Without water we’re all dead. That’s a perennial truism that we should all pay more attention to. There is only so much liquid fresh water on planet earth. The climate keeps warming and the human population keeps growing. At some point—probably first in the arid desert areas of the world—these trends will coalesce into a monster crisis. In some places it already has; I have read that the civil war in Syria, which has now been going on for 12 years and in which 500,000 people have died—is fueled in part by the fact that due to drought farmers in rural areas of that country can no longer grow crops and have flooded the cities.
I live in California, which supplies one-third of all the vegetables produced in America. Much of the water to irrigate those crops comes from the Colorado river, which is slowly shrinking. Lake Mead and Lake Powell—two of the largest freshwater reservoirs in the United States–are nearly at a “dead-pool” point, which is the point where the water level is so low no water can flow out of the lake. The Imperial Valley, which is the vast desert area in the Southern part of the state bordering Mexico, is largely dependent on Colorado river water. I was surprised to read recently that its largest crop is not, as you might think, tomatoes or lettuce, but alfalfa. Alfalfa is not human food. It is used to feed cattle; and much of the alfalfa grown in the Imperial Valley is not for us. It is exported to places like China, to feed their cattle. Alfalfa is a very water-intensive crop, and it turns out China has less fresh water per capita than most countries in the world. So they buy alfalfa from us rather than grow it themselves. I live in California; that’s my water that is being shipped as alfalfa to China.
How many things are wrong with this picture?
Let’s shift now to Arizona, which is even drier than California. Arizona’s farmers are dependent on Colorado river water too, but they also drill wells to get water from the vast aquifers that exist throughout the state. It should come as no surprise to hear that Arizona too has a water crisis. The entire Southwest of the U.S. is in what is called a 1,200-year drought. Arizona is, like California, dependent on Colorado river water, though due to 100-year-old water rights agreements, California has the largest share and is loath to give any of it up. Farmers in Arizona are thus also dependent on drilling for water in the aquifers underground, but according to a fascinating CNN article about this, recently well drillers were shocked to find that when they sent cameras down the drill chute, they saw that the aquifer water was moving. They’d never seen that before. It turns out that according to the article Middle Eastern agriculture companies own vast tracts of land in Arizona—on which they grow (surprise!) alfalfa to feed their cattle back home and they are using up the aquifer. The water is moving toward their property. By law a property owner in Arizona can drill water to their heart’s content on their own land. So while California alfalfa is being grown for export to China, Arizona alfalfa is being shipped to the Middle East to feed their dairy cattle.
How is it that this all seems to boil down to cattle?
If all of this seems shortsighted and selfish, that’s because it is. If there is some planet-wide entity assessing what is happening to the world’s fresh water (perhaps a division of the UN) they don’t have much power to alter the status quo. It seems evident to me that one day—perhaps not too far off—the water will simply run out in places and whole cities and perhaps states will go dry–permanently. What will happen then? Some small towns California are already shipping drinking water in by truck, but how long can that last? Can all of Phoenix’s water needs be supplied by water trucks? Where will those trucks get the vast amount of water needed?
Yes, without water we are all dead. But there are other ways we can become dead. Stay tuned for the next big conflict on planet earth—the planet Earth water war.
Hello Lewis: Thank you for this very pertinent post. I and others have been trying for several years to end California’s practice of giving away tens of millions of gallons per year to private corporations, e.g., those that own plastic-bottled brands like Arrowhead (so that their retail profit is about 3,000%).
A complex and fraught issue, and one that entails either cooperation from federal and/or state agencies and an unlikely claim to present water rights that dates back to the turn of the 20th century.
For a year, I worked on a federal water project in New Mexico. I crossed the Continental Divide each day, into southern Colorado. I managed diversion dams (at 7,900 feet in elevation) to divert water from the Colorado River basin into the Rio Grande River basin, via a series of gravity tunnels (under the Divide) and into two reservoirs. This diversion represented New Mexico’s allotment of the Colorado River basin. Literally moving water (via gravity) across separate continental-scale river basins. Mostly utilized for drinking water, showers, dishwashers and flushing toilets in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. There were other water users of the project, including Native American Tribal interests, rafters, fish, etc. Except in the most remote regions of the planet, no fresh water passes on to the ocean untouched by human hands.