I was standing in the middle of my yard a couple of days ago holding a water hose, doing a little spot watering (imagine Hank in the opening scene of Fox’s King of the Hill) when it occurred to me that we treat water as an ‘invisible’ resource. We expect it to be there when we want it, we expect it to be top quality, and we really don’t even think about the possibility that it might not be there or it might not be adequate quality.
But it can happen. Look at what just happened with such tragic consequences in Flint, MI. I won’t try to lay the blame for Flint’s failures. I’m just pointing out that even in our most modern of countries in the most modern of times, we can still suffer a failure of such catastrophic proportions. And the amazing thing is it went so long with nobody noticing.
When we look at water, we don’t even notice it. Not like people in third-world countries who may have to walk several miles to carry a five-gallon pail of clean water back to their house every day. Not like farmers of the Midwest during the Depression when homes were covered by dust-storms because of a lack of rain.
We’ve grown so used to an over-abundance of clean water that we simply take it for granted that it will always be there, that it will always be clean, and that it will always be affordable.
Not one of those three conditions is a given.
One only has to look at data on falling groundwater levels in the many underground aquifers around the country and the usable reserves in man-made lakes to realize we face dangerous water shortages in the future.
Our underground water tables are being pumped down faster than they can naturally replenish themselves, in some cases causing the land in whole counties to actually fall by measurable amounts. Water wells must continually be dug deeper and deeper, but there is a limit to how deep these wells can be dug.
Many man-made lakes, like Lake Mead which feeds Las Vegas, face the double problems of filling in the bottom with silt as the river water drops sediment year after year, and draw-down as overuse takes water out of the reservoir faster than the river can replenish the shrinking lake. Growth in the American Southwest in particular has pushed the limits of resources available, some say past the breaking point already.
Some of the irrigation projects in the Southwest have already radically increased salinity in river water in the region. Water that runs off from irrigated land flows back into the river system, but now carries many salts and minerals it didn’t have before. Water quality has been impacted.
The cost you pay today for your water can vary widely depending on where you live and where you water comes from. If your water comes from Lake Mead, you drink water subsidized 98% by the federal government (which means taxpayers like you and me). If people in Las Vegas had to pay the full price of their water without subsidy, it would cost them fifty times as much as it is right now.
And these subsidies are everywhere. But who knows for how long?
One thing is for certain. As water becomes harder to come by, and harder to purify, it’s going to cost more. And at some point it will even be worth fighting for. (Legends of the Wild West have it that many a ranch war have been fought and many have died over water rights out west.) The wars of the 2010s have been over oil. Might the wars of the 2030s or the 2040s be over clean water?
You can Google many of these facts for yourself from various sources, but one particularly interesting read is a book titled ‘Cadillac Desert’. You can find it on Amazon, and I highly recommend it.
Till next time,