Not a Drop to Drink

watering point 2“Government-backed research on watersheds in the U.S. provide a dire outlook for the future: population growth and climate change are likely to cause “serious water shortages” within the next 55 years, says the study.”
~ Renae Reints

George Tsosie pulled up and nodded to me as he got out of his pickup at the watering point. The sheep ignored him as they milled about near the watering trough, making a muddy mess. George situated his truck so that the hose from the overhead pipe dangled over the two 55-gallon drums in the truck bed. He shook the dust off the lids, and began to fill the drums with his week’s water supply.

I knew the watering point was fed from a spring halfway up the mesa that loomed over the valley and was the primary source of water for several homes and most of the sheep in the area. This part of the Navajo Reservation had only sparse water — except for the August storms that created broad mud flats, impassible to most vehicles, and eroded the washes into jumbles of sand and rock. The runoff pools didn’t last very long, and little surface water existed.

Part of my job was to look for other water sources, and see if they could be developed for use. Much of the sparse groundwater was of poor quality, but a few wells might go deep enough to produce good water, if a power source was nearby. Power lines were few, consequently there were few deep wells.

A year or so later I sat in an Atlanta Water Commission meeting to explain the results of my Master’s project. I demonstrated how minor mandatory or recommended water conservation measures could delay the need for a new reservoir, postponing several millions of dollars in expenditures. The humid and water-logged South was not particularly receptive to water conservation. Mostly they worked to drain away their water, not conserve it, and anyway, new development required more water, and more water spawned new development. My recommendations were considered “academic”.

The need for water conservation may become more of an everyday thing, however. Climate change, regardless of what you think about the cause, is happening. We know that it will bring more extreme weather events and shift the climate, creating warmer cold areas, drier wet areas, and the reverse. These climate shifts will affect human populations, creating mass migration from uninhabitable areas to places where survival is more possible. Ecologic and social disruption will be exacerbated by the accompanying pestilence, war and famine, leading to deaths much as described in the Book of Revelation.

We can see the effects of climate change on glaciers and ice caps, but it is also obvious locally. Across the west we’re seeing vegetation shift with elevation, as warmer drier air extends the temperate zone higher. In Los Angeles, according to the Nature Conservancy, the 25,000 palm trees planted during the Great Depression are dying due to drier climate and the invasive South American Palm Beetle. It is possible they will join the American Chestnut and Elm in extinction.

Ari Phillips, News Editor at Earther.com reports, “As climate change warms the planet, countless plants and animals are migrating into new habitats made more suitable for their survival.”

And it’s not just plants or animals. A major cause of the recent immigration crisis in the Mediterranean was drought in Africa, as well as war in the Middle East. Humans are more mobile in some ways than animals or plants, and certainly able to adapt more quickly to different living conditions. The wealthy may be able to protect themselves from rising seas and famine, but pestilence can strike anywhere. Regardless, people have shown that they have few principles if someone else has something they need or want badly.

Many places have started using different techniques to manage and conserve water. Some techniques identified by Nature Conservancy reporter Jenny Rogers include municipal rain gardens and bioretention planters, permeable pavement, larger underground pipes to funnel stormwater, pocket parks, and green roofs. Traditional low flow toilets and fixtures and automatic water systems are used by many households and commercial and industrial facilities.

However, Renae Reints writes for Fortune.com, “… past methods of adaption, including expanding reservoir storage, show ’little promise’ in avoiding the shortages … Other major adaptations commonly used in the past, especially instream flow removals and groundwater mining, can substantially lower shortages but have serious external costs … If those costs are to be avoided, transfers from irrigated agriculture probably will be needed and could be substantial.”

“Irrigated agriculture is responsible for over 75% of annual consumption in most water basins, according to the researchers. If farmers were to reduce irrigation for their crops, particularly crops grown for animal feed or biofuel, the researchers’ computer models show some hope for fewer shortages.” Of course, this shift away from food production could increase the likelihood of food shortages, unless significant improvements in farming efficiencies are implemented.

Many recognize the impending crises, but our government is responding by closing their ears and eyes to the science. “La la la, I can’t hear you!”

I was profoundly influenced by working among people whose existence was bounded by having to weekly haul the water they needed to survive. I’ve seen the future of water shortage, and it’s not something I look forward to.

I don’t think we can get out of this problem by just putting a brick in the toilet.

It’s going to take a lot more.

Additional Reading:
Ari Phillips, Palm Trees Are Moving North, 3/20/18, Earther Newsletter
Renae Reints, The U.S. Is Going to See Water Shortages Within the 21st Century, Study Says, March 4, 2019, Fortune.com
J.R., Palm Swap, Spring 2019, Nature Conservancy Magazine
Jenny Rogers, Ways Cities are Capturing Rainwater (Planning for a Rainy Day), Nature Conservancy Magazine, Spring 2019

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