Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Water, Good to the Last Drop

Thanks to NPR for repurposed image

According to Circle of Blue, 97.5% of Earth's water is salt water and of the remaining 2.5%, only a small fraction is readily accessible for human consumption given that much of it is locked in glaciers. While not necessarily new information, when you look at that in the context of the 7Billion people we have on earth, the increase in wildland fires, droughts, and lower than average precipitation levels, a picture of concern starts to develop.

When it comes to disasters we're used to seeing flooded homes, action cams following tornados, and dramatic photos of fire...but when you see a picture of a farmer with dead crops, or cracked earth where a pond, stream, river used to be, the sense of urgency isn't there...even though the need for drastic action is long overdue.

While you can find websites saying that future wars will be fought over water, you don't need to wait to feel the affects of a dwindling water supply. Low precipitation and snowpacks, higher temperatures, and high population densities in traditionally arid parts of the US paint a bleak picture for the future of the Southwest if these conditions persist. To reinforce the seriousness of the situation, the Bureau of Reclamation, the US dept. of the Interiors' watchdog for Water Management in the West released a report that says due to decreasing water levels in Lake Powell, beginning next year, the amount of water released from Lack Powell will decrease by 750,000 acre-ft (an acre foot is enough water to cover an acre of land in one foot of water), or enough water to supply 1.5 million homes in Arizona. Brad Udall's chart illustrates the timeline and severity of the most recent drought as the basis for the reduction in water release.
Conservationists and groups like Save The Colorado believe this is a step in the right direction but may be too little too late, while agribusiness and municipalities only see what that means for budgets and how everyday life will be affected. The water rights, how its split between agricultural, domestic, and industrial use is a constant battle where all sides claim any reduction will cause serious hardship, but because the Colorado supplies water to: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah, the focus should remain on better planning and managing what's available to help the Colorado rebound, than trying to make a set of constituents happy.

And while water shortages will have a direct and meaningful impact on all facets of life in the southwest, there's the added issue of hydroelectricity and how a decrease in the volume of water released will impact power generation and output that have not been mentioned in the articles I've seen. A taste of some of the discomfort this can be seen with the Rim fire currently burning in Yosemite; because of the fire's location, the city of San Francisco has spent roughly $600,000 since Aug 19th offsetting the power output loss due to the closure of one of their hydroelectric facilities that helps power the city. The impact on the power company's bottom line will be negligible in CA but how an overall reduction in output will impact power availability for those who get it from the Glen Canyon Hydroelectric facility on Lake Powell remains to be seen.

Whether you believe this is a result of climate change due to cycles, fossil fuels, or an act of god...the extended drought conditions the US faces are real, concrete, and is a glimpse of the type of hardship that we will have to get used to if things don't change. And unfortunately there are no quick fixes to the water issues we face, of course water conservation is the cheapest and easiest but as with most things, substantive change have to come from those in positions of power given that some of the suggestions put forth encompass: municipal and agricultural conservation and the management and enforcement of that, water recycling, and a water bank that would increase flexibility in river systems.

As humans we don't have a good track record with moderation; I hope that given the magnitude and seriousness of this issue that we will learn how to better live within our means and not so drastically outpace the ability of our natural surroundings to keep up.

Here are some water facts about personal consumption to help keep things in perspective:


  1. I am all for anything that has me replace a glass of milk with a beer.

  2. fyi just in case you haven't already seen this -