Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum


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That Sinking Feeling

We have discussed the massive groundwater depletion that has occurred in California here and here as the drought has lingered for the past four years.  It should not surprise anyone that one of the very visible impacts of the groundwater pumping is that some areas of the state are, quite literally, sinking.  Groundwater takes a long time to replenish, so even if the drought ended yesterday, the sinking would remain.  From the AP:

Vast areas of California’s Central Valley are sinking faster than in the past as massive amounts of groundwater are pumped during the historic drought, NASA said in new research released Wednesday.

The research shows that in some places the ground is sinking nearly two inches each month, putting infrastructure on the surface at growing risk of damage.

Sinking land has occurred for decades in California because of excessive groundwater pumping during drought conditions, but the new data shows it is happening faster.

Mark Cowin, head of the California Department of Water Resources, said the costly damage has occurred to major canals that deliver water up and down the state. In addition, wells are being depleted, he said.

“Because of increased pumping, groundwater levels are reaching record lows — up to 100 feet lower than previous records,” Cowin said in a statement.

The report said land near the city of Corcoran sank 13 inches in eight months and part of the California Aqueduct sank eight inches in four months last year.

Long-term subsidence has already destroyed thousands of public and private groundwater well casings in the San Joaquin Valley. Over time, subsidence can permanently reduce the underground aquifer’s water storage capacity.

As part of an ongoing effort to respond to the effects of the drought, a task force is working with communities to develop short-term and long-term recommendations to reduce the rate of sinking and address risks to infrastructure.

“Groundwater acts as a savings account to provide supplies during drought, but the NASA report shows the consequences of excessive withdrawals as we head into the fifth year of historic drought,” Cowin said in his statement. “

The Department of Water Resources is also launching a $10 million program to help counties with stressed groundwater basins to develop or strengthen local ordinances and conservation plans.

A record low mountain snowpack has increased pumping of groundwater by farmers and other water users. Scientists used satellite images of the Earth taken over time to measure the sinking land.


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Balls!

It’s not like we haven’t reported on innovative, strange and extreme ways that drought-plagued people, communities and enterprises find to manage their water resources.  This is not the first time we have heard about this method of limiting evaporation from reservoirs, but this time we have video.  From onEarth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council:

As the drought rages on in California, things have been getting weird. Now the latest effort to protect L.A.’s water supply has just turned the city’s reservoir into a giant black-ball pit.

The 96 million plastic “shade balls” floating on the reservoir’s surface will help keep the water from evaporating, protect it from contamination by birds and other wildlife, and prevent sunlight from promoting algal growth. The balls are designed to last for about 10 years without degrading (at which point they’ll be recycled) or releasing anything harmful into the water themselves—Ed Osann, a senior policy analyst with NRDC (disclosuretells Bloomberg, “Everything that comes into contact with drinking water has to be a certified material,” meaning it shouldn’t cause pollution problems. 

ABC 7 reports that the move is millions of dollars cheaper than the alternative (which is installing a cover over the reservoir), and these spheres will save 300 million gallons of water every year. L.A. is on the ball, and other municipalities are catching on, too—watch officials from the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District release shade balls into their reservoir, too.


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Watching the Water Wasters

It’s not quite “Big Brother” but California continues to promote measures to ensure that water use is managed and that violators are discovered and subjected to a public flogging.  From CBS News:

California is launching a website that lets residents tattle on water wasters, from neighbors with leaky sprinklers to waiters who serve water without asking.

California has multiple restrictions on water use, including banning washing cars with hoses that don’t shut off and restricting lawn-watering within two days of rainfall. But enforcement varies widely across the parched state. 

Residents can send details and photos of water waste at www.savewater.ca.gov. Complaints are then sent to local government agencies based on the address of the offense.

Tipsters wary of being outed as the neighborhood snitch can remain anonymous.

The State Water Resources Control Board Water announced California cut its water use by 27 percent in June, passing the conservation target set by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Data shows 265 out of 411 local water agencies hit or nearly reached their reduction goals.

The site went online Thursday as the latest conservation initiative. More than 300 agencies have signed up to see the details of water waste tips. Many local agencies already had their own reporting sites.

“Our water use complaint calls have gone up exponentially from the last two years,” Terrance Davis of the Sacramento Department of Utilities told CBS affiliate KOVR in July. The city said from January to June, it received more than 8,000 complaints.

“Obviously we can’t see everything, can’t be everywhere so having people in the community helping us out–residents, neighbors–reporting those types of things is a great tool for us too,” Davis said.


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Lake Mead at Record Low Levels

We have posted several stories on what is happening to Lake Mead and the impact it will have on Las Vegas, Arizona and Southern California.  This is a recent update on the water level and what another 5 foot drop will mean.  From Brookings:

This week, the water level in Lake Mead dropped to an all-time low, falling below 1080 feet above sea level for the first time in 78 years. As drought continues to afflict the American West, the dire situation at Lake Mead will continue to have consequences for states like Arizona, California, and Nevada  that draw their water supply from Lake Mead.

In a new video Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Pat Mulroy, who served as general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) when one of the worst droughts in the history of the Colorado River hit the region, predicts the current crisis at Lake Mead and why it is a problem.  

 


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Global Drought Update – April 2015

While we post much on the domestic U.S. drought conditions, there are dozens of locations globally that are experiencing significant or severe instances of water crisis.  This is an update for April 2015, care of UNICEF.

Country-by-country overview

Ethiopia: An estimated 8 million of Ethiopia’s 60 million people are at immediate risk due to drought. UNICEF estimates that 1.4 million of those at risk are children under five.

Eritrea: Successive years of drought, combined with the border war with Ethiopia, has created major food shortages. Nearly 1.3 million people are at risk, including an estimated 1 million who have been displaced by the war.

Somalia: Due to seven consecutive poor harvests coupled with chronic insecurity in some regions, food stability is deteriorating, affecting as many as one million people, including 300,000 children aged under 5 years. The drought has been made worse by sudden torrential rains and flash flooding. Sudan: An estimated 2.8 million people in the south face food insecurity in the coming months.

Uganda: About 550,000 people face food insecurity.

Afghanistan: Large parts of the south are severely affected, where 60 to 80 percent of livestock have died. Almost 2.5 million people, or 10 percent of the population, are at risk and many of them will need assistance for at least the next 12 months.

China: In the northern Shanxi province, nearly 3 million people don’t have enough water. About one-third of the province’s wheat crop has been hit by the drought and more than 60 percent of its soil lacks water.

India: The government has mobilized massive relief efforts in several regions. Madhya Pradesh, along with the western states of Rajasthan and Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh in the south, are in the grip of a severe drought following the failure of last year’s monsoon rains. Nearly 130 million people living in 12 States have been seriously affected by what some officials call the worst drought in 100 years.

Iran: The government has informed the United Nations office in Tehran that it is ready to accept international aid to help meet losses estimated at $1.7 billion from the drought. Iran needs about $200 million to provide water tankers and water purifying units for drought-hit areas.

Morocco: The government has launched a $633 million contingency plan to combat the worst drought for a decade. About 70 percent of the country’s arable land has been affected.

Pakistan: Government officials estimate that nearly 3 million people – mostly villagers – face possible starvation. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Pakistan’s southern Thar desert. The drought has devastated crops and livestock in the desert, home to 1 million people, sparking fears of a massive humanitarian crisis.


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The Urban Water Challenge

There are many dynamics that contribute to the increasing challenge of providing enough clean water for the population that the Earth now needs to support. While the default issue is often the impacts that climate change has on watersheds across the globe, a critical element to be considered in the ongoing discussion around clean water access regards what is happening in the world’s cities. Global urban water supplies are increasingly polluted and will likely be unable to meet rapidly-growing demand.

Most of the major cities in the world have already grown too large to adequately deliver water to all their inhabitants. More than a slow motion train wreck, this is a challenge that needs to be addressed immediately as more and more people are living in urban environments where access to water is difficult or the quality of water being delivered is compromised.

A new in-depth report by The Nature Conservancy underscores the much broader global implications of rapid population growth in cities paired with unprecedented threats to their water supplies. Add to that mounting pressure on cities to take action on other environmental woes, like ill effects of climate change, and it becomes an even taller order for budget-constrained local governments.

The Nature Conservancy found that 1 in 3 of world’s 100 largest cities — which are cumulatively home to some 700 million people — are currently “water stressed.” That means water use by all sectors exceeds 40 percent of total availability from watersheds.

“Cities face twin challenges: water that is both scarce and polluted,” the report authors state. “Rising demand has been allowed to grow unchecked, competing users upstream do not talk to or trust one another, increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns have been altered by climate change, and the watersheds where our water comes from have been degraded.”

A key challenge highlighted in The Nature Conservancy report is a history of short-sightedness when it comes to where our water is coming from.

Watersheds already in use are increasingly jeopardized by pollution, and new potential water supply options to meet increasing demand don’t look much better.

Significant deforestation has already impacted an estimated 40 percent of the hundreds of urban watersheds analyzed in the report, despite warnings from some in the water industry about resulting increases in pollutants since as far back as the 1980s.

“I was surprised seeing the trend over time,” said Robert McDonald, lead study author and The Nature Conservancy’s senior scientist for urban sustainability.

Add to that an anticipated 10 percent increase in the utilization of agricultural lands as a source for urban water by the year 2030. The use of fertilizer is projected to grow 58 percent during the same period, raising serious questions about the safety of water originating in those areas.

The report provides a wealth of information on the challenge for urban water systems and I will be posting excerpts from the report over the next few weeks.

 


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NASA Focuses on Trying to Save the Earth

As painful as the past three years have been, the current drought plaguing the western U.S. may be providing only a hint of what is to come. A new NASA study finds that should we continue on the path of increasing greenhouse emissions, the damage to climate will result in a much drier planet and a megadrought far more severe than what we have experienced lately.

As an editorial note, I still find it extraordinary that there are constituencies, particularly in government and big business, that deny the findings of the very organization the landed men on the moon.

From the CNN report:

There is no precedent in contemporary weather records for the kinds of droughts the country’s West will face, if greenhouse gas emissions stay on course, a NASA study said.

No precedent even in the past 1,000 years.

The feared droughts would cover most of the western half of the United States — the Central Plains and the Southwest.

Those regions have suffered severe drought in recent years. But it doesn’t compare in the slightest to the ‘megadroughts’ likely to hit them before the century is over due to global warming.

The consequences of climate change go far beyond warming temperatures, which scientists say are melting the polar ice caps and raising sea levels.

These will be epochal, worthy of a chapter in Earth’s natural history.

Even if emissions drop moderately, droughts in those regions will get much worse than they are now, NASA said.

The space agency’s study conjures visions of the sun scorching cracked earth that is baked dry of moisture for feet below the surface, across vast landscapes, for decades. Great lake reservoirs could dwindle to ponds, leaving cities to ration water to residents who haven’t fled east.

“Our projections for what we are seeing is that, with climate change, many of these types of droughts will likely last for 20, 30, even 40 years,” said NASA climate scientist Ben Cook.

The Dust Bowl

That’s worse and longer than the historic Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when “black blizzards” — towering, blustery dust walls — buried Southern Plains homes, buggies and barns in dirt dunes.

It lasted about 10 years. Though long, it was within the framework of a contemporary natural drought.

To find something almost as extreme as what looms, one must go back to Medieval times.

Nestled in the shade of Southwestern mountain rock, earthen Ancestral Pueblo housing offers a foreshadowing. The tight, lively villages emptied out in the 13th century’s Great Drought that lasted more than 30 years.

No water. No crops. Starvation drove populations out to the east and south.

Much, much worse

If NASA’s worst case scenario plays out, what’s to come could be worse.

Its computations are based on greenhouse gas emissions continuing on their current course. And they produce an 80% chance of at least one drought that could last for decades.

One “even exceeding the duration of the long term intense ‘megadroughts’ that characterized the really arid time period known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly,” Cook said.

That was a period of heightened global temperatures that lasted from about 1100 to 1300 — when those Ancestral Pueblos dispersed. Global average temperatures are already higher now than they were then, the study said.

Massive data calculation

The NASA team’s study was very data heavy.

It examined past wet and dry periods using tree rings going back 1,000 years and compared them with soil moisture from 17 climate models, NASA said in the study published in Science Advances.

Scientists used super computers to calculate the models forward along the lines of human induced global warming scenarios. The models all showed a much drier planet.

Superhuman challenge

Some Southwestern areas that are currently drought-stricken are filling up with more people, creating more demand for water while reservoirs are already strained.

The predicted megadroughts will wrack water supplies much harder, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center said.

“These droughts really represent events that nobody in the history of the United States has ever had to deal with,” Cook said.

Compared with the last millennium, the dryness will be unprecedented. Adapting to it will be tough.