Friday, March 27, 2015

Wishing We Really Were Underwater

São Paulo is one of the world’s most populous cities, Brazil’s commercial hub, their counterpart to New York City. In fact, São Paulo is second, behind New York, in the levels of compensation paid to most senior corporate and financing managers. São Paulo is also the first major city in the world to face a catastrophic water shortage that is making life in this impenetrable megalopolis downright miserable.  
“In São Paulo, drinking water is used to flush toilets, bathe and, until very recently, to wash cars and even hose down city pavements, as porters use jets of crystalline water to shift those last specks of grime. In Brazil, a land of immense natural riches and home to around 12% of the world’s fresh water, the very idea of a water shortage is hard for people to conceive of. Yet despite the state government’s prevarication over possible imminent rationing – consisting of two days of water followed by four days without – in reality, millions are now getting just a few hours of water per day, with many struggling with none at all for days on end.
“The São Paulo water crisis, or ‘hydric collapse’ as many are calling it, has left this city of 20 million teetering on the brink. Though domestic use accounts for only a fraction of the water consumed in the state of São Paulo – where extensive agriculture and industry places intense pressure on available resources – for paulistanos, as the city’s residents are called, learning to use water wisely is suddenly the most pressing need of all.
“The sudden nature of the crisis has left people struggling to cope with the reality of the taps running dry. The state governor Geraldo Alckmin has insisted repeatedly that the water will continue to flow as usual, and no state of emergency has yet been declared, though some experts believe such a declaration well overdue. In the meantime, residents of São Paulo are making their own arrangements: storing water at home, and in some cases drilling homemade wells. In part a result of badly stored water, instances of dengue fever spread by mosquitoes almost tripled in January, compared with the previous year.”, February 15th.
Indeed, global climate change has introduced sustained (seemingly permanent) drought all over the globe, wreaking political and economic havoc just as other sections of the planet find themselves flooded from excessive rainfall or facing storm surges that are wiping out coastal land by millions and millions of acres. As sustained drought loosed well over a million devastated Sunni farmers into open rebellion, at first against the brutal Syrian Assad regime and then as the backbone of ISIS’s genocidal mayhem, less-violent realities have also foment a new harshness in too many other formally rich agricultural areas everywhere and ultimately in many large urban areas that are facing a water shortages that may soon mirror São Paulo’s catastrophe.
Even as the grain belts in Kansas and Texas stagger under dusty remains of once productive farmland, as Colorado and New Mexico see massive fires raging through their forests, the focus on water-shortage policies is now on California, where catch-basins and reservoirs are averaging water levels at between 25% and 50% of normal, reflecting a general notion that the state has no more than one year of water reserves “on tap,” with no serious expectation that rainfall and stored snowpack will have any material impact on such reserves at any time within the foreseeable future. In fact, the sustained drought all over the Western and many Midwestern states is expected to last decades if not longer.
There is a mixture of conservation measures, recycling retrofits and technology measures that are in process or in the planning stages in the Golden (brown?) State. As any Los Angeles resident can attest, we are often shocked that so much rainwater is shunted to the sea though a system of canals and waterways designed in the 1930s to stop excessive flooding in many parts of the city. Even the concrete used to flush the excess outward was designed with a slick surface to accelerate that process. And if you have recently driven the highways and byways between northern and southern California, you have witnessed the acres and acres of dry fallow farmland and the signs from angry farmers begging for water.
We also are puzzled at the utter lack of progress in building desalinization plants all along our coastline, although until very recently, the electrical power needs of such plants seemed to put brakes on that process. A drop of good news on that front. The city of Carlsbad is now the host to one such modern desalinization plant under construction (the largest in the Western Hemisphere), costing a billion dollars, that is expected to provide 7% of San Diego’s water needs (50 million gallons a day). It’s a start, not remotely at the level of Australia’s recent efforts (spending north of $13 billion to build five desalinization plants), but at least the latest reverse osmosis technology is vastly more energy efficient. The dumping of salt back into the ocean is an unfortunate side effect that we truly do not year understand, however.
California’s administrative and legislative bodies are now hyper-focused on this water emergency. In mid-March, the California Water District passed new restrictions on how often and when lawns may be watered, threatening even more limitations if they do not see results anytime soon. The state is prioritizing solutions to the water shortage rapidly. However, we still have our heads the sand on the vulnerability to earthquake damage to the levees (many still made of dirt, built between 1850 and 1870) in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, from which Southern California currently draws about 30% of its water needs, but it clearly is a mega-disaster waiting to happen.
“In the face of a continuing drought, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders introduced emergency drought legislation [on March 19th] aimed at expediting $1 billion in water-related projects… ‘We need to get the money out the door now for shovel-ready projects and existing water programs that only need funding to get started,’ said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles. ‘No delay. No red tape.’
“The emergency action announced at a Sacramento news conference includes a pair of bills -- one to appropriate $1 billion from a pair of voter-approved water-related bonds and another to expedite contracting and create an office to ‘help disproportionately impacted communities respond to their water challenges,’ de Leon said… ‘Taken together, this package provides a major boost to our state’s efforts to manage our water crisis and strengthen our current infrastructure,’ he said…
“The legislative package would advance $128 million to directly assist workers and communities most impacted by the drought, according to the governor’s office. It would also direct $272 million from the Proposition 1 water bond approved in November for safe drinking water and water-recycling projects and advance $660 million from the 2006 Proposition 1e for flood protection in urban and rural areas.
“This marks the second consecutive year in which the Legislature has acted on emergency drought relief. In 2014, Brown signed a $687.4 million drought package that offered aid to communities facing acute water shortages and food and housing assistance to those harmed by the drought… The Legislature also crafted a $7.5 billion water bond that was approved by voters last November, with most of those funds earmarked for longer-term projects to bolster the state’s water infrastructure… The latest move comes amid growing concern about the drought, now entering its fourth year.” Beverly Hill Patch, March 19th.
We will face water wars with adjoining states over the dwindling supply of water from the Colorado River, and those lovely aquifers under much of California are screaming out for regulation. Even northern and southern California are staring each other down over water resources.
But for so many in the United States, smug in their belief that “it can’t happen here” or “God will fix it” or “there’s nothing we can do about it,” the price for allowing inadequate or decaying infrastructure in order to support lower taxes for the rich in the false hope of the creation of good jobs (that never materialize) is that “it is happening here… NOW,” “God has not intervened,” and there is “a ton of stuff we can do about it,” from addressing the seemingly unbridled release of greenhouse gasses through indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels (as we prioritize looking for more carbon-based resources at the expense of alternative energy) to out-and-out water projects on a massive scale.
I’m Peter Dekom, keeping it real and telling it like it is!

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