Unquenchable

My dad was an environmental engineer that worked for the government in groundwater issues, specifically nonpoint source pollution. My siblings and I all share memories of more than a few tours of water treatment plants on family holidays. Growing up one of my favourite pieces of clothing was a shirt that said “Groundwater, Wisconsin’s Buried Treasure”. I still don’t have much fashion sense but you can imagine my excitement when I heard Robert Glennon would be speaking at the University of Canterbury. His book, Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It”, has been on my reading list for a bit.

Robert Glennon lecture on the University of Canterbury campus

“There is no lack of water in the Mojave Desert unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” Edward Abbey

 Robert Glennon started with this quote by Edward Abbey. Edward Abbey is of course referring to Las Vegas, which is a classic example of the water crisis in America. The city has 15 of the 20 largest hotels in the world. The Bellagio fountain features an eight acre pond that holds 27 million gallons of water and more than 1200 water jets shoot water almost 250 feet in the air. Las Vegas is a big city and it is growing. It is expected to add another 1.2 million people by 2020. The problem is that Las Vegas does not have any water. The city has used up its rights to Colorado River water from Lake Mead. The only way they can get more water is to fund conservation projects and use the water. Las Vegas is currently working to build a $2 billion pipeline from the Spring and Snake Valley in Utah to Las Vegas. All this for a resource that people turn on their taps and receive for free. Despite this, in some ways, Las Vegas is the future of water use. New hotels are required to be double plumbed. The Bellagio fountain gets all their water from the run off on an adjacent golf course. The Mirage and Treasure Island hotels have a treatment plant under the hotel. They recycle water, use low-flow fixtures, shower aerators, on-demand hot water. The 4000 room hotel uses less water than the golf course.

Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas. Photo Courtesy of P. Tang.

The water crisis isn’t limited to Las Vegas. Orme, Tennessee ran out of water and was forced to truck in water from Alabama.  Bowater, a South Carolina paper company, closed because low river flows prevented the plant from discharging its wastewater. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission denied permits for new reactors in Georgia due to lack of water. Every year farmers lose crops from lack of irrigation water. Scientist predict that Lake Mead, which supplies water to Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas could dry up by 2021. Lake Superior is too low to float fully loaded cargo ships. Atlanta came within 90 days of running out of water.

Lake Lanier provides the water supply for Atlanta. Photo from the 2007 drought courtesy of institute.ourfuture.org

Georgia’s problem is not that they do not get enough rain; they get 49 inches of rain a year. The problem in Atlanta is sprawl. I-75 in Atlanta is 15 lanes wide and because traffic is still a problem, they are widening it to 23 lanes wide. The highway will be wider than the length of a rugby field. When faced with an impending crisis that would leave the biggest city in Georgia without water, you would think the governor might start by limiting people from building new wells. In Atlanta you don’t need a permit to build a new well unless you will be pumping more than 100,000 gallons EACH DAY! Instead the governor decided that one solution would be to declare that the state survey boundaries were erroneous and the Georgia boundary should be moved north one mile in order to give Georgia access to the Tennessee River. The Governor also held a prayer vigil in order to pray for more rain. In 2007 during the height of the drought, the governor announced plans for a snow mountain sponsored by Coca-Cola. It would be a 13,000 square foot area and they would make 200 tons of snow a day. They started making snow in early October when the temperature reached 27C (81F).

Snow Park at the base of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Photo courtesy of snowmountainpark.com

 “You can’t become president in America without going to Iowa and bowing to the shrine of corn” Robert Glennon. Glennon also points the finger at Ethanol plants in the Midwest.  The current ethanol debate ignores water. It takes as much as 2500 gallons of water for corn for one gallon of ethanol. California has a goal of 1 billion gallons of ethanol per year. It will need 1.7 TRILLION gallons of water. In my home state of Wisconsin, rainfall waters corn, but west of the Mississippi River they rely on irrigation.

Our modern economy relies on water in other ways. Google’s server farms are cooled by water. Intels chips are produced with lots of pure water. This need for water is leading to cities to turn to extreme measures to get their water. They are diverting rivers, building dams and drilling wells. These “solutions” are leading to dried up rivers and land subsidence. A private financer, Aaron Million, in Colorado proposed a $4 billion pipeline from Wyoming to Colorado Springs. The pipeline would go OVER the Rocky Mountains and cost $95 billion/year. Other people have proposed cloud seeding. They suggest dispersing silver iodide into clouds to cause rain even though scientists are sceptical and there is no convincing scientific proof it works. Other cities are building costly desalination plants. They sound promising but are very expensive, use lots of energy and disposing of the leftover salt has led to contamination of marine ecosystems.

Glennon provides several practical solutions. The first is to modernize the flush toilet and treatment plants. Flushing the toilets accounts for 1/3 of domestic indoor water use. We treat all water to make it potable even though only 10% gets used for drinking and cooking. There are better solutions such as composting toilets, waterless urinals and incinerating toilets.

The second solution is to conserve and encourage green infrastructure. Much of what Las Vegas is requiring in new hotels should be the standard around the U.S. Santa Fe, New Mexico does a good job of encouraging xeriscaping instead of golf course type lawns. They need to encourage green infrastructure such as rain barrels and using greywater.

Xeriscaping in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the Santa Fe Sun.

The third solution is to reallocate water. Utah stopped automatically granting permits for new wells. Santa Fe demands that every new development project must offset water required for construction. When Geneva Steel in Utah was sold, they received $101 million for the real estate and machinery and equipment and $102 million for the water rights. The water rights were worth more than the factory and land. Agriculture uses 75% of the water in the Western US. Farmers need to use less water by improving efficiency and growing crops appropriate for water level.

His final solution is my favourite. We need a water market. Water should not be free. We need to protect people’s right to water but price the other 99%. Americans need an average of 50 litres of water a day. Water usage beyond a reasonable level should cost money. Water is a classic example of tragedy of the commons. We need price signals to encourage conservation and we need to quantify water rights and make them transferable. Voluntary transfers are preferable to government mandates. Markets produce winners and loser so we need government oversight to produce a regulated market. The government needs to protect third parties and prevent negative externalities such as sprawl. Glennon’s final message was that voluntary transfers would provide water for new demands and break America’s relentless cycle of overuse.

 

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