Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum


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How Low Can You Go?

The water level in Lake Mead, the country’s largest man-made reservoir, reached its lowest point on record back in May and the situation has not improved since then.

Water levels in the lake fell to 1,074 in May, down from an average of 1,084 feet in February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, leaving the lake at 37% of capacity The region has suffered from a drought that has lasted more than a decade with the snow packs that feed the lake continuing to be lower than average over the past few years. Recent images of the lake show just how far water levels have dropped with “bathtub ring” markings indicating the higher height of the reservoir.

At 1073ft above sea level, the July reading at the Hoover Dam, which forms Lake Mead, was the lowest elevation since the reservoir was filled in the late 1930s.  The currently level also falls below the initial threshold of 1075ft that triggers emergency rationing measures across several states.

The manmade lake provides crucial water to parts of Arizona, Nevada and California, including the Los Angeles region. The federal government could implement emergency measures if the water level remains at 1,075 feet or below at the end of the year. Those measures would require reductions in water delivery to Nevada and Arizona.  California and Mexico would be exempt.

The Bureau of Reclamation expects the lake’s levels to drop to 1,071 feet over the summer during peak demand before rising to 1,078 at the end of the year.

However, the crucial measurement is not the current level but the mid-August assessment by the Bureau of Reclamation for 1 January 2017. And if it is below that threshold an official water shortage at Lake Mead will be declared.  The El Nino present over the past year delivered significant rain and snow fall to the West but not enough to truly impact the severe drought conditions.  If a La Nina follows, the region could see itself once again covered by extreme drought conditions that negatively impact all reservoirs and make sever water rationing the rule rather than the exception.

Lake Mead Water Level – July 2016Lalke Mead July 2016


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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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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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It’s Time to Focus on “Local Water”

Beyond the need to invest significant capital in municipal water infrastructure improvement projects, towns both big and small can contribute to their water well-being by embracing the concept of local water outlined by Brian Young, Sustainable Infrastructure product manager at Autodesk,  in this recent article featured in the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In a world increasingly dry or flooded – depending on the circumstances –, city leaders and infrastructure experts are quick to advocate mega-projects to tap, convey or treat our most precious of natural resources: water.

California spends 5% of its electricity just conveying and treating water, and is in the midst of building a US$1bn desalination plant. China’s South-North Water Diversion Project plans to reroute enough water each year to submerge the United Kingdom 18 cm deep, over a distance between London and Barcelona.

Yet these Herculean efforts – both in terms of cost and engineering – fail to acknowledge a basic efficiency principle: use water where it falls. “Local water”, which exists even in arid regions, provides more benefit than adding new mega-projects, in three major ways:

Financially: Desalinating water can cost twice as much as recycling and four times as much as conservation. Furthermore, desalination plants become stranded assets once the rains return.

In contrast, local sources of water – the under-tapped streams of stormwater, wastewater, leaks, and conservation – can shrink the supply and demand gap at a fraction of the cost of desalination. In fact, a study last year found that simple conservation, reuse, and stormwater capture could save as much water every year as all of California’s cities require annually.

The city of Philadelphia is using code to convert stormwater into a resource, requiring developers to install green infrastructure like rain gardens and cisterns to capture rainfall that once drained away. Melbourne uses leak detection and metering technologies to reduce their water losses, which in some cities reach 40%. Parts of Virginia and California opted to recycle wastewater for use in irrigation and cooling, rather than create more water demand. These local alternatives enable cities to find more water without placing all their chips on one big bet that may become a very expensive matter.

Environmentally: Capturing rainfall, reusing wastewater and plugging leaks reintroduces lost water back into the system, offsetting the need to draw water from fragile ecosystems or convey it from other regions. And recycling it requires less than half the energy of desalinating saltwater.

Capturing and reusing water also keeps runoff and sewage overflows from contaminating nearby rivers and oceans, one of the leading causes of surface water pollution, while also acting as air and heat “filters”. Even in a place as arid as Arizona, a government study recently found that “green infrastructure” to capture and retain stormwater would generate a significant return on investment by reducing heat stress mortality and air pollution.

Socially: The “buy local” food movement (food production and distribution that is geographically localised, rather than national or international) educates shoppers as to where their food comes from, leading them to value it more. Governments and water utilities have done a good job of making water infrastructure invisible (i.e. below ground or behind walls), so much so that consumers don’t use water wisely, nor do they see the need to pay for infrastructure upgrades.

This wasteful type of behaviour is starkly different from communities that rely upon wells or stormwater, where water is considered precious. Local and visible solutions around rainwater capture, water recycling and conservation will help consumers appreciate the value of water more, and create a virtuous circle in their willingness to pay to protect it.

Cities aiming to solve their water scarcity problems should begin their search within their own municipal boundaries. With today’s technologies, water that was once lost to leaks, discharges, and wasteful use can now be found. And unlike the freshwater sources from afar, this rediscovered “local” water carries lasting financial, environmental, and social benefit.


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Hydro-Diplomacy Enters the Lexicon

The international community must gear up for a new era of “hydro-diplomacy” as the threat of water scarcity risks plunging the world into a period of geopolitical tension and stunted development, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told delegates gathered at the General Assembly today.

“Water is one of the highest priorities for development and lives in dignity, as well as a serious factor in maintaining peace and security,” the Deputy Secretary-General said in remarks to open the High-Level Interactive Dialogue on the International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life,’ 2005-2015.

“The lack of water causes individual tragedies,” he continued. “And it also, growingly, constitutes a threat to international peace and security. There is a need for ‘hydro-diplomacy’ – making scarce water a reason for cooperation, rather than a reason for conflict.”

Mr. Eliasson warned that in a period of “intensifying disasters, both man-made and natural,” social and economic stresses related to water supply would increasingly flare up, spawning tensions between communities and nations.

The dire straits facing the world’s water situation was recently amplified in the UN’s 2015 World Water Development report, released by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and in time for last week’s World Water Day.

According to the report, the planet will face a 40 per cent shortfall in water supply in 2030 unless the international community “dramatically” improves water supply management. Demand for water is slated to skyrocket 55 per cent by 2050 while 20 per cent of global groundwater is already overexploited.

On average, nearly 1,000 children die every day from diarrheal disease linked to unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation, or poor hygiene. In three countries in particular – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique and Papua New Guinea – more than half the population does not have improved drinking water.

“The impact of water on human health as well as economic well-being is better understood than a decade ago, including water’s critical importance for households, industries, agriculture, cities, energy production and transportation,” President of the General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, stated in a message to the meeting delivered by the Permanent Representative of Iceland to the United Nations, Einar Gunnarsson.

He observed that despite the considerable accomplishments made under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), some 800 million people continue to live without access to an improved water source while many more remain without a safe and sustainable water supply.


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One Year (and Counting)

From the Los Angeles Times this past Thursday, Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, sounds the alarm that, while much of the country has experienced a wet winter, California just burrowed deeper into it’s existing water crisis.

Op-Ed: California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?

Given the historic low temperatures and snowfalls that pummeled the eastern U.S. this winter, it might be easy to overlook how devastating California’s winter was as well.

As our “wet” season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.

As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century.

Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.

In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis.

Our state’s water management is complex, but the technology and expertise exist to handle this harrowing future. It will require major changes in policy and infrastructure that could take decades to identify and act upon. Today, not tomorrow, is the time to begin.

Finally, the public must take ownership of this issue. This crisis belongs to all of us — not just to a handful of decision-makers. Water is our most important, commonly owned resource, but the public remains detached from discussions and decisions.

This process works just fine when water is in abundance. In times of crisis, however, we must demand that planning for California’s water security be an honest, transparent and forward-looking process. Most important, we must make sure that there is in fact a plan.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to live in a state that has a paddle so that it might also still have a creek.


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Global Water Crisis: A Personal Action Plan

Here’s how you can do your part to help manage the global water crisis.