Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum


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Reaching A New Low

The Associated Press reports that water levels in Lake Mead in Nevada have dropped to the lowest level since it was originally filled in the 1930s,  leaving Las Vegas facing existential threats unless something is done. Las Vegas and its 2 million residents and 40 million tourists a year get almost all their drinking water from the Lake and at levels below 1075ft (the level is currently several inches below that mark), the Interior Department will be forced to declare a “shortage,” which will lead to significant cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada.

The lake is now approximately 37% of capacity and features a distinctive white mineral bathtub ring that demonstrates the 130 feet in surface level that has been lost since the turn of the century.

From USA Today:

The downward march of the reservoir near Las Vegas reflects enormous strains on the over-allocated Colorado River. Its flows have decreased during 16 years of drought, and climate change is adding to the stresses on the river

As the levels of Lake Mead continue to fall, the odds are increasing for the federal government to declare a shortage in 2018, a step that would trigger cutbacks in the amounts flowing from the reservoir to Arizona and Nevada. With that threshold looming, political pressures are building for California, Arizona and Nevada to reach an agreement to share in the cutbacks in order to avert an even more severe shortage.

As population growth and heavy demand for water collide with hotter temperatures and reduced snowpack in the future, there will be an even greater mismatch between supply and demand, said Kelly Sanders, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in water and energy issues.

“The question becomes how to resolve this mismatch across states that all depend on the river to support their economic growth,” Sanders said. She expects incentives and markets to help ease some of the strains on water supplies, “but it is going to be tricky to make the math work in the long term.”


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California Water’s Untapped Potential

With most of the state suffering through an exceptional level of drought, dismal snowpack data and tugs-of-war among all the needy constituencies, there is some pragmatism floating around.  From a recent story in Mother Jones:

The chart below, part of a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute, sums up some of the options for saving water. California could reduce its water use by 17 to 22 percent with more efficient agricultural water use, including fixes like scheduling irrigation when plants need it and expanding drip and sprinkler irrigation. Urban water use could be reduced by 40 to 60 percent if residents replaced lawns with drought-tolerant plants, fixed water leaks, and replaced old toilets and showerheads with more water-efficient technology. And instead of channeling used water into the ocean, the state could treat it and reuse it—a practice that tends to gross some people out (because of the “drinking pee” factor) but has long been used in Orange County and is becoming more popular as the drought continues.

untapped-savings-infographic


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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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“Last Call at the Oasis”

The global-catastrophe documentary is a thriving form these days, as the apparent unsustainability of human life has emerged as fertile ground for cinematic journalism. Jessica Yu’s “Last Call at the Oasis, is one of the more recent additions to the canon and the content, combining interviews with experts and video evidence of what is happening to water resources across the globe, brings home the catastrophic potential of global inaction.  Though released in 2012, the film remains relevant in a time of increasing drought, water wars and water pollution.

From the New York Times review of the film:

The calm, knowledgeable voices of the experts make “Last Call at the Oasis” especially scary. Nothing is more unnerving than predictions of an apocalypse delivered by a reasonable person in friendly, conversational tones.

The question is whether anyone is listening, and it is a question that always nips at the heels of documentaries like this one. One way the question is answered — or perhaps finessed — is by the optimistic, encouraging tone that tends to sneak in at the end. 

There is also a measure of hope to be gleaned from Ms. Yu’s interview subjects, though less from what they have to say — which is pretty grim — than from their seriousness and dedication.

However frustrated they may be by political paralysis, corporate trickery or plain human stupidity, none of them seem inclined to give up. When they do, we really will be screwed, and we won’t have or need movies like this to tell us so.

Here is the original trailer for the film.


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National Groundwater Awareness Week 2015

With the challenges to our groundwater resources in the U.S., it behooves all of us to recognize and respond to the issue.  To that end, this week is National Groundwater Awareness Week.

ngwa_aware

 


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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.