Saturday, April 11, 2015

Dry without a Sense of Humor 2

Snowpack, reservoirs, lakes, rivers, streams, groundwater (from pockets to massive aquifers) and conservation. It’s where the water is kept after nature’s precipitation has fallen. Aqueducts and natural waterways move that precious substance through traditional and non-traditional means to where it finds use. But with 40% of the earth facing severe water shortages now and in the foreseeable future, water just might be the biggest story of the twenty-first century.
While some nations, like Bangladesh, might face incomprehensible levels of freshwater flooding due to the stripping of forests upstream that once absorbed the excess, vast areas of the planet have maps that mirror the above drought analysis of the United States. Indeed, the political ramifications of drought might just rewrite national boundaries, realign political allies, give rise to hateful extremists and create new levels of desperation and hunger yet unknown across the planet. Oh, they already have.
I’ve blogged about how the endless droughts in southern Iraq and northwestern Syria produced the disenfranchised farmers, mostly Sunni, without food, livelihoods or even homes. Millions of desperate Sunni farmers cried out to their Shiite leadership (Assad in Syria, the Shiite President and Parliament in Iraq) for help, but when none arrived, they turned to open rebellion against Assad, and many moved to even more extreme regional diabolical extremists, like the al Nusra Front and ISIS. Africa’s water shortages have led to extremists (al Shabaab) in Somalia, which in turn has led to vicious cross-border attacks in Kenya.
Here in our own country, dealing with drought appears to be more than biding our time until the rainwater returns to “normal.” But whether you are a climate-change denier or a scientific realist, there is recognition that continents, weather and water allocation have reshaped this planet since the world began. The new “normal” may make the above map permanent. The issue, of course, is how much of that dark brown coverage sits over both some of America’s biggest cities and most productive agricultural regions in the country.
The decimation of southern part of Ogallala (High Plains) Aquifer, that once massive (the size of Lake Huron underground) water supply that ran from the Dakotas to Texas, has run dry in South Kansas and North Texas, can be seen very clearly in the above map. Grain production in this region has been decimated. We don’t see ground water, but we most certainly experience its depletion, particularly in the Midwestern and Western states reflected above.
California, with no more than a year’s worth of water reserves, has imposed a statewide water usage reduction on most consumers of 25%. Agriculture, responsible for 80% of the state’s water consumption, has to submit to water management plans, tailored to local realities and water supplies. That in turn has caused farmers to turn increasingly to underground water supplies to fulfill their needs. There is one huge problem with that trend; it has taken eons for that water supply to build up, and it may be gone in less than a generation.
Groundwater is the water that seeps through the ground when it rains. Over the centuries, it accumulates in vast underground aquifers, with older water found deeper in the earth's crust. Accessed through wells, groundwater is seen as a ‘savings account’ in California—good to have in dry times but difficult to refill. The issue now is that with reservoirs (above ground) so depleted, groundwater use is spiking. Farmers are drilling deeper and deeper for water—using water that fell 20,000 years ago. Usually, groundwater makes up about forty percent of the state's freshwater usage, but with the recent drought, that number has leapt to 65 percent. This year, it may rise to 75 percent.” Julia Lurie writing for, April 6th. And when that groundwater is gone… well, it’s gone for many, many lifetimes if it ever comes back at all.
Nut trees (like almonds, pistachios, and walnuts), alfalfa fields, rice patties, and fracking (used in fossil fuel extraction) are the biggest water users in resource extraction. See the chart to the left. And as much as those uses may have created massive older trees and infrastructure, we just may no longer be able to support such uses in those areas of severe and sustained drought. But high prices for nuts have generated a whole lot of new water-sucking plantings in recent years.
California has new legislation to grapple with this harsh reality. “[The new statute], which took effect Jan. 1, does not call for reaching sustainability until the 2040s. Sustainability is vaguely defined in the statute, but in most basins will presumably mean a long-term balance between water going into the ground and water coming out. Scientists have no real idea if the groundwater supplies can last until the 2040s.
“‘I wish we could do it faster,’ Mark Cowin, director of California’s Department of Water Resources, said in an interview. ‘I wish we would have started decades ago.’… But Mr. Cowin noted that the state, after neglecting groundwater management for so long, had a lot of catching up to do. Years of bureaucratic reorganization and rule-drafting lie ahead. ‘This is the biggest game-changer of California water management of my generation,’ Mr. Cowin said.
“In the near term, as the drought wears on and the scramble for water intensifies, farmers are among the victims of the drilling frenzy, as well as among its beneficiaries… Growers with older, shallower wells are watching them go dry as neighbors drill deeper and suck the water table down. Pumping takes huge amounts of electricity to pull up deep water, and costs are rising. Some farmers are going into substantial debt to drill deeper wells, engaging in an arms race with their neighbors that they cannot afford to lose.
“‘You see the lack of regulation hurting the agricultural community as much as it hurts anybody else,’ said Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco… So far, the over-pumping of groundwater has helped farmers manage through three parched growing seasons.
“They were forced to idle only about 5 percent of the state’s irrigated land last year, though the figure is likely to be higher in 2015. The farmers have directed water to the highest-value crops [like nut trees], cutting lesser crops like alfalfa.
“Still, costs are up and profits are down for many farmers and the thousands of small businesses that depend on them, spreading pain throughout the Central Valley and beyond. ‘It’s been a tough couple of years, and it’s just getting tougher in rural parts of California,’ said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, a growers’ organization.
“Because groundwater has helped keep production up, replacing a large proportion of the surface water farmers have lost, the drought has not led to big price increases at the national level, even for crops that California dominates.” New York Times, April 5th.
I’ve written about the costs – in dollars, energy and salt-related side effects – of desalinization, but there are other more effective techniques that must be deployed “yesterday.” “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.” And high-water-use crops are no longer a sustainable path for California.
For those who have a tendency to “write off California,” perhaps they won’t feel so glib as their grocery bills skyrocket even higher in the coming years, a harsh fact that too many of us have already begun to experience. Like it or not, we are all in this together. Water policies are going to be a political hot button all over the world, and we are by no means remotely exempt from the pain… everywhere in the country.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it’s time to stop playing at doctrinaire politics – I’m right and will oppose anything you support – and deal with factors that can bring this entire nation to its knees.

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