by Joel Preston Smith
The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars
—from Psalm 29, King James Version
In the Chapel of the Living Waters this sun-blistered summer in the little village of Magdalena, New Mexico, the anxious parishioners set a five-gallon jug of bottled water up by the altar, prostrated themselves and prayed each to his own image of the creator, Please, Lord, send us a little rain.
Matt Middleton, a Web designer and videographer who helped organize the ceremony, said: “I’m sure there were a few skeptics, and a few rubberneckers, but it was nice. It was like we were saying, ‘Your will be done,’ and at the same time, ‘We could really use a little help.’”
An Episcopalian priest dipped a cedar branch in the ceremonial jug and, with the cool, clear water, baptized the bowed heads of 70 or so believers of different faiths present for the nondenominational service.
Whether we incline toward a belief in Genesis or not, it’s sometimes risky to call for divine intervention, especially to plead for more of what you’ve already shown yourself incapable of managing. But the town’s third well—the only operable one left due to dwindling fiscal resources and allegedly faulty engineering—had run dry 10 days previously.
The water, what little there was of it, was not pouring down from heaven. It was rolling in from the Family Dollar at the corner of North Cedar and First streets, on wooden pallets, in one-liter bottles, wrapped in cellophane.
It’s still the Old West—it’s just that it’s drier now, a little more urbane. And though they still wander the desert, crying out to Him for mercy, God’s patron saints have lately grown darker and decidedly grimmer in aspect. In Bernalillo at Our Lady of Sorrows in June, they penitentially invoked the name of San Isidro—the patron saint of conjuring geysers from parched earth—carrying his effigy across the baked asphalt heart of town, because the Land of Enchantment is in the throes of a three-year drought; aquifers everywhere are receding, the heat seems unrelenting, and every day it looks more and more like Florida—which is also running out of water.
In fact, Americans in all but a few continental states are finally facing what is already a daily reality for nearly 1 billion people around the globe, according to the World Health Organization: There just isn’t enough water for the 7.2 billion souls now in residence; there will be even less to go around as we top 9.1 billion—projected in 2050 by the United Nations.
Few Americans would be shocked to learn the West still looks, as Mark Twain said, “like the back of a singed cat.” But cast your doubtful gaze on South Florida, with the nation’s highest average annual rainfall, subject now to the wettest summer since 1969: In the South Florida Water Management District alone, 35 desalination plants run around the clock—with seven more under construction—to keep up with demand from 7.7 million (and growing) residents.
Robert L. Knight, founder and president of the conservation group the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, says demand is so severe that withdrawals from the Florida aquifer (about 4.2 billion gallons a day) create a hydrologic vacuum that’s turned some coastal freshwater ecosystems brackish, and dropped the water table by as much as 100 feet, threatening to drown manatees, cave fish, amphipods and freshwater flora in sea salt and sediment. But that can’t be right, can it? Florida has the wettest climate in the United States, is home to the seventh-largest freshwater lake in the nation (Lake Okeechobee), is a state where water miraculously bubbles forth from the ground at more than 1,000 documented springs, is spider-webbed with rivers, is (for God’s sake) a peninsula—a 66,000-square-mile bathtub moored to an ocean—and yet there simply isn’t enough water to quench Floridians’ thirst.
Why there isn’t enough water to meet demand—in Florida, in New Mexico, in Texas, in India—is more a question of values, and how values are linked to price, than it is of enumerating the cubic feet of water available for a given use at a given time. As an example of the disconnect between price and value, Knight points out that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issues consump tive water-use permits “to anyone who says they want to use it, at no cost whatsoever.”
You can get a graphic representation of that mindset by visiting the agency’s website; the banner image—rather than an appeal to save the manatees, or marvel at the Everglades, or perhaps use just a tad less water—is a photo of a welcome mat. For an even more graphic representation, consider wheeling into the Baywash Bikini Car Wash in Winter Park, Florida, where Korrine, Ashley, Marissa, Vanessa or Caitlyn will hose and soap the state’s shrinking aquifers over the hood of your monster truck, starting at $100, plus tip.
It’s the mindset that seems to govern water use everywhere it appears to be in limitless supply, as well as in places where it isn’t. It’s hard to estimate the true value or cost of water, particularly if we link its use to environmental consequences, because many of the costs of accessing, treating and delivering it are subsumed in the costs of other services, or ignored outright, and vary (sometimes crazily) from region to region.
As an example of how nightmarishly complex water access and pricing can become, consider the example of northern Colorado’s ditch-irrigation system for farmers—the one in Boulder County, in particular, where it’s cheaper to dig ditches than drill wells. When Farmer X buys or leases land in Boulder County, he or she taps into the right to use Y, a percentage of water running in irrigation ditch Z. How big Y is depends on historic water rights—how long Farmer X has owned or leased land L and the outflow from day to day, season to season, S. If ditch Z on land L happens, on any given day of season S to carry Y minus the number of cubic feet per minute relative to its average annual discharge (whose numerical value is dependent on columnar inches of snowfall S and incident heat H upon the majestic front range of the Rocky Mountains), Farmer X might have to stand around with his thumbs in his 501s and watch his crops wilt while water W flows on by. Because who was there first wins. Who has the most crops, or the most acreage, or conscientiously invested in a minimal-waste drip-irrigation system has nothing to do with it.
Colorado’s farmers are in a particularly tough situation, because the state (along with South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico, Kansas and Texas) overlies the Ogallala Aquifer, spanning more than 170,000 square miles, but much of the water table is now too deep to reach, and therefore too costly to tap. Leonard Konikow, a hydrologist for the US Geological Survey, found that the Ogallala’s water table had dropped in some places by as much as 160 feet from 2000 to 2008. Konikow estimates the Ogallala and 39 other major aquifers nationwide have lost more than twice the volume of Lake Erie.
Another frightening way to look at it: Konikow’s study notes that groundwater depletion in the United States “can explain more than 2 percent of the observed global sea-level rise” during those eight years.
“The more we draw down,” Konikow explains, “the more energy is required to lift water to the surface, at greater cost. You can give up, or you can dig a deeper well. We’re seeing this happen now in the southern high plains. Some farmers in Texas, Oklahoma and other places are faced with declining groundwater. Some are converting to dry-land farming, but crop yields are reduced. It’s not that it’s all gone; it’s just more expensive to get.”
For many years, conservationists have argued that water should be priced to discourage waste. In a tiered system, for example, the more consumers use, the more they’d pay per gallon. What constitutes waste, of course, is a reflection (in part) of perceived need. The EPA says the average U.S. family of four consumes about 400 gallons a day. The World Health Organization says we each need about 2 liters a day (little more than half a gallon) purely for survival, and about 20 if we extend our definition of survival to include cooking, light cleaning and so on. If we were to measure ourselves by the frugal WHO standard, each of those U.S. families
consumes about 20 times as much as they truly need.
But even conservation efforts can run awry. This February in Portland, Oregon, the city water bureau announced a potential 7.8 percent price hike this fall for water services because, in part, city residents had reduced their water use. The city’s water and sanitation budget is based on an assumed level of consumption; when that figure fell by 12 percent from 2007 to 2012, net payments to the city dropped as well, prompting city officials to ask residents to pay more for using less.
Around the globe, the level of water consumption, the price tied to that consumption, and the ability of consumers to pay for it are wildly variant, making it difficult to gauge the true value of water. “If you live in a slum in Manila, you
pay more for your water than people living in London,” the United Nations’ Human Development Programme concluded in 2010.
Facing labor disputes, fiscal downturns and other crises has led some cities to outsource or privatize water services in an effort to shed themselves of the cost of wrangling water.
The results are mixed. The city of Petaluma, Calif., thought it had struck a great deal when it outsourced management and operation of its newly constructed wastewater plant to Veolia Water, a French company with operations on five continents, in 2009.
Dan St. John, director of Petaluma’s public works department, says Veolia used a loophole in the contract to route treated water directly to farmers, instead of the Petaluma River. The fine print, St. John explained, had not mandated a route of
discharge for treated water, so Veolia opted to feed it into the region’s irrigation systems rather than incur the cost of chlorination required to discharge it into the river.
“The devil really is in the details,” says St. John. The city did not renew Veolia’s contract last year, resuming operation of the plant itself.
Food & Water Watch reported in 2010 that it had conducted assessments of 18 “reclaimed” (from privatization) public utilities from 2007 to 2010, and found that, on average, bringing them back into the public fold saved consumers “21 cents on the dollar.”
It seems inevitable that if we used water more efficiently, if we simply conserved it, we’d have more of it and, having more of it, would have to pay less for it. Not so, says the American Society of Civil Engineers, in its 2011 tongue-lashing of the U.S. water system, titled admonishingly, “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Water and Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure.”
We should first note that, as for creating an effective national water conservation strategy, no national water management strategy of any kind currently exists. As for
how to draft such a plan, implement, monitor and enforce it—nearly impossible. Because, according to ASCE, the United States has 170,000 separate drinking-water systems, of which 54,000 serve 264 million people. The other 114,000 systems each serve less than 500 people annually. One ring, policy or strategy to bind them? Not on your life.
“Even with increased conservation and cost-effective development of other efficiency methods,” the society argues, “the growing gap between capital needs to maintain drinking-water and wastewater treatment infrastructure and investments to meet those needs will likely result in unreliable water service and inadequate wastewater treatment.”
The engineers basically argue that the U.S. system is rotten from the core, and the rot has to be cut out before we merit any reasonable hope for an effective conservation strategy. Consider that leaking pipes, according to ASCE estimates, spill more than 1 billion gallons of raw sewage over U.S. lands and waterways each year; the estimated cost to repair outdated water infrastructure is projected at $1,000 per person in the Far West, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Plains and Southwest states; and the projected deficit for 2020 to repair the drinking-water system alone (sans wastewater processing) is $84 billion.
Not paying it, says the society, “may lead to $206 billion in increased costs for businesses and households between now and 2020.” The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that water loss from malfunctioning toilets and other home contrivances alone “could exceed more than 1 trillion gallons per year,” and goes on to note that the lost volume is “equivalent to the annual water use of Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami combined.”
Maybe a better conservation idea: Get off the grid. Disconnect entirely.
The ASCE looked at that, too. The average cost of building a private water system would be, according to the engineers, roughly $35,000 per household. For businesses, the cost ranges from $500,000 to $1 million per business, “depending on size and water requirement.” (But look on the bright side: The society says those figures “are amortized over 20 years.”)
Sometimes it just seems intractable. To face the waste, the dwindling aquifers, the rising seas, the cost and nightmarishly complex task of managing water—of
combating global warming—can lead to despondency. Or to the proposal of “fixes” so outrageous and self-destructive they seem the ravings of a madman. In New
Mexico, they’ve been ripping salt cedar out of the banks of the Colorado River for more than a decade. Trees drink water, and taste terrible sandwiched between a bun, so the decision has been made to eradicate them.
Cattle, the state believes, are a far better water consumer. They do not have leaves, and therefore are not guilty of wasteful evapotranspiration.
But that policy sounds entirely reasonable compared to a strategy proposed by water developer John Shomaker to conserve water in New Mexico’s Albuquerque-Belen Basin, which includes a segment of the much-coveted Colorado
River. Shoemaker’s proposal, presented to lawmakers and water managers in 2009, begins, “A third way to deal with the problem [of water shortages in New Mexico], and make use of the ground water in storage, would be to disconnect
the river from the aquifer….”
Shomaker goes on to note that the Colorado could be lined with some kind of material (he doesn’t say what, but we can assume something nonporous—like, say, a giant condom), or diverted, in its entirety, to a canal.
But there are problems with such a proposal, Shomaker admits. Not technological problems. Aesthetic and financial problems: “It has some unpleasant consequences. A lined channel destroys any natural aspect of the river, and isn’t a very attractive sight. Witness the concrete-lined Los Angeles River, through the great city. And there are other large disadvantages. Tens of miles of lining through the high-
drawdown part of the valley would be required, and costs would be substantial….”
Intractable at times. Seemingly hopeless. Costly. Exorbitantly so.
The bad news is that even virtual water can’t slake our thirst for the real stuff, or so says researcher David Seekell of the University of Virginia. Seekell notes, in the June 7, 2001, edition of Environmental Research Letters, that water security is threatened for 80 percent of the world’s population; in fact, there’s so little of it that even schemes that attempt to reapportion water resources (by setting up trade agreements that move goods whose production involves a relatively high amount of water into regions that have little water to produce those goods) threaten to increase global consumption of water, not mitigate it.
“Unlike wars and natural disasters, the global crisis in water does not make media headlines. Nor does it galvanize concerted international action,” write the authors of the 2006 Human Development Report put out by the United Nations.
“Like hunger, deprivation in access to water is a silent crisis experienced by the poor and tolerated by those with the resources, the technology and the political power to end it….This crisis claims more lives through disease than anywar claims through guns.”
Prayer seems sensible, in comparison to other options. It even has a kind of logic to it. When the earth and its inhabitants seem deaf to their own cries, why not appeal to the heavens for mercy? The citizens of Magdalena are therefore to be commended.
For those who are desperate but faithless, consider calling your local dowser or, better yet, contact Shirley Runco at email@example.com.
Runco manages a nondenominational “global weather modification team” that takes remote control of tsunamis, hurricanes, monsoons, hail, light showers, drought and even earthquakes from (presumably) the comfort of everyone’s own home (you don’t incur travel fees, and they do the praying for you). Runco notes that by communicating with the four weather spirits (rain, sun, wind and snow; these are not Eskimo weather spirits, obviously, or there would be 47 kinds of sun), she reined in Hurricane Rick in 2009: “On Oct. 18, 2009, I decided to work on Hurricane Rick, the strongest eastern North Pacific storm in more than a decade. Rick weakened to a tropical storm on Monday, the 19th, nearly as quickly as it had become a Category 5 storm.”
As, uh, improbable as that might sound, at least Runco hasn’t proposed shanking the Colorado into a giant condom.
Infographics designed by Chris Bell.