We should all be getting a bit worried about America’s fresh water supplies and the distribution of fresh water. Tempted by pleasant year-round temperatures, or at least the lack of snowy days, and plenty of sunshine it sometimes seems that too many people have decided to move to locations with limited fresh water supplies. The pictures we saw on the media this week of the rock-face record of changing water depths on the Colorado River, which serves as a main source of water for dry states and western states, was quite shocking. A long drought has been forcing states to look at how they will supply water to a ballooning population and a vitally important agricultural area, all drawing water from sources that are drying up.
I remember reading a book, popular in the seventies, called Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, which warned that climate change would bring drought to America in the future. That was 40+ years ago now. Climate change is, of course, unpredictable. It is entirely possible that western states could be seeing torrential rains and flooding, or that the dwindling snows in the Sierras could be replenished to offer the snow melt that bodies of water and wells rely on. But none of our meteorological experts would predict that such a turn of events is imminent.
If you live in a state with plentiful water, you must have at least given a thought to whether water pipelines will send some of the water you rely on to drier areas, or to areas like Florida which may run out of potable water. Will we willingly share our freshwater resources? Remember the water cycle. There is no new freshwater being added to our reserves. Most water is simply recycled. While it is true that salt in water does not evaporate and storms that arise over oceans do change salt water into fresh water, the water falls so fast that flooding happens and this is often more of a nuisance or even a disaster than a replenishment. In a normal water cycle water evaporates into the air and is returned to the earth as rain or snow.
The problem is that the rain that is evaporated is not always dropped on the same place it evaporated from. In fact, it is hardly ever dropped back in the same geological location. There are predictable patterns of where water will condense as clouds and fall back to earth. These patterns are never 100% predictable. Ask the farmers.
Those of us who agree that climate change is real accept that patterns of water and wind and temperature that humans in America (and of course the world) have depended on for decades, perhaps even centuries, are becoming even less reliable than usual. There are more dry years in some places, flash flooding in others, weather events are sometimes more devastating than usual. The fires on the west coast have been fierce and human communities have been burned to the ground. Fire fighters have been faced with almost insurmountable danger and the constant battle with fire has left people exhausted. Landscapes often recover, but for humans, recovery is more problematic.
So, do we send water from relatively water rich areas so that people can continue to live in deserts, or in areas prone to a cycle of disasters and rebuilding, like our beaches? We have all that water sitting in our oceans so it is difficult to believe that water shortages ever will be a problem. However, apparently, desalination is a problem, not just because it’s expensive, but because there is nowhere to put the resulting brine where it will not threaten freshwater supplies. Will we be given a choice? Humans are generous, but when supply is limited are we still inclined to share? People who agreed to tough it out in areas with four seasons, when snow makes it so difficult to get around, might resent shipping water to snowbirds and sun seekers who tried to recreate the green lawns of northern suburbs without a thought for future shortages. How can we capture water that drowns an area prone to hurricanes and send it off to where would be useful? Nature still overwhelms us.
It seems we always see things coming but we never exercise foresight in order to create workable plans. Political divisions make action difficult, giving states more power and then dealing with 50 different policies from 50 different governors doesn’t help, and so we drift through the years with plenty of ideas offered by experts but no plans to stave off crop failures, fires, destruction of habitats, destruction of homes, and possible dystopian water wars. Who gets water, what can people in different biomes use water for, how can we keep our creature comforts and use much less water if we need to, should we transport water from one region of American to another if rains become ineffective for moving water around? Do we have a federal commission to control the use of freshwater resources in American, to husband our freshwater and collect it where rainfall is wasted in order to preserve enough water to always take care of the needs of farmers and citizens? Isn’t it about time we formed such a commission, separate from the EPA to concentrate on managing our freshwater resources?
Since the world is a much smaller place these days and movement of people around the world will return to normal someday if we can stabilize COVID, we cannot afford to just consider the distribution of water resources in America. We must also think globally. People may have to migrate to follow freshwater availabilities. Currently, the world’s nations frown on migration. If you live in a desert, that’s your problem. If one country’s industrial pollution ruins farming in another country, oh well. Look what has happen to the Uyghurs in China, as their desert home became even drier and less livable. They lost their autonomy and have attracted the attentions of President Xi, who is being accused of genocide. Look at what is happening to South Americans as drought affects crops and they are not allowed to migrate north. Water management may not be able to wait if we want to avoid mass migrations and even water wars.
On January 31, 2012, I wrote an article called “How Likely are Water Wars? You can find the post in my books, Loving America to Death. There is a book that just covers 2012 and there is an omnibus edition that covers 2010 to 2016.