As the residents of Minot evacuated before an historic flood, and as we watch more floods in the Missouri and Mississippi River basins, it is difficult to grasp the notion that fresh water shortage is a major American problem. A new release from NOAA’s Climate Data Center shows that the southern U.S. from Virginia to Eastern Arizona remains in serious drought conditions.
In Texas, the current drought is drier than any other October-through-May stretch in the state’s history. It has heightened the stakes in a contentious long-term planning battle over water from lakes and streams, which feed the lower Colorado River as it runs southeast to the Gulf of Mexico. Water shortage has pitted fast-growing cities like Austin against farmers near the Gulf, who need lots of water for irrigation.
A record Western snowpack this year will add perhaps a few inches to the Colorado River’s Lake Mead from which Las Vegas draws much of its water. That will not alter the longer term decline in Lake Mead water levels, and Las Vegas will continue its billion dollar project to build new lower level intake pipes.
The thirsty cities and farmers of the west and southwest continue to look north at the Columbia River, and to the east at the Great Lakes and the Mississippi for water. An enduring Minnesota nightmare is the vision of great pipelines which begin in Lake Superior and in our rivers. Like giant flexible straws, they snake their way west to supply parched Arizona golf courses and California farms and swimming pools. Although the pipelines are not practical, the bad dream persists, concluding with Lake Superior shrinking to a giant replica of those empty mine pits on the Iron Range.
Water shortages are prevalent in many area of the world, especially in agricultural regions of China, Russia, Australia, and Asia. This contributed to the doubling in price in recent years of major grains including wheat, corn, soybeans, and rice. The Green Revolution’s increase in crop yields from mechanization, irrigation, and new fertilizers and pesticides has essentially ceased.
The Earth, an oasis in the dry vastness of space, has a finite supply of water. There is the same amount of it on the planet as there was when dinosaurs roamed, and the world’s population of nearly seven billion people has to share the same amount as the few hundred million inhabitants during Roman Empire times.
A report by the World Economic Forum, which runs the annual Davos meetings of the international business and financial elite, says that lack of water, will “soon tear into various parts of the global economic system” and “start to emerge as a headline geopolitical issue”. During the 20th century the world population increased fourfold, but the amount of freshwater that it used increased nine times over.
World food demand continues to grow with increased population and diets requiring more grains for animal feed. This places new demand on water supplies as marginal lands requiring irrigation are opened to the plow.
Fresh water which falls on us from nature’s great distillery is renewable, but its supply is fixed in the face of this growing demand. Some tough decisions on conservation, and the end of programs like subsidized cheap water for low value crops in arid regions will help to preserve land and water for future generations. We do use our technology to manage within the laws of nature for our benefit, but we are not allowed to break those laws.
ROLF WESTGARD is a Deerwood resident who will teach the fall quarter class “Peak Oil and Peak Water” for the University of Minnesota LIfelong Learning program.