's population. I see how the increased population puts a strain on every public and private service including water. Let's not kid ourselves. There is only so much water in and on the world. We need to stop overpopulating and we need to cut back on our creature comforts before it's too late. For most people, fresh clean water is a dream. Let's not take ours for granted. Oh and BTW let's not absolve the hundreds of thousand of gallons of water wasted on FRACKING and its evil afterbirth.

JL A (281)
Wednesday November 14, 2012, 6:35 am
You are welcome Sue & Giana!
Michael and Giana, thanks for providing such solid examples of context for water issues elsewhere to help the message be heard.
You cannot currently send a star to Giana because you have done so within the last week.
You cannot currently send a star to Michael because you have done so within the last week.

Stella Gamboni (17)
Wednesday November 14, 2012, 9:26 pm
Amen and AMEN!

JL A (281)
Wednesday November 14, 2012, 9:32 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Stella because you have done so within the last week.

reft h (66)
Wednesday November 14, 2012, 11:01 pm
thanks for the article

JL A (281)
Thursday November 15, 2012, 8:45 am
You are welcome june

Julio Martinez (7)
Thursday November 15, 2012, 2:56 pm

. (0)
Thursday November 15, 2012, 3:06 pm
Good article.

JL A (281)
Thursday November 15, 2012, 3:13 pm
Glad you appreciated it Sherri.

Talya H (10)
Thursday November 15, 2012, 4:00 pm
Thanks for the share!

JL A (281)
Thursday November 15, 2012, 4:07 pm
You are welcome Talya!

Sandra M Z (114)
Thursday November 15, 2012, 10:57 pm
On Cal's post about Bolivia's Law for Mother Earth, there is a satellite picture of the Earth. IDK when it was shot, but all of North American looks brown, not green.

Long story, but we are not replacing our front yard with grass, thinking native grasses/xeriscape plants. Little water, no mowing, no hot stones or concrete, just the natural, native plants that thrive on little water and look interesting.

Conserve, to keep the Dune suit out of reality.

Noted, Thank you J. L.

JL A (281)
Friday November 16, 2012, 2:59 pm
I opted for that kind of landscaping decades ago during a drought Sandra. There are several article under Healthy Living that provide guidance on drought resistant and drought tolerant plants. You cannot currently send a star to Sandra M because you have done so within the last week.
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